There’s been a lot of talk lately about the explosion of older single folks, the dating apps geared towards all of those single foxes who are ready to get back out there, and the sex scene at retirement communities… And maybe amid all of that scintillating talk, we’re forgetting to talk about the other half of the older adult population: those who are still married, and thinking about the future of their relationship as they continue to age. Is it possible that we think talking about solid, long-term relationships is somehow boring? Or that we don’t need to talk about them because they’re obviously OK as they are?
But that kind of thinking could be problematic: thinking of long-term relationships as “boring” or “OK as they are” might lead to a later life that’s not as satisfying as you might like. After all, no matter how in love you and your lifelong soulmate are, after a few decades, things can start to feel “boring” and “just ok.” But don’t worry: that just means you need to keep working on your relationship, so your marriage can stay strong until death do you part.
Navigating the Perils of a Long-Term Relationship
There’s a song that tells us “One is the loneliest number,” but there’s a danger that, as you grow older, two could actually become the loneliest number. In fact, according to research published in The Journals of Gerontology, between 1 in 4 and 5 older adults who are married “exhibit moderate or strong emotional or social loneliness.”
That eye-opening stat, coupled with the fact that divorce among older adults has doubled in the last few decades, shows that, to put it in simple terms, sustaining a long marriage is hard. And, ironically, part of that difficulty is that we don’t always recognize how hard it is. In other words, it can become easy to take your partner for granted, to not really see them anymore, or not recognize the changes in them as the years go by. It can be easy to let all of those little caring behaviors you were so careful to preserve in the earlier days of your marriage fall by the wayside, leaving your marriage vulnerable, and leaving two people in danger of living out their golden years feeling lonely.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! If you have a marriage that’s worth working for, then all that hard work we’re talking about is worth it, right? And, OK, maybe “hard work” sounds a little off-putting and not so fun. Don’t worry – the things we’re talking about are meant to strengthen your bond with the partner you’ve loved for so long, and rekindle a spark, and that can (and should) be enjoyable!
So how to get back on – and stay on – track? There are two keys: maintaining healthy relationship habits and finding ways to rekindle the spark.
Social scientists have found that practicing certain principles found in lasting marriages can help protect your relationship. These include:
Treating each other as friends
You overlook those little irritating qualities that your best friends have, right? And you don’t “keep score” with them, or feel like you’re sacrificing in your relationships with them, right? And you have fun together, laugh together, and share with each other, right? Well, remember all this in your life with your partner, who you should count among your best friends.
It’s not that couples with healthy relationships don’t argue – on the contrary! It might be a worse sign if you don’t give your partner a piece of your mind, you just need to know how to do it the right way. That means knowing how to discuss differences fully and honestly, and definitely NOT demeaning your partner when you disagree. In the best case, at the end of an argument, you should actually feel a stronger and closer bond than you did before you started, which means your arguing style is helping you build a better relationship.
Being vulnerable with each other
It’s never easy to be completely vulnerable with someone, even your partner, but according to psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, “Maintaining healthy communication means being vulnerable, honest, and understanding with your partner. Closing any distance that has been created because of communication gaps makes for a better spouse.”
Being emotionally present
You can be constantly physically present with your partner (hello, retirement!), but that doesn’t mean you’re emotionally present, so make sure you’re actually paying attention to your partner and not just in the same room as them.
Accepting the challenges that come with aging – together
There’s no getting around it: you will both age, and with aging comes physical challenges, as well as new phases of your life. You both have to be ready to face whatever is coming ahead, and be willing to discuss the future. Not only that, but you have to make each other feel that you will be there for each other, no matter what.
Staying physically connected
All of the emotional stuff is super important, but don’t forget about the sexy part of your relationship! Couples who still regularly kiss, touch, and have sex tend to have stronger relationships, so even though your sexual relationship might not look exactly the same as it did when you were younger, it’s important to work on keeping the eroticism in your marriage.
No, we’re not repeating the above section (as important as sex is!), we mean literally sleep together. Go to bed at the same time, in the same place, whenever you can. Sleeping in the same place not only increases your physical connection, but your emotional one, as well. And if you’re on totally different sleep schedules, you’ll find that you’re missing out on moments of intimacy that go beyond sex.
Rekindling the Spark
So the above are just some of the habits you can try to incorporate into your marriage to help keep it strong as you age, but don’t forget to also take the time to think about what makes your marriage feel healthiest – what are your secrets to making it this long?
And while you’re thinking about the deep stuff that makes a relationship keep ticking for years and years, you can also try some things in the here and now that can rekindle the spark, and keep you having fun together – because a relationship shouldn’t be all seriousness!
Find new things to do together
With the internet, you’ve got never-ending ideas for new things to do with your partner, literally at your fingertips, so let your fingers do the walking! Look for activities, classes for learning things you’ve always been interested in, museums you’ve never been to, community events, whatever floats your boat (hey, you can take your honey on a boat ride!). One way to make choosing a new activity more fun? You can each put ideas in a jar, and when you need to spend some quality time together, and up the fun factor in your relationship, pull one out and give it a try!
Spend time apart
We know we just said you should spend time together, but you also need to give each other some space! So while it might sound counterintuitive, it’s healthy for your relationship to plan activities separate from each other – after all, absence makes the heart grow fonder! Ask yourself: ideally, how much alone time do I need? How much time with friends? And how much time with my partner? Then, discuss it with your partner and plan accordingly. Not only will you be re-energized and more excited to be in each other’s presence again, but you’ll also have new things to talk about.
Schedule in some sexy time
Yes, we said schedule! Maybe you think planning sex takes all the, well, sexiness out of it, but we’re here to say, it’s better for a relationship to have scheduled sex than no sex at all. And it doesn’t have to be just another thing on your to-do list; it can be something you both anticipate and hint at, hopefully heightening the excitement. And if the lack of sex in your relationship is due to physical issues, put talking to your doctor about it on your to-do list, as well!
Vary the sexy time
To keep with the sex theme, if you’re already having regular sex, or are looking to make getting back into it more enticing, try mixing it up with different types of sexual encounters. For example, you can go for romantic sex (dress up, have a candlelit dinner, splurge on a fancy hotel), newlywed sex (surprise each other with something and recapture the early days of your sexual relationship), relaxed sex (laze around all day and take your time!), etc.
And remember: goal-oriented, penis-in-vagina sex might not always be the most appealing thing these days, and it’s absolutely NOT the only thing you can do! In fact, it might really spice things up to simply lay down with each other and touch and explore.
Focus on the little things
You might feel like you need to perform some grand gestures to keep things going, but that’s not necessarily true (and it’s not sustainable). Grand gestures are great, and you’re welcome to perform any that you can think of, but more important is that you remember to do the little things. Say “I love you,” smile when you see each other, give compliments – but also go beyond the verbal. Touch each other whenever you can (hey, even if you have to pull out the old yawn move at the movie theater!) It’s scientifically proven that this will increase the energy between you: according to Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together, “An actual electrical connection passes between us when we touch. Neurology research shows that your brain ‘lights up’ when you look at someone you love.”
Sure, marriage is work – but it’s fulfilling, enjoyable, and important work, work that will keep your life that much more satisfying as you age. And hey, anything worth having is never really all that easy, right? Just put into it what you want to get out of it, and you’ll both have someone to grow old with.