What is a challenge that most couples face
The mid-adult marital relationship
What developments and trends characterize middle-aged couples?
Long-term partnerships in middle adulthood - a new historical phenomenon
Dealing with long-term partnerships in middle adulthood is of particular interest, as these represent a historically new phenomenon. With average life expectancy doubling in the last 100 years, marriages are also lasting longer on average - despite the simultaneous increase in divorces. Those who married in 1870 could expect an average of 28.2 years of marriage. The marriage of a couple who got married in 1970 will last an average of 43 years. For middle-aged couples, this means that on average they still have another 25 years ahead of them and are faced with the task of shaping this time together.
The preoccupation with partnerships in middle adulthood is especially important because many longitudinal studies have shown that this phase of life is crucial for coping with the later years of life. The frequently encountered continuity of action and coping strategies indicates that the well-being and behavior of future older people will be shaped to a large extent by circumstances and life prospects in middle age.
Middle-aged people - a relatively and absolutely large group in our population
As a result of the reduced birth rate in the 20th century, the middle-aged population is a relatively large group compared to the other age groups. Because they belong to the post-war cohorts with high birth rates (“baby boom generation”), they also have a large number in terms of numbers in the population. For the majority of these people, being married is the preferred way of life: around three quarters of these people are married.
More of a traditional start to marriage - relatively low age at marriage and early birth of the first child
The people who are now in middle adulthood entered the “marriageable” age in a phase that was (still) socially characterized by a strong family orientation and was referred to as the “golden age of the family”. It is therefore characteristic of middle-aged people today that they usually got married relatively early. For example, every second woman born in 1950 at the age of just under 22 had a marriage. This relatively early marriage was usually followed by the birth of the first child relatively quickly. This and the coexistence before marriage, which was still little common at the time, meant that the partners often had little time to practice in a partnership without children.
Post-parental companionship as a new phase in the partnership - missing role models and experiences
When the children have moved out and the couple now enters the so-called phase of postparental companionship, the task at hand is to redesign the partnership and adapt it to the changed framework conditions. The group of people living in middle age has historically and socially relatively few role models for shaping this phase of life, which after all comprises around half of the joint married life.
Increase in divorces after the silver wedding anniversary - increasing endangerment of long-term partnerships
The above-average increase in divorces after the silver wedding anniversary shows that this adjustment sometimes leads to insurmountable difficulties. Meanwhile, in 9% of all divorces, marriages with a duration of 26 years or more are affected.
What about satisfaction among middle-aged couples?
Changes in marital satisfaction over the life span - dependent on changes in the family cycle
A closer look at long-term partnerships in middle age shows that the simple conclusion from the stability of a relationship to its quality and marital satisfaction is not tenable. The partnership satisfaction will usually result in a certain stability; however, the reverse is not possible.
Even with long-term relationships that have been stable over the course of one's life, satisfaction is subject to considerable fluctuations. Studies on the course of long-term partnerships reveal three different groups of findings: One group assumes a continuous deterioration in the quality of the relationship. Others assume a more static course of marital quality on either a high, medium or low level. Further studies show a U-shaped relationship between the duration or stage in the family cycle and marital satisfaction. They describe a high level of marital satisfaction after marriage and notice a decline after the birth of the children as well as in the phase of caring for younger and adolescent children. However, there are fewer divorces at this stage as the cost of separation is particularly high. Often the end of this phase and an improvement in marital quality after the children have moved out are also hoped for. After the parenting duties have ended, one expects greater freedom and more time for the partnership. According to this approach, satisfaction with the partnership increases again after the children move out.
Predominantly satisfaction with marriage in middle age - but also potential for danger
The results of international and national studies - such as the interdisciplinary longitudinal study of adulthood (ILSE) - show that a large proportion, i.e. approx. 60-70% of middle-aged couples, are satisfied with their marriage. However, this initially optimistic news also means that 30-40% experience their marriage as ambivalent, dissatisfied, and struggling with difficulties and problems.
Differences and similarities between men and women - different importance of different partnership areas for satisfaction
According to available studies, it is unclear whether there are differences between men and women in terms of marital satisfaction. When asked about satisfaction with marriage in general, there are often no or only minor differences between the sexes. However, when asked about various aspects of satisfaction, it turns out that women are more dissatisfied with communication, sexuality and support in marriage. Dissatisfaction with these areas of the partnership seems to increase particularly when the partnership is perceived as more stressful. This seems to be because women deal more with relationship problems and express more emotions, while men are less aware of problems or often avoid them.
What challenges do middle-aged couples face?
Although little attention is paid in everyday life and in science, significant development processes and shifts in life perspectives also take place in middle age. Understanding partnerships in middle adulthood is therefore made easier by knowing about upcoming transitions, changes and tasks. As known from life course research, this can be accompanied by uncertainty, abandoning old roles and dealing with new roles and new self-images. These transitions and changes can, depending on the physical, psychological and social resources available to the individual or the couple, mean challenges with new opportunities in the positive case. In the negative case, however, problems and crises that are difficult to cope with can result.
Balance sheet and further perspectives - look back and look ahead
When you reach mid-life, your time orientation also changes. While up to now we have thought in terms of years since birth, now the focus is more on the years that remain to be lived. This very often leads to an assessment of what has been achieved so far in a wide variety of areas. Questions like "What did I actually want to achieve in my life?" , “What ideas did we actually have when we started this marriage together? What have we achieved from it? " or "How should we go on now?" pose and demand an answer. What has been achieved so far and what has not been achieved so far become visible in their significance against the background of gradually narrowing professional, family, partnership and physical possibilities. Unachieved goals and missed opportunities may push for their realization.
Studies on the change in personality over the life span show that men and women in younger adulthood are more likely to be characterized by a strong masculine or feminine gender role orientation. In the middle of life, men then begin to increasingly discover and act out their feminine characteristics such as sensitivity, tenderness, a sense of community and passivity. Women discover their more masculine sides, are more likely to assert themselves, become more power and self-confident. This change in gender role orientation opens up opportunities for new developments on the one hand, but can also be associated with problems in the partnership if this process is not synchronized, since the partner no longer corresponds to previous ideas in appearance and behavior.
The move out of the children - the couple in the “empty nest”
Another important turning point for middle-aged couples is the departure of the children and their processing. With regard to the question of the extent to which the departure of the children (the “empty nest”) is perceived as a critical turning point, opinions are divided.
Studies by the Swiss working group around Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello indicate that the majority of women and men see the departure of the children as positive in advance. As the children get older and when they move out of the parental home, new opportunities open up for the partnership: the spouses can use part of the personal freedom they have gained for the partnership. Possible burdens from bringing up and caring for children are reduced or eliminated entirely. This may also reduce tensions between partnerships. The more time leads to new or expanded opportunities for joint leisure activities, the (re) enlivening of common interests or the establishment and intensification of contacts with friends and acquaintances. Joint relationships with other people (children, parents, friends and acquaintances) in particular prove to be an important source of a positive partnership in addition to the positive shared experiences in the past.
Living together in the next-parental companionship, however, also confronts the couple with the task of concentrating more on the partnership and developing new perspectives together, e.g. regarding the design of the partnership or the distribution of roles. In addition, unresolved conflicts that were previously pushed into the background can re-emerge and lead to less satisfaction or problematic developments. However, by taking into account the reciprocity experienced in the history of the relationship and the knowledge of services already provided, trust in the continued existence of the relationship is often strengthened and the reorientation is thus successfully mastered.
Physical changes appear - no longer very young and not yet old
The physical changes due to biological aging (lowering of the estrogen or testosterone level) affect the appearance and physical and psychological well-being. This can lead to great stress, as in our youth-oriented society one no longer feels attractive to one's partner and less productive.
In addition to these biological changes, the first health impairments or illnesses can also occur in middle adulthood. These also place considerable demands on the couple's relationship design, as they can lead to the emergence of new imbalances or dependencies. Studies on couples with a partner with impaired health show a decrease in marital satisfaction, especially in the healthy partner. Negative consequences for the couple arise from income restrictions, an increasing imbalance in the distribution of tasks, restrictions on joint ventures or upset (mood swings, quick anger, silence, emotional injuries or overly critical behavior).
Redefining the relationship with one's own parents and in-laws - confrontation with dependency, need for help and care
In addition to their own physical changes and the departure of the children, people are faced with the task of redefining their role as adult children due to the increasing dependency, need for help and care of their parents or in-laws. The demands of parents and society with regard to the help and support provided by their children are often in conflict with the possibilities and needs of people in their middle age today. Nonetheless, it is often the middle-aged daughters and daughters-in-law who provide help and care for the (in-law) parents. According to various studies, positive accompaniment, relief and support from the partner in the care process reduce the burdens associated with the care situation.
Transition to the post-employment phase - ambivalent feelings and the need for preparation
One change that middle-aged couples have to deal with and which socially often signals the beginning of old age is the transition to the post-employment phase. Although many couples do not experience any difficulties or even improve marital satisfaction, retirement can also require adjustment benefits: after all, when older people leave working life, they also lose a central role, which can lead to the development of self-esteem problems. In addition, some ideas about retirement, such as spending all the time with your wife, prove to be unrealistic. Women often have mixed feelings about their husband's retirement. They fear losing freedom and having to adjust to the needs of the man.
Here it is important that both partners find a new balance between distance and intimacy. That is why it is particularly important for men to establish and expand areas of contact and activity outside of partnership and family. Joint, early preparation and open discussion of the upcoming changes serve to avoid negative consequences. Since more and more women are in gainful employment up to the age limit, the question arises of how women cope with retirement, how this affects their marriage and how the couple deals with it if, for example, the woman is still working while the man is already retired is.
How can middle-aged couples master these challenges and shape their relationship in the future as well?
Various studies of factors that contribute to a satisfactory relationship emphasize the importance of certain personality traits, good communication, correct handling of conflicts, mutual support and joint activities.
Personality Traits - Traits that are brought into the relationship
Personality traits have been studied in a variety of ways. These are usually already relatively stable in early adulthood and are brought into the relationship by the partners. Openness to new experiences, compatibility, the feeling of being able to cope with situations, a good portion of conscientiousness in dealing with yourself and others, a positive self-esteem, a social orientation and the need for intimacy go hand in hand with a positive quality of marriage. Anxious and hostile behavior and poor emotional control are associated with lower marital satisfaction.
Communication and the correct handling of conflicts - talking is gold
More than personality traits, however, marital satisfaction traits that develop within the relationship contribute. Communication and dealing with conflicts are the main contributors to marriage satisfaction.
In the course of the relationship, many couples develop forms of togetherness that do not allow deep conflicts to arise in the first place.If this is the case, these couples can fall back on tried and tested mechanisms of communication and problem-solving: They exchange ideas more often and their communication is accompanied more by positive emotional movements such as warmth, empathy and tenderness. They agree more often, facilitate mutual communication through actions that reconcile and encourage interaction (e.g. through humor, acceptance and changing topics at the right moment). They exchange less negative content (sarcastic and contemptuous remarks, criticism and accusations) and speak less often in a pejorative, annoyed tone.
Tackling problems together strengthens the sense of togetherness and acts as a stabilizer for the partnership. It is important to be able to correctly recognize and perceive stress in the partner, to express one's own stress in a way that is understandable and understandable for the partner, to seek support from the partner and to accept it.
Here is an example: Often it is not the ten minutes that the husband is late that makes his wife angry, but “deep down” the feeling of disappointment or fear that he is no longer so important to him. But if the partner succeeds in making the reasons for the anger understandable, he or she can better understand what is so bad about ten minutes late.
Finding out the real causes is often difficult; this takes time and the desire for change. If the partner is able to understand what is disturbing or problematic, he or she can respond appropriately to the situation and react accordingly.
Support and joint activities - special importance for women
According to our own results, based on data from the interdisciplinary longitudinal study of adulthood (ILSE), experience of support from the partner and joint activities make an important contribution to marital satisfaction in middle age. Especially in stressful phases, support prevents emotional withdrawal or the flight into isolation or depression and strengthens the emotional bond. The experienced support from the husband contributes particularly to the satisfaction of the wife. This relationship is less pronounced among men.
Joint activities between the partners provide opportunities for exchanging feelings and communicating. You thus strengthen the identity as a couple. It's not about always doing everything together, but about consciously planning shared hobbies and activities in addition to your own activities.
Recipes for success in marriage - tolerance, trust, love
If you - like the Munich working group around Klaus A. Schneewind - ask people in long-term relationships about the recipe for success for their marriage, they name "tolerance / understanding", "trust / openness" and "love" as those with over 40% each most important criteria. Between a third and a quarter each name "conflict resolution / communication", "common areas of life" and "solidarity / support" as important prerequisites.
How does a separation come about after long-term partnerships?
Causes of divorce - various reasons for the dissolution of the partnership
With regard to the reasons for a divorce after long-term relationships, personal changes in personality are usually assessed as positive development steps, whereas those of the partner are accentuated negatively. In particular, the lack of communication, especially the lack of verbal expression of positive feelings, is a key indicator of increasingly less togetherness and closeness and gradual alienation.
Sexual infidelity is also causally associated with a subsequent divorce in older married couples. In principle, both men and most women consider conjugal sexuality to be unsatisfactory. But in the older studies it is almost only the men who cite this as the cause of their need for separation.
Furthermore, changed values with regard to the importance of marriage as an institution and the associated gender-typical division of labor are also typical reasons for separations after long years of marriage. As studies by the American divorce researcher Gottman show, divorce marks the end of a long-term process. After dissatisfaction, serious arguments about divorce arise; this is often followed by a probationary separation and finally the final breakup of the relationship.
Consequences of divorce - crisis and need for reorientation
The consequences of a divorce after a long marriage can be severe emotional stress as well as a temporary loss of well-being, limitations in physical and mental health, a lack of self-confidence and the need to restructure the previous identity as a married person. The divorce after a long-term partnership thus represents a crisis, the management of which challenges the person on various levels to reorientate.
Essential aspects that contribute to coping with this event are the socio-economic status, the length of preparation for the divorce, an external reason for the failure of the marriage (behavior of the partner, external circumstances) as well as social support from family, friends and acquaintances.
This contribution is intended to motivate not to underestimate the effects of changes and pressures in partnerships of middle age, to give the partnership the value in life that it deserves, and to actively tackle problems. As could be shown, communication, social support, joint activities and a successful handling of changes and stresses are decisive for the satisfaction with the partnership even in middle adulthood. There is an encouraging consequence here: Even after a long-term relationship, it is possible to learn, develop and expand these skills.
- Bodenmann, G., Bradbury, T. & Maderasz, S. (2002): Causes and course of divorce from the perspective of the divorced. Zeitschrift für Familienforschung 14, pp. 5-20.
- Brandtstädter, J., Baltes-Götz, B. & Heil, F.E. (1990): Development in partnerships: analyzes of the quality of partnerships in middle-aged married couples. Journal of Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology 22, pp. 183-206.
- Fooken, I. & Lind, I. (1997): Divorce after long-term marriage in middle and older adulthood. Expertise on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth. Stuttgart and others: Kohlhammer.
- Grau, I. & Bierhoff, H.-J. (2003): Social Psychology of Partnership. Berlin: Springer.
- Hammerschmidt, H. (2000): Continuity and changes in long-term marriages. Munich: Utz Verlag.
- Perrig-Chiello, P. & Höpflinger, F. (2004): Beyond the zenith - women and men in the second half of life. Bern: Main.
- Schmitt, M. (2001): On the importance of intrapersonal and relationship-specific characteristics for the quality of marriage experienced in middle adulthood. Frankfurt: Long.
- Schmitt, M. & Re, S. (2004): Partnerships in higher adulthood. In: A. Kruse & M. Martin (Eds.): Textbook of Gerontology: Aging Processes in a Multidisciplinary View. Bern: Huber, pp. 373-386.
- Schmitt, M. & Weber, M. (in press): Marital satisfaction and its predictors in middle adulthood: An East-West comparison. Family History Journal.
- Stegmann, A.-K. & Schmitt, M. (in press): Changes in long-term partnerships in middle adulthood. Family History Journal.
- Wunderer, E. (2003): Partnerships between claim and reality. Weinheim: Beltz PVU.
Marina Schmitt, Dr. phil., born 1965, studied psychology and gerontology in Mainz and Heidelberg, research assistant at the German Center for Aging Research (DZFA) in Heidelberg. Areas of interest: partnerships in middle and older adulthood, social relationships and social support, critical life events.
Dr. Marina Schmitt
Created on November 23, 2004, last changed on January 28, 2010
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