How to Have a Happy Marriage Late in Life
The lasting marriage of Al and Mary Link of Springfield didn't go unnoticed when they took to the dance floor at a grandson's wedding reception in 2004.
As the married couples in attendance danced, the disc jockey played a little game.
"The DJ said, 'OK. All of the people who have been married come on up on the dance floor, and we'll dance. If you've been married a year, sit down; five years, 10 years,' " says Mary, 83.
The Links kept dancing when the DJ reached 50 years. Eventually, they were the only couple left on the floor.
Says Mary: "The DJ said to (Al), 'Tell me. What do you attribute your long married life?'
"He said, 'Well, you've got to live a long time.'"
Longevity may go hand-in-hand with marital bliss 62 years and counting for the Links but increasingly, couples are fleeing long- term marriages that have entered their third, fourth, even fifth decades. With the average marriage lasting 10 to 15 years, many people expect long-term marriages to last, as the preacher says, "until death do you part."
The reasons are difficult to pinpoint, family law experts say.
Not all marriages fail for the same reason, and there's usually not one reason for the breakdown of a particular marriage, according to "Making Marriage Last," published by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
However, failed expectations or unmet needs, communication problems and lifestyle changes may contribute to divorce among long- term marriages.
Plus, divorcing after years of marriage doesn't have the stigma it once did.
"Long ago, it wasn't acceptable after that many years, but now I think it's just more acceptable," says Susan Coplea, who practices counseling at 1124 S. Fifth St.
Failed expectations or unmet needs may cause marital splits, according to "Making Marriage Last."
"When we get married, we just assume that ... if we've found the right person, that person is going to take care of our needs for the rest of our lives. We really believe that if we have found the right mate that we're not ever going to have any problems in our life," Coplea says.
"A lot of times, after we've been married 40 years, we're in our early 60s, and we do start experiencing life problems that we had never had before. I think there's a real sense of, 'If this was a good marriage, all these bad things wouldn't be happening to us.'"
People want to run from problems, particularly health issues that may come with age, Coplea says. One way people run is to focus on someone else in an act of infidelity, another cause of divorce.
"A lot of times, couples feel like, 'Oh, well. There's nothing I can do about her breast cancer ... I can be more useful over here with someone else,' " Coplea says.
Couples' inability to communicate with each other about issues is a big problem in any marriage, says Kevin Linder, attorney with Watson & Linder Law Office, 625 S. Second St.
Linder says: "You work 25-30 years, you get that gold watch and then you look at that person who 25-30 years ago you swore through sickness and health, only God would put you apart, and you're looking at them going, 'I never quite figured out why they liked their hamburger the way they did.'"
A change in lifestyles due to the empty nest syndrome or retirement may split couples.
Realizing too late that their children kept them together, many long-term married couples divorce after the kids leave home, Sheri and Bob Stritof state in the article "The Empty Nest Syndrome in Your Marriage" (available at About.com under "Marriage").
"Your kids have moved out of the house, and you're sitting there. You just finished up your career. What do you do when your kids are out of the house?" Linder says.
"You start looking at the other person, going, 'Do I really know you?' "
Opposite dynamics may pressure a marriage, Linder says such as the adult child who is still living at home: "Having to have a romantic relationship and keep that chemistry alive when your 42- year-old son is sitting there going, 'Mom, what's for dinner?'" he says.
People may feel overwhelmed with too much togetherness during retirement, or they may have low self-esteem because they don't feel as useful or as productive as before, Coplea says.
"We rely on our spouse a lot to make that OK for us. Sometimes, I think, we just need to do our own personal work rather than relying on our spouse."
Retirees should find their niches, whether it's volunteer work, a second career or being a babysitting grandparent, Coplea says.
Couples can get "on each other's nerves" if one spouse is still working and the other mate is home alone. The couples' differing desires may lead to divorce, as the working spouse would rather stay home after work while the homebound partner seeks to go out for the evening.
Coplea says the happiest couples have their own friends and own interests and share time together in the evenings and on the weekends.
While the Links never let their individual careers or activities become more important than their marriage, retirement was a big adjustment for them, Mary says. The Links retired in the early 1980s: Al from Allis-Chalmers and Mary from Springfield School District 186 as a music teacher.
"He followed me around all the time," Mary says.
The Links stay active. She goes to FitClub, and he plays golf. They do several things together, including dancing with the Silver Steppers line dancers and caring for a great-granddaughter one day a week.
The Links said having a sense of humor is a plus. The ability to compromise also goes a long way.
"Neither of us seems to have to have our way. We got a deal going here. We think differently. OK, we pick one of them and go," says Al, 84.
Nothing is shameful about going into counseling, Coplea says, even if couples have been married 40 years and have wonderful children and family experiences.
"Everybody walking down the street probably at least once or twice during their life gets in a situation where they just need to talk to somebody or need a different perspective on the situation," Coplea says.
When married couples are unhappy and angry, divorce is the first thing that pops in their minds, she says.
But there's a possible alternative to an ultimate split.
"A lot of people end up a lot of times not divorcing but just separating and living out their years apart and spending a lot of time together," Coplea says.
"It's like, 'We can't live with each other, but we can't live without each other.'
"At any point in a marriage, oftentimes, separation is good, but especially in our older years. Sometimes we just are grouchy, and we need our own space more. That doesn't mean the relationship has to be over."
Treat your spouse like your best friend. Don't expect to get more from your spouse than you give of yourself. Don't lose your sense of humor. Have fun with your spouse. Don't demean your spouse in public or in private. Learn to listen. Learn to hear. Learn to argue respectfully. Look for resolution rather than victory. Assess your own mistakes and acknowledge them. When you apologize, mean it, and sound like it. Be short on blame and long on forgiveness. Be willing to change your opinions and attitudes. Look at changes in your life as an opportunity to grow. Don't try to change your spouse; accept your spouse "as is."