Growing Older Together: Couples and Ageing

” People change and forget to tell each other.” said the American dramatist, Lillian Helman.

Relationships in ageing are hugely important for good physical and mental health. But what do we know about what is needed to grow old together in a relationship that serves the changing needs of both partners? I’ve been rummaging on research websites about Gerontology (the study of ageing) for current findings about relationships and ageing.  Over the next few weeks we’ll bring you various articles about growing older (50 plus!) and the changing shape of relationships.

In my scan of current research this is what we know about couples and ageing …..

Change in later life

People continue to change after 50 and the stereotype of the ” set in their ways” older person is outdated and inaccurate. Why? We are living longer, working longer and social media and other technologies are keeping us connected and information rich.  Our kids are having their families later in life and we are healthier. We are also living as older people in a youth worshiping culture and ” not looking your age” (whatever that means) props up many beauty and skincare companies.

Change takes work. Change in couples takes even more work. As Helmann says ” people forget to tell each other.” This underlines what research proves- we work hard to make our older bodies agile, adaptive, healthy and nurtured and our relationships deserve the same attention to make them fit for purpose in the long haul.

We know that deep conversation and especially listening are the foundations of healthy relationships. Reinvention and reshaping relationships to make them agile and adaptive, secures their future. What are these conversations about?  Creating a vision together, having a stock-take of what works and what doesn’t… not a battering ram of complaints without solutions but a real conversations about issues and ideas not personal defects.

The most basic question are – How are we changing individually? How do we need to change together?

Dissatisfaction with relationships in older age

There is another stereotype that can be debunked. The older man with convertible and younger woman on his arm is the Hollywood story and certainly exists. However, most divorces after age 50 are initiated by women (65% in USA in 2017) because they there dissatisfied with the idea of spending their later years in the relationship.They report feeling ” stuck”, lonely in the marriage or unfulfilled. Interviewees talked of ” time running out” and ” finally knowing who I am and wanting to explore this.”

Cohabitation or Separate Dwellings?

There is a large and rapidly growing trend for older people to be in long term relationships in separate houses. They like their own space and the way they have created their home but also enjoy being the significant person in their partner’s life. These relationships are monogamous and committed but without the blending of financial assets and with separate dwellings.  (Karlsson & Espvall, 2017)

Illness can improve spousal quality

That’s right. Research from the US Gerontological Society (Yorgason & Choi))  has shown that in adversity people are united. If one partner is ill the other tends to rally or run! In 87% cases the caring partner will stay and support their spouse. (That’s actually lower than I imagined.) The relationship tends to be strengthened by illness as the insignificant falls away. Having said that, women are still the main caregivers in relationships and are more at risk of the negative effects of caregiving- burnout, stress, heart problems. (Monin, 2016)

Overdone Positives

Ok, this is an interesting one. Relationships have both positive and negative aspects. One person is very attentive. The other is very good at organising things eg holidays. One is very good at managing finances. These positives can be overdone so they become controls, restrictions and have a negative effect on the relationship. The over- caring becomes intrusive and the financial specialism means the other partner loses any knowledge of the couple’s financial situation. Moderating these positives is managed through conversation and frequent review of how the relationship is travelling.

Control and Affiliation

Research has found that even in 2019 women report affiliation (communication, connection) as most important in a relationship. Men report control is more important. Men tend to benefit from marriage more than women and women are more distressed by marital problems. (Zhang et al, 2017) The other finding is that women will stay in the marriage but ” live apart” from their spouse emotionally to try and  maintain control in relationships.

Aligned health behaviours matter

As we age health is more of a concern. We know relationships are happier and resilient when partners agree on basic health issues- activity, diet, smoking, alcohol etc. Couples who agree and act on a set of healthy behaviours and levels of activity are more likely to cope with change and be happy with each other.

So there we have it- some research insights on couples growing older together. Research is drawn from The Gerontologist, 2017.

What do you think about these findings? Do they ring true to your observations? Leave a comment below. Thank -you!

Next week we look at living solo in our later years.

9 August 2019 | Living Well


  1. An excellent article that offers much to reflect on. Long term relationships that survive the storms of journeying together allowing the couples to enjoy sharing the sunshine of later years leaves me with admiration. Please keep these articles coming. I am also enjoying reading the research from which some of the information was taken. Inge

    1. Thanks Inge..this series on relationships and ageing has been a winner and an important conversation for our community. We really appreciate your comment.

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