Couples preparing to retire often confess trepidation about the increased amount of time they will spend together following a lifetime of separate careers. Facebook is loaded with cheery photos of older adults floating the Rhine River on Viking cruises or cuddling cute grandbabies, but no one posts snapshots of what transpires within the privacy of their homes.
As we retired, we had our own concerns and many questions: How can we make the most of our remaining years? What does love mean now, at this seasoned age? How do we work with the tension of “me” and “we” now that we spend most days together? How do we creatively deal with the changes in our health and status as we age? What is going on with other couples we know and admire, and can we learn from them? Are there models on how to do this?
As a result, we launched into a cross-country RV road trip, conducting 13 in-depth interviews with retired couples over a five-year period. We were delighted to discover and happy to report that we found couples experiencing deep fulfillment together. Here are four keys we gleaned for enjoying the best of times in your marriage as you age together with wisdom and love:
The Adventure of Welcoming the Stranger: Much like adolescence, aging is a road to rapid change, which can make us strangers, even to ourselves. Yet, change is also the key to renewal and growth. Retired couples become like college students and study partners, switching majors, taking random classes, or creating independent studies just for the joy of learning. No longer confined by jobs, couples pursue new interests, creative endeavors, and forgotten passions. They have time to finish conversations, read books together, listen to podcasts, and grow. These new discoveries reveal dimensions in one another that were hidden in the first half of our lives, which can feel foreign and exciting. Aging couple adventurers come alive with curiosity, wonder, new choices, and fresh beginnings.
Love & the Power of Vulnerability: There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Aging increases our vulnerability as we experience the loss of friends, status, and emerging health challenges. While we may fear these losses will diminish our relationships, when couples share honestly with each other and then extend tender care, love actually grows. The vulnerability of aging seems to strip us of our individualistic illusions and protective shells, and we become more interdependent—in humble service to each other when needed. Paradoxically, the challenges with age offer a solid ground for love to flourish and mutual care to flow. The ticking clock reminds us that our time is finite and to cherish one another while we still can.
Beneficial Presence & Wisdom Work: In retirement, many of us pursue one of our deepest human longings—our need for meaning. It is a time for wisdom. Some have called aging a natural monastery, for there is a pull toward more interiority where we choose depth over speed, and seek to glean an understanding of a lifetime of experiences. Couples honor these leanings by respecting the need for solitude and space, practicing days or extended times of silence, regularly meditating together, enjoying time in nature, and reading books that offer spiritual or psychological insights. They can also give each other the gift of savoring the small things they notice when slowing down, like the new bird nest in the eaves and the beauty of creation at their doorstep. Most couples also seek to extend a beneficial presence to their children, grandchildren, and others they encounter.
The Fruits of Mutuality: Retirement is an ideal time to practice mutuality, which is achieved when the needs of both people are valued. Mutuality embodies the spirit of cooperation and reciprocity. As a couple, when we are in a “state” of mutuality, we hold the tension of not deciding right away, or at least waiting long enough for each person to articulate their desires or needs. We seek creative solutions, sitting with the tensions long enough that a “third way” emerges. Mutuality, at times, means one person gets more of what they want than the other, and we discern when we are ok with privileging our partner’s needs over our own. In the process, we enjoy the richness and value that both positions have to offer.
In retirement, couples have the space and time to practice mutuality, welcome the stranger, seek wisdom and depth, and discover the joy of interdependence found in vulnerability, all grounded in growing their love and respect for each other, side by side. It can be the best of times for couples.
Caryl & Jay Casbon met when working at Lewis & Clark College in 1995. Caryl devotes her time to writing, spiritual direction, and retreat work. After a career in higher education, Jay now focuses on research, men’s studies, and history. The Casbons live in Santa Barbara, California. Visit SideBySideAging.com