Conflicts in Older Couples May be Signs of Cognitive Impairment

Couples who have been married for decades seem to know the secret to successful relationships. But when couples bicker and fight after years of being together, is it a sign of an unhappy relationship or cognitive decline? According to a recent article, children and caregivers of couples who exhibit tension and anger may merely be witnessing what has always been there, just with different eyes. When children reach adulthood and enter into their own relationships, they may begin to view their parents’ relationship with different, often more critical, eyes. This could shed new light on not-so-subtle patterns between their parents that have always existed.

But when fighting, arguing, or hostility are new behaviors, they may signify a deeper problem. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an insidious, subtle offender that creeps up on people. Individuals who begin to forget things, or become overwhelmed by things that used to come easily, may hide their impairment from those closest to them out of fear and shame. When a wife who used to be able to tackle all the household chores suddenly stops doing them, her husband may think she is being lazy. Likewise, when a husband who used to enjoy socializing becomes reclusive, his wife may respond with anger and hurt. These mixed signals can increase hostility and tension in the relationship.

Other indications are suspicion and jealousy. Delusions of infidelity or callousness can cause someone to become accusatory of their spouse. This can lead to resentment. And even though they may be unfounded, they set the stage for anger and conflict. The same can happen with physical health declines. Many illnesses can decrease sexual arousal and stifle sexual intimacy. Without that type of connection, couples can become emotionally and physically distant. Dr. Nancy K. Scholssberg, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, knows that even though fighting isn’t the answer to the fear or uncertainty that accompanies illness, it is often the most commonly used coping strategy. “Fighting may come from a misguided notion that you can regain power by asserting it over your spouse,” said Schlossberg. “It doesn’t work, it’s false power – but they’ll [spouses] try anything.” Add to that the stress of caring for an ailing spouse, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Even though MCI may not be to blame for the battles in most relationships, it is especially important for clinicians to explore this possibility when working with older couples.

Seliger, Susan. In the middle: Why elderly couples fight. (n.d.): n. pag. The New York Times. 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 30 Dec. 2012.

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  • tommie anne

    January 11th, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    I am guessing that in most of these cases with older couples, they have kinda stopped trying so hard to impress the other person- they don’t feel like they have to do that anymore. So they kind of let down their guard a little and start acting like they have always wanted to act and say the things that they have always wanted to say. I know that as my own marriage has gone on I think that both of us are more and more willing to really speak our minds and say what we feel. It’s not like we are going to leave each other at age 70 for a divorce!

  • Naomi L

    January 11th, 2013 at 11:49 PM

    This can be prevented if each partner believes in being completely transparent to the will then not force them to lean on fighting as a coping strategy..a relationship that was cared for for so long should not be subjected to bitter experiences In the latter years.

  • Mason

    January 12th, 2013 at 4:19 AM

    Good grief we all argue or disagree from time to time, so that means we have to have something going on that makes us mental?

  • Shannon

    December 10th, 2020 at 6:31 PM

    I have witnessed many elderly couples bicker and ‘bite’ at each other. Some is absolutely to be expected as decades together gives you insight into what your spouse or partner can and can’t handle. And as humans we are always pushing boundaries.
    But something has happened with a couple who is like family to me lately. Almost fifty years together and they are almost unrecognizable. Something apparently occurred about fifteen years ago – not between them but within their life. It has gotten worse since then and they can barely get through a conversation now and neither has any clue how to deal with it. They have grown so far apart and it is so painful to watch. Please don’t discount that things can and do happen to people of ALL ages that can change lives.

  • hellbender

    October 5th, 2022 at 12:29 AM

    The comment is naive and one with little or no experience or thoughtfulness. The issue is far too complex to explain even in a short article. I suggest you do yourself some justice and explore more about the dynamics of this issue in-depth. It may just help to enlighten your mind so that later when you are less likely to comprehend even the simple logistic in your old age, you can avoid generating grief to the ones you actually love . . . assuming your are still cognitive to understand what is going on around you.

  • Lynn

    December 15th, 2023 at 12:00 PM

    I am taking a different route on this discussion. Back in the olden days people did not live as long as we do now. They died in their thirties and forties, so many couples did not have much time together as married couples. It’s different now because you see people married over fifties years and on up to being still married for seventy some years. Have you heard of “gray divorce”. Older couples are divorcing at higher rates. Maybe we are living to long now and couples just get tired of one another. Familiarity breeds contempt. To much time together. Just a thought.

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