Managing Dialectical Tensions in Later Life Marriage and Families
What makes a long term marriage successful? What are the keys to satisfaction in later life marriages? What is the role of communication in those success stories? The answers to these questions are not simple. The stories that older couples tell of their relationships inform not only our understanding of their particular successes, but the myriad tensions that move and shape older adults’ romantic relationships as well. Their stories tell us a complex picture of attitudes toward aging, experiences of later life marriage, changing family relationships, and conceptualizations of health and well-being. While a burgeoning self-help genre focuses on helping older couples enhance their marriages, a look at the stories older couples themselves narrate suggest that there is more to tell than what popular books can ever profess.
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“The two of us, they kid us, we walk down the hall holding hands, primarily to steady us. But they call us the love birds.” (Female, married 60 years)
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Communication in marriages and families is shaped by the lifespan conditions of its members. Younger married couples, for example, report greater incidences of conflict (Sillars & Zietlow, 1993) as they attempt to navigate and negotiate interpersonal rules that will ultimately guide how they relate to one another. Many middle-aged couples face the challenge of the “sandwich generation,” pulled in different directions by the demands of their own children and by the needs of their aging parents. Yet, as couples age, the marriage itself becomes a central life focus (Sharlin, Kaslow, & Hammerschmidt, 2000).
What follows is an exploration of stories and the tensions partners often experience in their later life marriage. Specifically, I explore the tensions that older couples experience in their relational communication, and the implications of these tensions for their communication and relational well-being. Many of my observations are guided and informed by in-depth joint interviews with 20 older heterosexual couples involved in marriages of over 40 years.
Turning Points in Later Life Marriage: Stability and Change
An enduring characteristic of any long term relationship is the presence of tensions between competing wants for stability and the inherent pulls toward relational, social, and physiological change. Interestingly, most studies of marital satisfaction indicate that the sheer permanence of that relationship, amidst changing crises, family dynamics, and life span changes is a common theme among satisfied older couples (Billingsly, Lim, Caron, Harris, and Canada, 2005). For many couples I interviewed, commitment to each other and their relationship was a sustaining force toward stability in the face of wants for new challenges, novelty, and the unavoidable changing conditions of their physical selves. Retirement, relocation of their homes, and changing physiological states are among a number of turning points that highlight tensions between stability and change for married couples.
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“We didn’t know anyone here in the retirement community when we moved.” (Female, married 52 years)
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Not surprisingly, retirement is often the first major turning point in these couples’ later life marriages that impacts communication with one another. Routines and activities are altered, topics of conversation shift, and even the use and meaning of space within homes become sources of instability. Many married couples find themselves spending more time together and struggling to hold on to autonomy that they found outside of their marital relationships. One couple, for example, gave me a tour of their home and showed me how they divided up ‘the territory’ to give each other privacy and space. The husband laughed as he told me that she gets to set up her office in the large guest room, and he gets that small little table in the kitchen to do his art. Though he was quick to point out the perceived inequity, he also pointedly mentioned that this strategy “keeps us from getting on each others’ nerves!”
For others, retirement creates new and changing demands on their time, as volunteer activities are many and the expectations for socializing with friends and helping with grandchildren high, challenging couples to manage tensions between wanting time alone together and simultaneously wanting to be with friends and family. One couple stated that they were surprised at the changing demands after retirement:
We thought that when we retired you’d have lots of time. I don’t know what I did when we worked. We’re always busy with something. Things that we do, things that we go to. Working that we have to do, friends that we visit, or they come to visit us or places that we go to. (Male, married over 60 years)
In addition to retirement, the birth of their grandchildren and the varied expectations surrounding care giving that came with those births were significant turning points that introduced change in the relationship. One couple described the perceived expectations of family to help with the care of their grandchildren.
Husband: I was almost 75 years of age when our first grandchild came, so that was a turning point. [laughing] We didn’t think we were going to have any.
Wife: Only thing that our daughter thinks we can take care of them like somebody real young, but we can’t we try but we can’t keep up. We go down and keep them for the weekend.
Interviewer: How often do you do that?
Husband: Whenever they ask us.
Many others I have interviewed indicate that they help out with the care of their grandchildren, some with greater responsibility than others. In fact, the number of grandparents taking on substantial childcare responsibilities as well as surrogate parenting of their grandchildren is continuing to rise. In the United States over 2.4 million grandparents provide care for their grandchildren (U.S. Census, 2000), with 34% of those grandparents serving as surrogate parents (Williamson, Softas-Nall, & Miller, 2003).
In our study of 45 grandparents serving as surrogate parents to their grandchild, a colleague and I found that the demands of caring for grandchildren changed the meaning of retirement and stability in the marital relationship (Erbert & Aleman, 2008). For example, grandparent parents struggle between the expected visions of their retirement and time with each other, and the unexpected demands of homework, after school athletics, and teenage angst that come with parenting once again. Grandparents respond in numerous ways to the competing pulls between stability and change in this newly found role. In many cases being parents a second time around places considerable strain upon the marriage and their health.
Changing health conditions, some chronic and others more acute, also create turning points in relationships that impact and call for more explicit discussion about their changing relationship. For example in several couples I interviewed, a husband's prostate cancer treatment was mentioned as greatly impacting sexual life. Yet partners recognized that the treatment and its side effects were choices they made to exert control in the face of an uncertain future. Those very choices, however, created new sources of change that tugged against life-long patterns of intimacy. Side effects that include incontinence and erectile dysfunction impacted both partners. Couples reported that in the face of instability and crisis they need to be explicit with one another in talking about their sexual and physical needs, fears, and emotions. For example, one husband expressly told me “You have to talk frankly with one another about sex.” He and his partner went on to further emphasize the importance of talking with one another openly about their changing bodies, needs, and fears.
Their story and others are supported in the literature on marital satisfaction in long term marriages. For example, Billingsly, Lim, Caron, Harris, and Canada (2005) found that between 1953 and 2004 common themes and criteria for marital longevity included “permanence of the relationship, love, sex, compatibility in personality, common interests, communication, decision-making, intimacy, and religion” (p. 7).
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“If we ever really had any major earth shaking disagreements I can’t remember them.” (Male, married over 50 years)
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Harmony and Discord: Navigating Later Life Marital Conflict
The length of their marriage, resilience through crises and celebrations, and those daily mundane life experiences that define relationship all coalesce to inform how couples I’ve interviewed communicate in their relationship and how they decide what to talk about. Research has shown, for example, that as couples age their communication with one another is much more implicit and contextual in nature. Couples understand one another, fill-in information, and talk in short hand in a manner that has been created over the entire lifespan of their relationship. Sillars and Kalbfleisch (1989) explain how long term married couples come to have such highly aligned communication:
Communication becomes more implicit and less conscious to the extent that background assumptions are in alignment. Highly implicit transactions are limited to more homogeneous and stable social relationships where the shared experiences of individuals allow them to fill in considerable taken-for-granted meaning (p. 201).
That is, older adults in long-term marriages do not need to spend considerable time talking about the relationship, as their continuing talk instantiates assumptions for how to conduct their relationship. For many older couples, the “been there, done that” sentiment regarding “too much” relational talk permeates their stories of how they conduct their relationships now. This seems to have a direct impact on how they talk about conflict as well.
There is substantial support that perceptions and self-reports of conflict and disagreement decrease with time over the course of the marriage. Studies report, for example, that older couples experience less conflict than younger couples (Sillars & Zietlow, 1993), have less negative valence in their conflict interactions, become more habituated and tolerant of their spouses (Johnson, Amaloza, & Booth, 1992), and adopt more passive styles of coping with conflict and disagreement and are avoidant of confrontation (Folkman, Lazurus, Pimley, and Novaceck, 1987). Yet, as Hatch and Bulcroft (2004) argue, the duration of one’s marriage is not a single predictor of declining marital conflict, but instead there are a complex host of explanations for conflict communication in long term marriages.
In all my interviews with long term married couples, I found that couples reported few conflicts in their present-day marriages. Most justified this claim by stating that with such little time left, “it’s not worth it,” or “we pick and choose our battles carefully.” While this expression that there is “little” or “no” conflict may not coincide with actual existence of conflict, these couples’ perceptions are certainly important to how they make meaning in their everyday experiences.
Interestingly, the expressed desire of those interviewed to not raise “unnecessary conflict” created additional tension in their relational life. That is, couples experienced tension between wanting to discuss a particular topic (e.g. issues of faith, death, or long term care) while simultaneously wanting to be closed to the discussion or believing that their partner is closed to the discussion. Thus, they perceived their relationship as largely void of conflict, but at the same time storied issues that were riddled with both expressed and unexpressed conflict. One couple I interviewed, for example, was deeply divided in matters of faith. They had spent much of their married life in the same faith community and sharing the same beliefs. In recent years, however, the husband began to question his faith and had radically altered his beliefs, telling me in our interview that he no longer believed in God or heaven. He also acknowledged this troubled his wife and was an irreconcilable disagreement. This left his wife visibly shaken in the interview and expressed that she wanted to talk about it, but that the conflict was not resolvable nor worth the discord discussion created. Therefore, they elected to talk about neither her distress, nor his changing beliefs, at least not explicitly. In this case, their decision to avoid conflict and to deny the experience of this tension appeared to be a source of significant stress.
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“It’s different now because of his Alzheimer’s. I have to do more for him then I did before.” (Female, married over 50 years)
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Envisioning Caregiving in Later Life Marriage
Tensions between being both open and closed, and both independent and connected continue to permeate throughout discussions of caregiving in later life marriage. These tensions are often complicated by the voices of other family members who often play an important care giving role. For many older couples, a disabling fall or the onset of a chronic or acute illness of one partner provides significant change in their everyday relational needs and demands. In some cases, the change may be seemingly more minor, yet speak to larger concerns for losing dependence and privacy. For example, in the following interview the couple discusses how moving their bedroom downstairs was a significant turning point:
Husband: That [wife fell down the stairs] was a turning point because we decided to move downstairs
Wife: I didn’t want to come downstairs. We had turned mother and daddy’s bedroom into a den. It’s private up there. Here you see everything all the way through. And it means that you have to move everything. And I found out that moving everything is not as easy as it used to be.
Husband: It was the pressure of friends and family who told us we ought to come downstairs.
For this couple, it was not only the lack of privacy, but also the implication of the pressures from family and friends that impinged upon their decision making autonomy. They felt pulled by forces of control outside of their relationship to make decisions that ultimately changed their experience of privacy, as well as independence from family interventions, as a couple.
The experience of simultaneous wants for independence, but acceptance of the need for help and assistance of family members resonates for many couples when one or both members’ health is deteriorating. Yet, for many couples spousal caregiving is an important means to retain couple autonomy and independence in the face of increasing pulls toward family control. Spouses, then, continue to be a considerable source of co-resident care, enabling one another to live independently as a couple for longer. While much research has focused on women providing care for their male partners, male partners are providing similar amounts of care as their female counterparts (Hirst, 2001).
Ray (2006) in his qualitative study of spousal care in long term marriages discovered that care-receivers found it easier to receive care when it was forwarded with perceived genuine love and concern:
Empathy and concern for a partner were identified as important motivations for both spouses who provided and received care. Here Mr H, being cared for by his wife, reflects a sense of ‘ambivalent empathy’, where on the one hand he expresses concern for his wife and on the other acknowledges the vulnerability of his own position: How much longer can she go on putting up with me? She has her own problems. Osteoporosis. That’s a big enough worry without having me on top. How much longer can she carry on? (Ray, 2006, p. 133)
On the other hand, caregiving becomes problematized for unhappy couples, with caregivers perceiving great inequities in the marriage and care receivers having difficulty accepting care (Ray, 2006).
Interestingly, in Ray’s study he found that men described their activities as providing “care” or “caregiving,” while women did not. He further found that the men in his study often used more outside care, so that they could retain autonomy that included working or other activities outside the home, while female caregivers had less formal support (Ray, 2006). This finding seems aligned with cohort expectations for gendered practices and division of labor in the family. Yet, given these findings altogether, spousal care provides independence for the couple as a unit, while working in tension with the caregiver-spouse’s own relational autonomy.
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“We have a very good relationship. We have loved each other 60, over 60 years. We’ve been married for 60 years and there’s never been any real friction at all. We’ve just been what everybody says is an ideal couple . . . There has never been a time when I thought “what did I marry him for” and I’m sure there never will be.” (Female, married over 60 years)
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In many ways it is not surprising that long term married couples report greater warmth and positivity in their interactions than younger couples (Henry, Berg, Smith, & Florsheim, 2007). Over the course of 40 years or more, the couple negotiates varied relational turning points demonstrating commitment and faith in one another, creates nuanced rules and visions for their relationship that enables their everyday communication to be synchronous and aligned, and finds themselves working together as a couple in the face of numerous external pressures and demands of friends and family instantiating and reinforcing their identity as a couple. To this end couples must manage the varied tensions inherent to relating, and as the poet Kahil Gibran so insightfully poses, “Love one another, but make not a bond of love/ Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls” (1923, p. 15-6).
Melissa Wood Alemán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University. Her research explores communication in and about romantic relationships in later life and the role of communication in later life families. Specifically, she has explored the tensions experienced among older adults in marriage and dating relationships, the contradictory pulls of grandparents who serve as custodial parents to their grandchildren, and narratives of dementia among women in the family. Her research has been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the Journal of Communication, the Oates Journal, and Qualitative Communication Research Reports among others.
This Special Issue made possible by a grant from the Lattner Family Foundation
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