Are you happily married? If so, can you honestly say it’s been wonderful every day, 24 hours a day, for 40 or 50 years? Only a chosen few can honestly say, “Yes.” For most, marriage is truly a mixed bag; wonderful, difficult and at times, impossible. So often, the rest of our lives are a breeze in comparison to the complexities of a relationship
Relationships, in reality, differ drastically from our expectations. We fall in love imagining that life together will forever be as idyllic as the first heartthrob; the first big, serious argument changes all that. What disappointment and disillusionment; no longer is your partner perfect. You begin to doubt. “What am I getting into?”
Marriage is a series of tests. One of the biggest is retirement. In the early years of romance, physical attraction, idealism and common goals provide glow and glue. After children arrive, the union begins to feel diluted and your sense of connectedness might weaken as the needs of a growing family overshadow your former closeness.
Couples in those child rearing years are highly vulnerable. The demands on time and energy are simply too great. A great many couples are unwittingly swept up and away in the frenzy of trying to balance jobs, children, household tasks and financial pressures. The teen years bring even more stress. The days of loving intimacy between husband and wife seem long past, often not to be retrieved.
Despite the odds couples do survive and thrive, depending on their ability to meet life’s challenges with understanding, flexibility and commitment. The survivors somehow manage to maintain a healthy perspective, to recognize that life is more than dirty diapers, kids’ bruises and financial stress.
Somehow, approximately 50 per cent arrive at the stage of retirement together. Not all couples approach these years in marital bliss, but share a willingness either through choice or default to go the next, and probably final, round together. The quality of those last years can be miserable, mediocre, or ecstatic.
It makes sense that a major tendency for retired couples is to engage in turf issues. Suddenly, they are together 24/7. One or both may have held high status in fields of employment. Success in work is no longer an issue, and it can be very difficult to relinquish the personal satisfaction and fulfillment provided by a career. How often I have heard stories of former CEOs taking command of territory that was once the wife’s realm, especially the kitchen. Reorganizing the kitchen seems to be a favorite project taken on by male retirees.
There are really only three possibilities when this happens. Either the wife abdicates gracefully, gives in resentfully, or fights for her domain. Usually, war breaks out, either in full fury, with weapons, or in an icy, cold standoff. Once in a blue moon is a wife grateful to her newly evolved house-husband. Wives also tend to forget that husbands did not retire to be nagged, and so may engage freely in list-making, hoping to finally accomplish years of postponed chores.
Another problem faced by retired couples is boredom. Socially inclined people tend to mask boredom with a flurry of activity, too frequently accompanied by increasingly copious amounts of alcohol. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, and thus sets the stage for disagreements that can rupture a fragile relationship.
Couples who are less social might make the mistake of isolating themselves in an unhealthy way. They get stuck in a rigid routine, with little or no outside stimulation, until one or both become depressed. A time for growing closer and generating greater emotional intimacy instead becomes a humdrum, mediocre relationship. Without a healthy mix of social activity and projects, such a marriage grows stale and distant.
In the later years emerges an opportunity for inner reflection, along with an inborn drive to review one’s life. Failures, accomplishments, completed and uncompleted goals are evaluated. This is a normal component of aging. How deeply rewarding it must be when couples are secure enough in their love for each other to be able to share these innermost thoughts and feelings. They can truly experience the richness that comes with the “golden years.”
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or 394-2861.