Aging as a Couple: Will You Grow Together or Grow Apart?

Rear view of a mature couple dressed for cool weather with a dog walking between themI’m always happy when couples tell me they’ve been together for 30 or 40 years, even if they happen to be in my office because of a relationship issue. Like aging, relationship issues are inevitable. I like to talk with these enduring couples about what’s kept them going, kept them connected, and where they’ve struggled. I’ve learned that there are some issues that are common to long-term relationships. Some of these are related to life stages—the challenges of aging, changing, medical issues, and the like.

Growing Apart

When you’re young and newly married, it can seem like what you feel and think is going to be the way you’ll always feel and think. Then life happens—education, careers, kids. Time passes. Your focus changes and you concentrate more on outside things and less on your relationship. You get into a routine, devote your energy to simply getting done what needs done, and the playfulness and fun go out of your day-to-day interactions. You aren’t intimately connecting the way you used to.

Fast forward 10, 12, or 15 years. All of a sudden you see your life and your life partner differently. Your giddy young love has changed into something you don’t recognize. You feel isolated, walled off, and unsure how to reach out to your partner. You’re each living your own separate life despite sharing a home. You’ve grown apart.

Life Stages and Aging

Everyone handles different life stages in their own unique way. For some, aging is a breeze, even welcomed; for others, not so much. Our self-image and feelings about our bodies can change. Sexuality and our physical abilities change. Even our identity may change.

We don’t feel the same at 45 as we did at 25. At 65, we often wish we felt like we did at 45.

Many couples are unprepared for these changes, and if they’re not talked about, they can cause partners to begin to pull away from one another. Medical issues, menopause, and physical changes can also affect our interactions with a partner.

Keeping Your Connection

So how do we deal with the issues of aging, life stages, and time in a long-term relationship? How do we keep the closeness and connection we had at the beginning? Communication is crucial.

Many couples are unprepared for these changes, and if they’re not talked about, they can cause partners to begin to pull away from one another.

Stay close with your partner by talking as best friends and confidants. Share your worries and fears about the stages of life you’re entering. Open up with each other about how things are changing in your minds and bodies.

Talk about how your relationship is changing, too. Plan together. Take time to dream about what life will be like in the future. What you will do when the kids move out? Will you travel? Take a class together? Take up a new hobby?

Be curious about your partner’s feelings about the changes that come with aging. Adapt to your changing physicality and sexuality. Focus on one another, excluding outside influences, routines, and demands. Make it about your relationship. Be in it together.

Realize that your love has many facets and you need to stay on the same page in all of them. Be vulnerable, show your partner your authentic self, and determine to never give up on yourselves as a couple. Never lose sight of the friendship, kindness, companionship, and playfulness that has allowed you to be together all these years.

Changes are inevitable, but they don’t have to change your relationship for the worse. Consciously choose to move forward together, no matter what the future may hold.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW, therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mika

    Mika

    October 24th, 2016 at 8:07 AM

    Very different kind of love but we have definitely grown closer now that the kids are all out of the house!

  • Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    October 26th, 2016 at 8:19 AM

    Thank you for your comment Mika! It’s wonderful to hear how you’ve grown closer since your kids left home. This is a beautiful stage of life for you to spend together.

  • Babette

    Babette

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    The sad thing is the my mom and dad grew apart years and years ago but they always thought that it was best for us if they stayed together.

    PS it wasn’t- I think that all of us kids would have been much happier knowing that even if they were apart they were happier without each other.

  • Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    October 26th, 2016 at 8:25 AM

    It’s hard for kids to know that their parents aren’t happy Babette. You definitely feel the impact of the unhappy relationship and the distance between them. We know that with the right kind of counseling, it’s possible to re-connect and re-kindle that relationship even in the later stages of life when people have grown apart. Thank you for commenting.

  • Mercury

    Mercury

    February 17th, 2018 at 8:54 PM

    I stayed in a bad, unsupported relationship for decades. One son, now an adult, was emotionally damaged, the other son came through emotionally intact. Way too much time was spent trying to make a miserable situation better – years in fact. Get out if you can’t live in the relationship – the cost of staying may be much higher than you think.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    February 19th, 2018 at 7:30 AM

    I’m sorry to hear that your family had this outcome. Instead of staying in a bad relationship I would recommend that you get help to help restore the connection between you. I hope that your son is seeking therapy to help him reconcile his feelings about growing up in an unhappy household.

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    October 25th, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    It can be very important to discover your own interests outside of one another especially once you both retire and find that you have to spend a lot of time together that you might not be used to doing.

  • Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    October 26th, 2016 at 8:30 AM

    Yes Caroline, It is important to have your your own identity and interests and to be happy and fulfilled as a person. It’s also important to find ways to connect as a couple and make the most of the time you have together. It’s definitely an adjustment, and can also be an opportunity to make your relationship even better. Thank you for your comment.

  • Dorothy

    Dorothy

    October 26th, 2016 at 2:27 PM

    I love growing old with my husband and I am pretty sure that he would say the same about me, I hope! Look it might not be the can’t keep our hands off of each other kind of love that we once had, but there is such meaning and history behind the relationship that I would be lost without him. He is in every single way my soul mate and I am so proud that we have been able to share this life together.

  • marilyn

    marilyn

    October 27th, 2016 at 10:51 AM

    If you have been staying together for all the wrong reasons to begin with then when you start to get older and see the relationship a bit more clearly, see it for what it really is, you might find that there is a much greater division between the two of you than what you would have liked to see.

  • Locke

    Locke

    October 28th, 2016 at 11:46 AM

    If you are in it for the long term then you really did mean it when much of the better turns to the worse, but you know, you made that commitment and that is important to you so you will stick it out somehow.

  • marguerite

    marguerite

    October 29th, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    I had dreams of fulfilling all of my lifelong bucket list wishes with my husband but when he died suddenly early this year I felt like all of that was taken away from me. I know that these are things that I can still go and do but we had planned to do all of it together and now he is gone and it is too late.

  • Meredith

    Meredith

    October 30th, 2016 at 8:44 AM

    I feel very alone and isolated now that my children have all left home. I suppose that for so many years they were the glue holding the family together and now that they have gone it is like I have no real purpose in my life anymore. I would love it if my husband and I could reconnect since we now have nothing but time for one another but I don’t think that either of us is really all that interested in spending too much time with each other. We have grown apart and I recognize this but the how to fix it part is not coming very easily to either one of us.

  • Ananthi M

    Ananthi M

    March 1st, 2018 at 1:52 AM

    A harsh truth about relations, sometimes you feel it’s love but it is not and that’s the time when you start growing apart. In such situation it is better to tell the truth to your partner and avoid the falseness in love. When relationship start fading and you have no same interest. Every relationship goes through this phase. You stat feeling indifferent towards your partner.This happens in friendship and relationships.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    March 1st, 2018 at 12:39 PM

    Thank you for your comment Ananthi. It doesn’t have to be this way! Yes you do go through phases in life, and with effort from both partners your relationship can be close and connected. It doesn’t have to be the end. You can rebuild strong authentic connection with help from a qualified couples counselor. No one should live with the pain of feeling indifferent or unimportant to their partner whom they love.

  • Deborah S.

    Deborah S.

    April 26th, 2018 at 7:11 AM

    Thank you for this article! My husband and I have felt the loss of the relationship we once had when we were newly married and even when our children were small. We have been through exactly the changes you described – reading your article, I felt a sense of relief that these changes and feelings are actually fairly normal! I now feel more motivated to accept the place where I am ( after 50, post-menopausal, more health changes etc. and work on reconnecting with more date nights, perhaps a vacation, etc.). Thank you!

  • Kay

    Kay

    May 2nd, 2018 at 8:12 AM

    I am constantly hearing how couples just grow apart and end their marriage. I also hear how people were thankful their parents (who fought all the time) would get divorced. I believe if people could seek treatment/counseling even if they have to separate for a little while, I hope they can both put the effort in to working on their marriage and saving their family. Even if one person is stronger in the relationship on fighting for their marriage. The Love Dare book is a miracle book for marriages and Marriage Helper with Dr. Joe Beam are also very helpful resources but this article is perfect to show that those couples that do put in the work and keep their marriage a top priority can overcome the odds in today’s society.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    May 2nd, 2018 at 8:36 AM

    Yes Kay! That is my message and the goal of my work is to show couples that doing the work on your emotional connection is what enables you to stay happily together in later years. Building on the foundation of love, respect and always making each other priority. Feeling loved and important in each other’s lives. Thank you for your comment.

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