4 Common Threats That 'Senior Love' Often Faces

Love in later years is not immune to problems. Here's four that all 'senior lovers' should be wary of.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 13, 2024

Dating at any age can be challenging. However, "gray relationships" or romantic relationships in older adulthood are exhibiting a concerning trend. In 2022, 36% of Americans getting divorced were over 50 years old. Furthermore, the 65 and older was the only age group that showed an increasing divorce rate. These numbers highlight the deepening cracks in what should be the "golden age" of a romantic relationship.

A 2023 study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined challenges older adults face in intimate relationships, unveiling four major relationship issues plaguing their generation.

Here are four challenges sabotaging senior love, according to the study.

1. Infidelity And Jealousy

The most common cause of relationship troubles is the unwanted presence of a third person—an affair partner or an ex-partner. To begin with, infidelity severely hampers older adults' relationships, especially because they feel their advanced age puts them at a disadvantage to move on and find love again.

"Last week I read a love SMS addressed to my husband and since then I have had a mental breakdown. We have been together for 42 years without the slightest problem. I love my husband and I do not want to lose him," said a 64 year old participant, worried about extramarital threats to her relationship.

Jealousy in intimate relationships can also be linked to people from a partner's past. "My partner hates my children and grandchildren, refuses to communicate with them and does not answer their greetings… When I see my children, grandchildren, he starts to be mean and vulgar to me. He does not speak to me for days," said a 60-year-old participant, troubled by her partner's intolerant behavior.

2. Relationship Estrangement

Relationship quality among older adults is also affected by growing apart and a lack of warmth and care for one another. Older individuals also perceive their relationship problems and emotional disconnection as more stressful and painful. They consider themselves to have less time left which intensifies their concerns and makes them believe that they lack other prospects. This often leaves them unhappy and feeling trapped in their relationship.

Estrangement and a lack of warmth can manifest as negative attitudes, a decline in shared activities or a lack of interest in one's partner. Often, older couples struggle with a slump in their sexual intimacy and the loss of a sense of partnership.

"We have not slept together for the last three years. There is nothing to communicate about at home. We can no longer live together … We do nothing together," said a 44-year-old female participant.

A dip in sexual activity can shatter deeper intimacy between a couple in their later years. A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior also found that a change in sexual drive can vary according to gender. Women's sexual responses are dependent on relationship contexts, such as having children and being in long-term relationships, while men's sexual responses depend primarily on their sexual functioning. These differences can create a further rift in a couple's love life.

3. Undesirable Changes In Personality

A crucial aspect affecting relationship quality among older adults is a pronounced change in a partner's behavior, thinking or communication. Unfavorable life events, illnesses or deterioration of executive functions can cause unexpected changes in personality.

Personality changes such as aggressiveness, laziness, stinginess and bitterness can put a strain on elderly relationships.

"Somehow I cannot explain the transformation of a man who was reliable, kind and loved his family, then suddenly turned into a philanderer. Today he is 60 and he's someone else," said another female participant from the study.

Additionally, major life transitions also have the power to shake the foundations of elderly love.

"My husband and I have been together for 43 years. Everything was normal when we were working. Now we are both retired and we have a bit of cabin fever. I do not understand how some men at his age can change so much," said yet another 63-year-old female participant.

4. Illnesses And Somatic Issues

The onset of illness, becoming a caregiver, facing sexual difficulties or the moral obligation to take care of a sick partner can diminish relationship quality and satisfaction. Many individuals can also struggle with the dilemma of how much they ought to help while trying to preserve their own well-being.

Becoming the caregiver can be an unexpected burden which leads to a shift in the relationship, making individuals feel less like a couple and more like patient-and-caretaker.

"I wanted to get a divorce a long time ago. Now, after taking care of my husband after surgery and illness, I feel old and tired. Everything suddenly feels like waiting for death. I have no idea how I will deal with this at my age," said a female participant.

Managing illness within an intimate relationship can drain both partners physically and mentally. Additionally, emotional strain from a marriage can also impact physical health behaviors involving diet and exercise, creating further marital dysfunction.

These narratives highlight the complexities inherent in gray relationships. The awareness of finite time can cast a shadow over the prospect of seeking new connections. While starting anew may seem daunting, it's essential to embrace the possibility of fulfilling relationships at any stage of life.

By acknowledging that it's not over until it's over, older adults can cultivate hope, resilience and a willingness to explore new avenues of connection and intimacy. In doing so, they may discover that the richness of human relationships knows no bounds.

Wondering how satisfied you are with your relationship? Take this psychological assessment to find out: Relationship Satisfaction Scale

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