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