Divorce, infidelity and marriage breakdown are not just problems for the young. A recent study by The American Association of Retired People found that in fact over 60% of divorces are initiated by women in their forties, fifties or sixties.
As we enter later life, we face:
- More time alone with our partner
- An urgent desire to make the most of the time we have left, and often conflicting ideas of what that means
- Challenges to our physical and emotional health
What you must NOT do is ignore these challenges and opportunities. Have lots of conversations together about how you can make these years great. Where there are negatives, make sure you have a plan.
Here are some of the common relationship challenges older couples face, and some ideas for tackling them together.
Marriage and Retirement
Retirement brings us face to face with our husband or wife in a whole new way. Many couples have fallen into a lengthy pattern of taking each other for granted. Most likely, both of you have changed over the years, and some of this will have gone unnoticed.
Retirement, however, means that all the problems we’ve set aside for years – in favour of focusing on careers or children – can no longer be avoided.
If you’re retiring, meet this challenge head on:
- Talk about what retirement might be like BEFORE it happens
- Discuss challenges like being together far more often
- Discuss what your daily routine might look like when the structure of the working week is gone
- Work together to make retirement a time for exploration and fun
- Separately, write your retirement bucket lists: then compare and start planning!
- Keep sex on the agenda – what will your sex life look like with more time together and more time to relax?
Sex for Older Couples
It really is true that you can create a more satisfying, more intimate sex life in the later years of your marriage. I’ve heard many couples say sex gets better as you enter your fifties because you know yourself better and are no longer caught up in what other people think about you.
You may, however, need to focus on making changes and coming closer together again. This reawakening usually happens in your forties, as children become more independent, but there’s no such thing as too late. Start thinking about what you enjoy and what turns you on, rather than sticking to the familiar old routines.
Top tips for building an amazing sex life in later years:
- You haven’t eaten at the same restaurant or worn the same clothes for the last 25 years – similarly, you need to change your sex life by trying new things and taking risks.
- Read some books, go online, do your research. I have several books on creating the sex life you want and deserve.
- Stop doing what you think your partner likes, and try doing what you think YOU need.
- Successful couples schedule sex – this isn’t routine or boring, it’s reassuring and fun, and will lead to a regular pattern of intimacy that can be incredibly fulfilling.
- Don’t think of sex only in terms of intercourse: if you broaden the definition of sex to include all the wonderful sensual activities like cuddling and stroking, you can completely turn your sex life around.
- Appreciate one another – make sure you include small touches like strokes, hugs, goodbye kisses, loving texts in your daily routine. Research has shown that it takes five positives to counteract one negative interaction – pay attention to your ratio!
Menopause is a huge life change that sadly still comes as a big shock to many couples. For years, no-one much has talked about menopause, and lots of couples have let it become an elephant in the room.
Happily, initiatives like the Menopause Cafe and Mariella Frostrup’s recent BBC series The Truth About The Menopause have brought the subject more into the open. There is now momentum to change a situation in which men know so little they’re afraid to start a conversation, and women opt to suffer in silence.
For many women, the menopause will be a highly challenging time. Menopausal symptoms can last up to 15 years, and over 60% of women have symptoms that result in behavioural change. Symptoms can include hot flushes, night sweats,itchiness, migraine, breast tenderness, exhaustion, depression, mood swings, vaginal dryness and decrease in sexual desire.
Throw into the equation a medical profession struggling to keep up and provide the right treatment and diagnosis, and you’ve got a recipe for severe marital strain.
So, what can you do if menopause has become a challenge for your marriage?
- Get husbands educated: menopause is unfortunately not a part of men’s life education at any point. Give him a reading list, and then discuss it together. He most likely has no idea what you’re facing.
- Take control: educate yourself about symptom control, see your GP, develop an exercise routine, make lifestyle changes.
- Find support: getting to know others on the same journey will make everything easier. At the bottom of this article I’ve listed some great online resources for education and support, and there are also local groups in many areas.
- Care for yourself: write a list of things that make you happy (a massage, walks with friends, weekends away, owning a pet) and make time to do them.
Marriage and the Empty Nest
Empty nest syndrome is very common and very real. Caught up in the hard work of raising and educating children, many couples fall into a pit of sadness and loss once the children who were the centre of their world leave.
Many experience depression and serious marital issues. It’s not uncommon to slowly realise that the children were the glue holding the two of you together, and that it doesn’t feel like there’s much else left.
Here are some ideas to pull things back:
- Consider marriage therapy: the double blow of losing the children and finding your marriage in trouble can be a lot to cope with. Professional help can get you back on track faster.
- Reconnect: talk through what you loved about each other in the beginning. Pull out old photo albums, retell your meeting story, play your favourite songs.
- Build a new routine: use your new time to plan activities like a weekly date night where you try something new to you both like ballroom dancing, volunteering for a charity or learning about opera.
- Keep a journal: it’s a significant loss you’re experiencing, and a journal will help you identify and fully experience those feelings.
Recovering from Infidelity
Among my most frequent infidelity clients are older couples about 18 months into retirement. Giving up work or even approaching retirement challenges our sense of identity hugely. In a bid to feel wanted and relevant, some people seek out an extra-marital affair. This is especially common where they feel that their partner isn’t interested in them, and sex has become routine.
The experience of infidelity is sadly similar at any age. Infidelity is a profound betrayal which, no matter what decision you make about your marriage, will take a lot of work to recover from. Where should you start?
- Ideally, seek help from a marriage counsellor.
- Remember – it’s most likely not about you. Your partner, for whatever reason, has been in pain and has sought out a ‘quick fix’.
- Don’t be tempted to manage your partner’s emotional life for him or her post infidelity – he or she can manage his or her own relationships with your children, for example.
- Doing nothing is OK – this is a huge life crisis and if you don’t know what to do, the best option is often to give yourself more time. For example, if your partner is pressuring you to make decisions about the family home, take time and find some legal advice.
- Make self-care a priority – the emotional pain of infidelity is immense and you need to go easy on yourself. Ask your friends for moral and practical support, do nice things to pamper yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself when things go wrong.
- Keep a journal – this will help you identify and experience your feelings fully.
- Take a step back – focus on yourself and a new personal journey. If you wish, leave the door open to your partner. Most relationships that stem from infidelity quickly fail, and if you are the calm, rational party, you will frequently find that your partner realises what he or she has lost.
A Special Time
Long term marriages bring with them many challenges. The second half of your time together can, however, be a time of exploration, fun and reawakening. Finally you have the time and space to do some of the things you’ve dreamed of.
The couples who put the work in to better communication often say they find themselves laughing more and worrying less than ever before.
Join the discussion
Do let me know in the comments what challenges your marriage has faced after twenty, thirty, forty or more years, and what has or hasn’t helped.
Have you drifted apart, or have you built something new together? Has your marriage improved with age? Or would you like to be doing more to reinvent your love life?
Join the debate on Twitter or Facebook, or post your thoughts in the comments below.
Resources to help strengthen marriage in later life
- My long-term relationship advice Q&A on Gransnet
- The Gottman Institute on How To Rescue Your Marriage from Empty Nest Syndrome
- The Empty Nest Marriage: Deciding whether to stay or go (The Washington Post)
- The Menopause Cafe – this organisation runs friendly events to increase awareness of the impact of the menopause on those experiencing it, their friends, colleagues and families.
- The Menopause Doctor: on Relationships and the Menopause
- #50Sense – an online space for intelligent writing to help you feel better about your older self and your body.
- My Second Spring – friendly menopause advice with a light touch, including expert advice sessions.
- Betrayed Wives Club – a great blog and community about rebuilding after infidelity
- Overcoming Infidelity Podcast – a useful podcast on infidelity, especially if you’re the one who has had the affair.
- My book on facing up to mid-life challenges – It’s not a Midlife Crisis, It’s an Opportunity: How to be 40 or 50-something Without Going off the Rails
- My books on creating the sex life you want and deserve
- My Online Infidelity Support Group
No intimacy for twenty years. Two years ago I lost my wonderful sister that I spent most of my time. No support from my with the grief . When out of blue I received a text meant for another woman. Found he had Group of friends he socialised with & text when he’d go to bed early. Thinking he was just sad . All the years I have done everything for my three children he just put money on the table. I work with mental health & have the feeling he’s Aspergers he wouldn’t like to b told that I have stayed feeling sorry for him ( not having the right tools to know he’s hurting me ) was prepared to go on like this. Until I found there is stuff he can do . Enquiring how this woman’s friend is & has never done that with me . Doesn’t love & does not understand y I’m divorcing him
Andrew G. Marshall says
Sorry to hear about the loss of your sister and how disappointing your marriage has been. I wish you every happiness for the future.
I feel like my marriage is over. One son just got his first job after college 1800 miles away. The other is finishing up his second year of engineering and will probably not come home next summer but rather take an internship close to college which is 1200 miles away. My husband and I don’t really talk. He had a debilitating car accident 17 years ago and has basically been retired since then. I work part-time at a job I love. He just started traveling back and forth to SC to help his brother with his business and take care of an aging parent. When he is home we don’t really socialize with other couples. I do my own thing and he plays a lot of golf with his buddies. He is 70 lbs overweight and doesn’t seem to care. I’ve changed my diet and lifestyle due to a change in health and now try to eat very clean and exercise every day. I mostly did this before but now am even more disciplined. I took care of him after his auto accident but am thinking of ending my marriage because he scares me – he doesn’t take care of himself, and although i didn’t mind taking care of him after his accident and afterward, now that the kids are gone I don’t want to get stuck taking care of him again because of his poor health/eating/lifestyle choices. The accident was through no fault of his own. But if he gets sick or further disabled I feel like it’s his fault and I don’t want to get stuck taking care of him again and being resentful. In November 2018 on the way to a Dr. Appt for me, I told him all this. He said he would do anything to not stress me out including adopting healthy habits. Nothing has changed. Do you have any suggestions?
Andrew G. Marshall says
You could tell him where you are. You could tell him about your resentment. You could tell him ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you’. If it is a wake up call to him, you could consider getting couple therapy and see if you can put together a good enough marriage. If it is more empty words, do you have the strength to walk away?
My husband of almost thirty years began fantasizing about a coworker. These were fantasies not only about sexual situations, but also ‘what if’s in terms of being married to her, while also being wealthy, accomplished, etc. This was not someone he knew well, but instead spoke to a minute or so a day. I believe that he fits many of the characteristics of having a midlife crisis, in that he began to find fault with our marriage and to some degree, me shortly before he began to notice her. This relationship with her was not reciprocal by any means (I confronted her, because he was adamant about it, and she was stunned. ) They knew no personal details about each other, and had never spent time together after work or really during work). She simply treated him as an acquaintance, but he believed that she singled him out as special, and while they only ever exchanged pleasantries about the weather or job related matters, he described her to me as ‘always being on his side’; ‘respecting him’, and “agreeing with him.” She was several years older and much less educated and attractive than most of our peers and friends, and he has said that he felt he ‘took care of her’ around an almost all male work environment.
Obviously, he thought he was receiving attention from someone quite different from his ‘difficult wife who was a lot of work.” Shortly after the fantasizing, he began to view pornography, and this too was very out of character for him, do to his religious convictions. All of this came to a head, when the woman became engaged to another man at their office. This man, one of his supervisors, is much more outgoing than my mild mannered husband, and they have had difficulties working together in the past. Shortly before the wedding, he woke me one night and said ‘there’s something wrong with you, or there’s something wrong with me, but I believed that it is you”, then launched into a barrage of all the things I had done wrong over the years. Although I had noticed some mood swings and irritably, I never even knew this person worked there. Now, he is telling me in the middle of the night that he be in love with her.
My question is this: could he have truly cared for or even been attracted to this person or was she just convenient? Was I competing with a real person, as he saw her or were all there qualities he heaped upon her because she was just there? In truth, she was the only woman he came into contact with on even a slightly regular basis, without me nearby. It has been several months, but he still seems to believe that he may have been drawn to her.
Andrew G. Marshall says
Have a look at my book ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you’. I explain about limerence (the crazy part of falling in love) and how limerence can crstyalise with someone who hardly knows you (or not at all). The fantasies of himself with her seem to be fanatsies of being another person – which suggest a lot of self doubt (and possibly loathing). Unfortunately, instead of doing the work of understanding what has gone wrong in your life and working on it, people prefer to blame. (Look at our politics at the moment to see how popular that choice is!). So I would suggest asking him to read my book ‘It’s not a midlife crisis, it’s an opportunity’. It might help him understand what is going on. Finally, I would remind you that just because someone blames you for something it does not mean that you are to blame – because leaping to your own defence just plays right into the other person’s game.
Val Archer says
My husband of 43 years has been having an affair with a now 40 year old for 9 years. In December 2017 he told me he was leaving me. In April 2018 I made him go. He moved in with her and her 11 year old daughter. He says now he wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t made him. By June he wasn’t happy. End of August he came back to me (but said later he wasn’t really coming back to me, just getting away from her). In November he went back to her. I went abroad to our SA house until January. When I came back it had all gone wrong again. He was looking for a flat on his own. I said he could come back to the marital home while I was back in SA to give him 5 weeks to find somewhere. Having previously said he would never be back in SA with me again, he came out for the final 2 weeks of my stay. He finally moved out end June to a flat on his own, the idea being to have space from both of us and get his head straight. During all this time we have been getting on better than ever. He has cut down on his drinking and we have both started walking a lot (together and separately). We have been out together as well. BUT …. his AP works for us and so he sees her regularly. Three weeks ago she told him she still loves him and wants him back. He has been working with a counsellor and has now told me that the counsellor has made him think that as he keeps going back to her it is her he really wants to be with. He has said they both need to change (she is very controlling and very jealous of me, he sees me behind her back to avoid conflict). We run a business together which means we have to communicate and, sometimes, see each other. He has now done another complete about face and is avoiding seeing me altogether and spending a lot of time with her. He says he was never unhappy with me, that we have had a happy marriage, that he feels if we eventually do get back together our relationship would be stronger. Is this all BS? Am I holding on to false hope? Am I mad to even consider taking him back? Or is this it and I won’t get another chance? This is a brief summary so I guess it’s impossible to have any idea from the above.
Andrew G. Marshall says
What I think is the problem is that your husband is a people pleaser. He can’t tell his mistress that she is controlling and making him miserable (because that would upset her). Meanwhile, he is keeping you sweet to keep his option open. I would not be surprised is he spent his childhood pleasing his mother (because she was strong or controlling or weak and needed to be held up by him). i doubt he has the first idea what he wants and how to go about getting it. Instead of learning about himself, he is forever trying to work out which woman is best. So I would focus on what you need, what makes your life better and if he wants to join in – you can talk about that at the time. But he is too busy avoiding conflict to know who he is and that is the only way he will get himself out of the hole he has dug for himself (but that’s his job, not yours, so don’t divert your energy trying to sort him out).
My husband and I have been married for nearly thirty years, and most of these have been very good ones. A couple of years ago, he came to me and for the most part, gave me the ‘there’s something wrong with one of us, and I don’t think it’s me’ speech. As it turns out, he had not had an affair, but he had spent some time attracted to a coworker and had spent quite a bit of time imaging what a new life would be like and how much he might like to have sexual experiences with other women.
We have spent some time with a therapist and made changes to our marriage in that communication has improved and, we are spending more quality time together. A couple of things are still issues for me, however. One, he continues to work with the woman to whom he was attracted, although he tells me he longer feels this way. They do not directly work together, and contact is at a minimum, from what he has told me. They never spent much time together, and most of these scenarios were just fantasies, not actual encounters. I still feel uncomfortable that they work together, though. Second, I have difficulty accepting that he may not have meant some of the things he said and did during his ‘midlife crisis’. I do believe that he did go though some type of crisis or struggle as his behavior fits most of the descriptors of the changes which occur during midlife. I worry that he may have meant some of the comments and beliefs he shared regarding my appearance, rewriting our prior history, blaming me for some of his unhappiness, and telling me how he would have enjoyed being with more women and having more meaningful life experiences. Lastly, because he did say and do so many unusual things and because he was drawn to this particular woman, my trust in his faithfulness and loyalty have suffered.
Do you have any suggestions as to how I can move forward? It seems that he wants everything to be just as it was, and while this appeals to me, I struggle with believing him now. I have never doubted that he loved me and our children, but the knowledge that he wanted to ‘escape’ from us–particularly me, is still troubling. Is it possible to come through a midlife crisis relatively unscathed as he appears to have done, or should I think that he either feels guilty or has just settled for being back to where we were before this happened? In other words, are there varying degrees of a midlife crisis? Am I just ‘lucky’ that things, although bad, were not worse?
Andrew G. Marshall says
I think you were ‘lucky’ that things were only ‘bad’ and they could have been a whole lot worse. However, I am less concerned about his continuing work contacts with his fantasy colleague. Like you, however, I feel that he has brushed aside a lot of what happened at the time (and pretended he did not say what he said). Like you, I am concerned that nothing has really been addressed and there is an unhealed wound (which could turn septic).
So what should you do? I think you need to understand affair brain – this is HOW someone can convince themselves that it is OK to cheat (although he did not get that far). It is a combination of rationalisation and justification, minimising etc… This is the rewriting history and hurtful comments about appearance. I cover this in a chapter called How did I cheat in my book ‘Why Did I Cheat? Help your partner and yourself recover from your affair. I explain how Affair Brain works and help the person concerned unpick each item. I think it would be helpful oif you read it together. Next, I would understand why people have midllife crises (and how they can have positive outcomes). Look at my book ‘It’s not a midlife crisis, it’s an opportunity’.
Ultimately, this is a wake up call to take stock of your lives – build on what works and change what doesn’t. It is something we should all do from time to time – especially after 30 years together. My concern is that while you are listening, he is frightened and shutting down. I hope my books help change that.
Glad to have found your work. I probably need to read your books, but I’m worried about my teenager seeing them and thinking we are going to divorce. Anyway, do you have any tips about dealing with my enduring resentment that my partner went vegan? It has been two years now. I’ve got over my reluctance to eat my delicious fish, meat and cheese in front of him, but the words ‘tofu’ and ‘beans’ provoke irrational irritation in me. The veganism coincided with a horrible period in our relationship, and though he clearly loves me again I don’t quite trust him and obsess over how awful veganism is, without discussing it at all with him, I definitely know better than that. I feel emotionally ‘underground’, and quite lonely. Any videos or reading material suggestions most welcome, thank you.
Andrew G. Marshall says
Thanks for the vote of confidence. I wonder if the annoyance at his veganism is about something deeper that you find harder to voice… especially as you say it is ‘irrational’. I bet there is a perfectly good reason to be angry hiding in plane sight. I wonder if it has something to do with being emotionally underground. Because it seems to me perfectly possible to change ones diet without making your beloved feel alone. As for your teenager finding books, I doubt most teenagers are THAT interested in their parents lives to go through their bookshelves.But if you are worried, you could get something like ‘Happy Couple’s Handbook’ – which is about improving communication or one of my books aimed at individuals… Learn to love yourself enough or Wake Up and Change Your Life. I am planning a podcast later in the year, subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on Facebook on Twitter to find out when.
Thank you Andrew. I got your book ‘My husband doesn’t love me and is texting someone else’ (on the Kindle app, no chance of anyone taking an interest on what I have on there!) and I thought poor communication has obviously been a problem. That said, I think vegans prefer one way communication; most vegans think they eat the best diet for all of humanity. Acceptance is a good way forward, as you said. Happily the lack of love two years ago and the annoying special friend are now receding images in the rear view mirror. It is so true what you said about men hating drama and crying. I’ll keep working on communicating without losing the plot.