Studies indicate that well-being and satisfaction, on average, declines over time. In other words, being married doesn’t guarantee a happy life.
Except, we also witness a trend where some report their marriages dramatically improve over the years.
What is their secret?
The pathway to marital happiness in retirement uncovers the steps these select few have discovered.
Why Does Marriage Happiness Decline?
Living happily ever after is the desire of every newly wed couple. However, for many the “blush is off the rose” within several years.
Differences bubble to the surface, arguments erupt, and married life isn't as rosy as either partner expected.
Why is this?
Think of it a bit like a minefield. Any misstep and you could lose a leg, hypothetically speaking.
New couples are still learning and realizing love does not necessarily conquer all.
In fact, those early years can be the most difficult. Sadly, about 40-50% of marriages in the US end in divorce.
According to the US Census Bureau, the average marriage ends within eight years. Subsequent marriages have an even higher probability of failure.
There’s lots of reasons for these dismal statistics. The greatest factor might be we expect much more than previous generations.
We’re unwilling to settle for an unhappy union. Obviously, divorce has become so common place there is little social stigma associated with it.
Having stated that, why does marriage satisfaction and fulfillment decline over time?
The cumulative impact is depicted in the graph below from Reported Marital Happiness Over Time .
There are a vast array of forces pulling at each partner. These might include career choices, family obligations, circle of friends, purchasing a home, and having children.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Remember this is an overall average.
While the average marriage worsens, those who proactively work at it report satisfaction and fulfillment are higher than ever before!
What Happens in Retirement?
Mostly nothing, as most couples will continue to do whatever they have always done. By that I mean their interactions won’t significantly change from their pre-retirement behavior.
The only difference is now they have lots more time together. For some, it’ll be almost 24/7!
This is the perfect opportunity to patch up any unresolved issues and rekindle the passion.
We've Only Just Begun
“We’ve only just begun” also reflects entering an entirely new stage of life.
Most of us will likely be around for the next 20-30 years. Life expectancy has risen over the past decades.
Will these be the best years of your life?
The Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Think of two settlements separated by a deep chasm.
The first camp (Base Camp) is inhabited by all the typical average married folk. Marital happiness has gradually declined over the years and they’ve come to accept it for what it is.
They’re not about to “rock the boat” (that would be a great song title) holding onto their sense of comfort and security.
There’re probably a few unresolved issues, but it’s safer to ignore them and avoid risking aggravating old wounds.
In most cases, they’re still very much in love with their partner. In many respects, there’s similarities with how their parent's marriage was.
The second camp (Happy Camp) contains couples who have worked at their marriages to achieve a deeper bond and gain greater fulfillment.
It hasn’t been easy. It has required complete openness, honesty, and commitment to their partnership.
For our analogy, visualize a shaky and somewhat dangerous rope bridge over the chasm connecting the two settlements.
This is the path to marriage satisfaction and fulfillment.
Related Post: The 7 Most Common Marriage Problems After Retirement
Forever and Ever, Amen
I love this video - Forever and Ever Amen. I hope you do as well, it really strikes a chord for me (my apologies, that last part sounds cheesy).
Marriage, family, and friendships truly are the things we should never take for granted. The institution of marriage requires a different orientation than most of us are used to.
This means considering what is best for “us” as opposed to best for me. I try to remind myself of this each day.
Why do we Struggle with This?
Should be easy, yet why do so many couples get stuck? And, it might feel like an uphill battle getting things moving.
One reason is most of us resist change, even when its for the better. They prefer to keep things exactly as they are, which sometimes makes no sense.
Until something becomes a “problem”, human nature is to focus on everything else that seems more important.
Don’t assume your partner is going to leap for joy when you first mention improving your relationship!
Their first reaction could be somewhat defensive. Most of us subscribe to the theory that if it isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it.
No one likes to think their marriage is broken or needs improvement. In fact, your spouse might believe everything is going great!
They’re likely firmly entrenched in Base Camp and oblivious to the need for change. They might feel threatened or dismiss it as a waste of time and energy.
Related Post: Will Your Marriage Survive Retirement? Or Not?
We're Here for a Good Time (Not a Long Time)
While this heading is open to interpretation, my thought is we have but one “kick at the can”, so to speak. Life is too short and we need to use our time wisely.
We have the free choice to be happy or resign ourselves to whatever has been thrown our way.
What I’m trying to express is that a boring humdrum retirement is not what we signed up for. We all crave excitement and need to share fun times with our partner.
This means doing things together and creating those special memories, while we still can.
Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?
Yeah, we all have a few more wrinkles and grey hair. This is the person you fell in love all those years ago. Their inner beauty radiates through when we gaze into their eyes.
You’ve probably heard people state that their spouse is their “best friend”. While that’s a good thing, there also needs to be a deeper passion.
Or is being glorified roommates enough? That is why special moments together are vital to keep the love alive.
This is time just for the two of you, as opposed to family or other social obligations. It can be romantic and intimate or sharing a new experience such as exploring someplace new.
Meet in the Middle
Another great video and when you think about it, life really is about compromise. We can’t have everything we want and sometimes need to focus on what really is important to each of us.
That also applies with your significant other. Somehow, finding that balance ensures both of your needs are met. Together you’re stronger than either of you are individually. Each partner brings unique perspectives and strengths to the table.
The couples in Happy Camp have found the way to maintain a win-win orientation. For instance, my wife Debbie has always dreamed of, one day, seeing Greece. It’s very important to her.
For myself, I backpacked through Europe for 6 months in my 20’s. Since then, I’ve been back to the Mediterranean area twice. To be completely candid, I’d prefer going elsewhere. I’ve never been to Australia or New Zealand.
Her happiness in this matter is more important to me. Now if this pandemic would just go away, we could start planning the trip of a lifetime for her!
Don't Stop Believin'
Never stop believing and improving. Communication is key and the one most effective way to deepen our bond.
What You Really Say
You may not even be aware of what you really say! Sure, we all utter words and think we are clearly understood. What is interpreted may be quite different from our intent.
For instance, words such as “you never… or you always…” can immediately trigger defensiveness.
Instead, consider expressing yourself with “I feel hurt when…”, and clearly state what is bothering you.
Also understand body language and tone play a big role in how our words are received.
What You Really Hear
As mentioned above, what we say can easily be misconstrued by the words used and the delivery. This is further compounded by selective listening.
Seldom do we fully listen to what is being expressed.
Instead, we jump to conclusions and begin formulating our response before the other person has even finished speaking!
Effective listening requires understanding the intent of what someone is saying and asking clarifying questions as appropriate.
How Often and What is Discussed
Those partners in Happy Camp have many more meaningful conversations. Not only do they value each other’s insights, they delve deep into topics that concern them.
Together, they celebrate the good and address any challenges.
In contrast, other couples might exchange pleasantries in the morning and perhaps a few comments over the six o’clock news.
Mostly superficial small talk or complaining about all that’s wrong in the world.
Closing Thoughts on Marital Happiness in Retirement
Base Camp is overcrowded and dreary. Perhaps you’re contemplating an upgrade, after all you still have a long life ahead of you.
Congratulations if you’re already a resident of Happy Camp (we really should give it a better name).
The pathway to having a happy and fulfilled marriage leads you to where the sun shines more and the rain re-invigorates.
Remember, the journey begins with a single step. As long as you keep moving forward, no matter the pace, you will arrive at your destination.
I also want to acknowledge my lovely wife who has provided many insights helping me express these thoughts.