How do you keep a relationship strong in the face of common midlife shake-ups? Changes like an empty nest, aging parents needing help, adult kids boomeranging back home, and financial strains can bring couples closer – or not. A strong relationship in midlife and beyond buffers stress, research shows. But it takes more than the clichéd weekly “date nights” to keep romance stoked, experts say.
Some surprising happiness sustainers:
Research shows: Most people know to expect that the obsessive, passionate love of the start of a relationship eventually fades. But they often mistakenly assume that its natural replacement is a happy, but not very romantic, “companionate” love, says Bianca Acevedo, a social neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Instead, her research shows that long-term romantic love – defined by intensity, sexual interest, and engagement with one another – is very real for up to 40 percent of long-wed pairs. (Only the obsession part of early love fades, replaced by feelings of deep security and calm.)
Real-life action step: Aim high – and focus on the bright side. “One of the most important things associated with the sustaining of love over time is thinking positive thoughts about your partner,” Acevedo says. What she recommends: Let go of minor transgressions. See your partner in his or her best light. Look for humor. Celebrate one another in large and small ways. And don’t feel silly or apologetic about feeling crazy about your partner even after all these years.
Research shows: “Concern for one another’s health is a common theme among couples that have been successfully married for a long time,” says St. Louis marriage expert Charles Schmitz, who’s interviewed thousands of couples worldwide who’ve been happily married for more than 30 years. Making a ritual out of checkups, lab work, cooking healthy meals together, and other health efforts demonstrate deep support for each other. Schmitz and his wife of 46 years, Elizabeth, coauthors of Building a Love That Lasts, schedule their physicals for the same day each year, for example.
Real-life action step: Get a medication review to find out if you’re taking drugs you don’t really need. SSRI-type antidepressants are linked to sexual dysfunction in 40 to 70 percent of patients. Antidepressants are taken by one in ten adults – and by almost one in four women in their 40s and 50s (the highest group) and by 18 percent of women older than 60. Yet fewer than a third of all those on antidepressants have seen a doctor in the past year, according to a National Center for Health Statistics report. Another reason for checkups: Certain health conditions (like heart disease for men can impact quality of life or intimacy, without your fully realizing the connection, doctors say.
Research shows: While it’s natural over time to establish your mutual favorites – hobbies, meals, positions, vacation spots – routine can be a romance-snuffer. Mixing it up makes your brain keep falling in love with your partner. “Activation of the brain’s reward system is associated with novelty,” social neuroscientist Bianca Acevedo says. In an MRI machine, happily long-wed couples’ brains lit up just as much as new couples’ with dopamine. That’s the chemical that’s also released in response to pleasurable addictions like nicotine, cocaine, and chocolate cravings. Regardless of how long they’ve been together, these couples found ways to engage often in fresh, fun activities, she says.
Real-life action step: Try wine tastings, wine pairings, and tours of the wine country. A surprising 2012 study from New Zealand’s University of Otago found that couples that shared a bottle of wine at least once a week were happiest. Couples with at least one heavy drinker or one teetotaler were least happy.
Research shows: Frequent cuddles and kisses were linked to greater marital satisfaction in men ages 40 to 70 who had been with their partners for an average of 25 years, according to a multinational study of 1,000 couples done by the Kinsey Institute in 2011. Both men and women surveyed were happier the longer they’d been together and the more they had sex.
Research by Arthur Aron at State University of New York at Stony Brook also shows that long-married couples that are intensely in love have above-average amounts of sex – though it’s unclear if this is a cause or an effect of their affection.
Real-life action step: Reach out and touch. Physical intimacy, including holding hands, caressing, and kissing hello and good-bye, builds better relationships, says Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. Equally important, researchers say: open communication about sexual needs. A 2011 Australian study of couples together ten years or more found that more than half of men said they weren’t having enough sex; 42 percent of women were also unhappy with sexual frequency – not enough for two-thirds and too much for one-third.
Research shows: A lifestyle stressor like the empty nest or a parent or adult child moving in can feel like the proverbial last straw in a challenged marriage. Suffering silently has a toll: The stress of a strained relationship has been linked to a compromised immune system and depression. Unhappy wives, especially, are more likely to be overweight, have high blood pressure, and show signs of metabolic syndrome, a 2009 University of Utah study showed.
Real-life action step: Reevaluate your marriage every five years or so. Taking stock of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” and identifying goals keeps you on the same page, marriage expert Charles Schmitz says. If you feel stuck or are drifting apart, “don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help from a trained therapist – your marriage is worth it and you should do what you can to get help,” he says. At the same time, these evaluative processes may lead you to feel that your health and happiness outweigh your commitment. Schmitz notes, “Some marriages shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
Ultimately, being married a long time isn’t the real prize – being happily married is.