Across the country a great many couples are struggling with the challenge of spending every waking (and sleeping) moment together.
But that’s exactly what many older couples must learn how to do… even when there isn’t a pandemic! Their experiences are worth listening to, because many studies find that marriages among the older, retired people are the happiest of any cohort across the life span.
A review of the research reveals a U-shaped pattern of marital happiness over the life cycle. Early marriage features many positive aspects interlaced with a lot of conflict, while older couples enjoy the highest levels of companionship with low levels of conflict. Midlife couples who are raising children are at the bottom of the U. They tend to see a plunge in their enjoyment of one another, along with an upturn in fighting.
There are some very interesting similarities between retirement and the isolation required by social distancing. For example,the amount of time that couples spend together is greatly increased, this is combined with a sudden decrease in the size of their social circle. Without work connections and friends to meet with for lunch or to share outside interests, a partner becomes more essential than ever. There is also the increase in extent to which couples rely on one-another for essential support.
Lean on me
Older, retired couples primarily focus on supporting one another: “Can I depend on you when I need help, feel scared, worry or don’t feel well? And am I willing to be that source of comfort and stability when you need me?”
No matter the age or stage of the couple, the current pandemic has revealed the need for much more mutual dependency. “Can I count on you to protect yourself and us when you go to grocery shopping? If I’m feeling scared about my parents’ health or mine, can I tell you? If home schooling our bored and frustrated children has pushed me to the breaking point, can I ask you to take over, kindly and with no eye-rolling?”
The current pandemic is forcing couples to turn to one another for help and, in turn, to welcome their partner’s vulnerability. It’s useful practice for the years ahead when they’ll need to be comfortable with more mutual dependency – being able to count on and be counted on in moments of need and frailty.
Have fewer, kinder fights
My colleague, psychiatrist Bob Waldinger, works with elderly couples to study relationships. He told me that he often has trouble getting them to reenact a fight. Having had the same fights for decades, these older couples are quite bored at the prospect of another round. They already know the other one’s lines. “Do we have to do this again?”
When older couples do fight, they tend to handle conflict better than younger ones: They are more likely to interject expressions of affection and are less prone to voicing disgust, belligerence and whining. Because the relationship is so central to their own happiness, they may be more likely to forgive their partners or let a grievance slide.
Focus on the present reality
Studies suggest that older couples focus on the present and are better able to accept the relationship as it is, rather than looking ahead to a time when it is going to be transformed.
While they may not discuss their own mortality, older couples’ perspectives are shaped by a shorter time horizon. They typically pay more attention to positive experiences, want to understand their emotions better and don’t want to waste time dwelling on the negative aspects of their relationships that they cannot change.
Younger couple’s can follow this example by focusing on what is good about their relationship. “What do you admire and feel grateful for?” If you focus on the ways your partner is supportive, research shows that both you and your spouse will feel better about the relationship. Dealing with difficult emotions is going to be a challenge during a pandemic that elicits powerful feelings of anger, fear, worry, grief, love and gratitude. Being stuck with your partner 24/7 may leave you pondering the expression “for better or worse, but not for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” But if couples across the country borrow some wisdom from the older generation they might just come out the other side with a new perspective and some new skills.
This article was written by Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.