If you were to Google “Marriage advice for seniors,” you’ll surprisingly get dozens of results of seniors giving marriage advice, not receiving. Many assume wisdom comes with age, but no one is ever too old for advice. Because many senior couples have been married for years or even a few decades, people assume that means they must have hacked the code to a successful marriage.
That may be true for some or the majority of couples. As couples age, life slows down. The kids have moved out and started families of their own and retirement has opened your schedule up. It’s during this new phase in life that senior couples may see issues from the past creep back up or see changes in the dynamic of their relationship. Coming of Age spoke with a local relationship trainer and a practicing clinician for advice for married seniors. Both experts have different approaches to guiding clients through relationship issues.
Relationship trainer at Bayside Marriage Counseling, Julie M. Nise, LPC, LMFT, CT, has been helping married couples for the past 16 years figure out what skills they need to be successful in the long haul. Nise explained that as a relationship trainer, she concentrates on the future of the relationship.
Owner and practicing clinician of Innovative Direction, Counseling and Evaluation Services, Alyssa Warren, MS, LMHC, CFMHE, CCCE, has been helping clients with the most up-to-date psychological techniques for several years. Warren is specialized in divorce, among other topics, and has a decade of experience working with relationship issues.
Nise and Warren agreed that a frequent issue in senior couples, and majority of couples no matter the age, is communication. Communication is the foundation of any relationship. If healthy communication isn’t established early on in the relationship, this issue can snowball.
“Communication is always number one. A lack of communication, especially when we get into senior ages, you’re looking at really long patterns of maybe not the best communication,” Warren explained.
In Nise’s experience, her senior clients typically come in with an issue related to communication. “They’re either arguing a little bit more than they want to, or they don’t feel like they’re being heard and conversing well, so they can’t have a nice dialogue,” Nise said.
Warren’s approach to this issue is to introduce the couple to basic communication skills during therapy. One skill she teaches is “I Statements.” This skill prevents placing blame.
“When we use ‘You Statements’ to other people, like ‘You made me feel this way,’ or ‘You did this,’ the other person will tend to get defensive,” Warren explained. “We teach ‘I Statements’ like ‘I feel this way because of this.’ When we use ‘I Statements,’ we own what’s going on. We’re not putting it on the other person. Those basics get people talking to each other in a healthy way.”
One way Nise suggests dealing with communication issues is by remaining both interesting and interested. Sometimes when a relationship has lasted for a long time, couples may stop working to maintain that spark that drew them together to begin with. This lax approach can halt dialogue.
“It’s very important to stay both interesting and interested, as a partner, no matter how old you are,” Nise continued. “Part of that is having things in your life that are motivating you that are adventurous and interesting that you can talk about, deal with and share.”
In short, couples should pursue their own interests and hobbies and encourage each other to do the same. Fostering each other’s interests helps keep conversations flowing as couples grow and change.
If there is anything that is consistent in life, it’s change. Whether it’s once, dozens or hundreds of times, everyone is bound to change. As partners age, they change. The key to using change as a tool to bring a couple closer, rather than drift apart, is flexibility.
“You don’t have to exactly change together, but find things that are of interest with each other. Always be respectful, even if the changes are not lining up completely,” Warren said.
It’s important to allow each other to change. However, Nise explained that married couples must maintain common interests and goals in order to maintain a partnership. Marriage requires teamwork.
“If you have a marriage formed that is a real team, a partnership, then you’re always looking out for what is in the best interest of that team or that marriage. The more couples are individuals and kind of go their own way and act in their own best interest, that’s how you let distance grow. That’s where you start to get problems,” Nise explained. “So, it’s not that you couldn’t have your own interest in activities. You certainly can. There has to be some commonality of goals and interests. You’re not two individuals. You’re a team. It’s important for couples to have mutually interesting things to work toward outcomes and goals.”
One change that sometimes occurs in senior marriages is a change in roles. As these couples age, one’s health may decline faster than the other’s, which could cause the latter to become the caretaker. Taking care of anyone let alone a loved one is challenging. Nise advises that seniors prepare for this potential scenario as early as possible.
“You have to talk with each other and say, ‘Well, what if I end up being the caregiver? What if you end up being the caregiver?’ There’s all kinds of things that need to happen around that scenario,” Nise continued. “You don’t want to just, poof, all of a sudden, somebody’s sick, and now I’ve got to change everything. You need to have flexibility.”
If an individual is in the situation where they are the caretaker for their partner, Warren advises they don’t lose sight of themselves.
“Seek out as much help as you can. Being a caretaker is a job in itself. No matter how much you love somebody, it can take a lot out of somebody. So, having a really good support system is number one,” Warren said. “It’s okay to vent. Caretakers in general feel a lot of guilt. If you’re taking care of a loved one, it is tiring and exhausting. And that’s okay, but you have to take care of yourself first. Because if you don’t take care of yourself first, you can’t be the healthiest person you can be for that other person.”
Continuing on the subject of self-care, sex is also a part of how we care for ourselves. It’s no secret that sex is important in marriage. But, how important is sex in marriage when you’re in your 70s? Well, for one, you’re never too old for sex. However, there is nothing wrong with getting the green light from the doctor just to be sure.
Sex is different for all couples no matter the age, and communication is always the first step. When Warren was in graduate school, she recalled a panel of seniors discussing their sex life. One senior couple shared that they didn’t have an interest in sex anymore, and they both were still satisfied with their relationship. The other couples said they still had sex, and a single senior woman said she, too, still had sex.
“So it really is about what works for that couple. Now, if one partner would like sex and the other one doesn’t, it’s like any other issue in a relationship,” Warren continued. “You have to learn to compromise. Compromising doesn’t mean 50/50. Compromising can be 60/40 or 70/30. Make sure you talk to the doctor first, but there are always sexual options no matter what.”
No matter the length of a relationship, there is always room for growth and improvement. If you’re looking to enhance your relationship or sex life, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to a counselor or read books on the topic. Who knows, you may learn a trick or two.
Best sex positions for seniors
As the body ages, the way we have sex changes. Here are a few ways to have sex with less strain on the body.
This popular cuddling position can become a version of doggie style but with no pressure on the knees.
2. Lie Back
When both lie on their backs, the female puts one leg over the male’s body. Then just find an angle for entry.
3. Add a Chair
With a chair that is low enough that the woman can touch the ground with her feet, the woman sits on the man’s lap either facing him or reversed.
Council on Aging of West Florida is compliant with the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability. Learn more at www.bbb.org.