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Marriage Issues for Seniors

By Ann Smutylo, M.S.W., R.S.W.

Many of us are caregivers for our parents and senior relatives.  And many of us are seniors ourselves, facing retirement, and the later stages of our lives.  If we are fortunate to have our spouse at our side, there are still marriage issues that arise, that we need to understand and manage, whether it is regarding our parents’ marriage or our own.

Marriage is a journey, one of the most complex and rewarding of human journeys.  Survive a marriage through the various developmental stages and you think you can coast into years of harmonious bliss.  But life never fails to keep us on our toes and keep us interested.

In past generations, many things were taken for granted, such as gender roles and the very permanence of the marriage.  Today, when so many marriages end in divorce, experts have tried to analyze and understand the dynamics of marriage and relationships, in order to help couples.

In the initial “honeymoon phase” of marriage, we focus on our similarities, often savouring our partner’s differences as endearing.  However, the “settling in phase” or “power struggle phase” of marriage follows, which highlights these differences.  Our differences are obvious when we are making decisions about life together: when and how often do we see our families; how do we deal with conflict; when is the right time to have children; how do we raise them; how involved should the extended family be; how do we work out the balance of power and the roles we play; how do we resolve our differences.  By the time the more mature “reconciliation” or “acceptance phase” is reached, the partners acknowledge the other as a unique individual, with strengths and limitations.  Now differences in interests can enhance the relationship without threatening the love for each other.  With self-knowledge and appreciation of the other, and with experience in solving problems and making decisions together, conflict can be handled in a less threatening way.

The Journey Continues….

As we get into the senior years, and indeed enjoy longer lives than our forbearers, the challenges of marriage can change.  It may be that the roles have reversed due to illness or due to the fact that you have remarried after losing a spouse.  Stresses and strains can come from unexpected areas.  Some examples may serve to illustrate.

  • Mr. Jones has become the main caregiver of his wife since her health problems began last year.  He did little housework or cooking during their marriage, so he has taken over all the household responsibilities, feeling he owes it to his wife who has looked after him.  He is a hardworking man with an independent spirit; asking for help would mean that he is not capable.
  • Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith married 15 years ago, the second marriage for both, after being widowed.  Mrs. Smith is caring for her husband since his health problems started, but is having little cooperation from his children from the first marriage.  They make decision without consulting with her and criticize many things she does.  This is affecting the quality of care she can provide because she needs their help and support.

What to do to Make it Work…..

You may recognize these scenarios, or have some others in mind.  Many people feel alone and isolated and are not aware that there are helpful options available.  It is still necessary to pay attention to the quality of the marriage, and to the comfort and enjoyment each person can give to the other.  Getting the help needed to do this is possible.  Try to use resources and ideas to keep the stress from your relationship, to smooth out the bumps and sharp turns along the journey.  The valuable emotional marital support is what you and your spouse can offer each other.  This is something you have worked hard to attain over the years, and something unique to the two of you.

For more information, or to refer a client (patient), please contact us.

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