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Helping Mature Couples Face New Challenges

It's not unusual for mature couples to seek counseling after 20 or 30 years together.

In fact, senior couples face several unique challenges, and being able to navigate through these new experiences can indeed be challenging. Couples in their 50s and beyond are often struggling with:

  • Transitioning into retirement
  • Adjusting to the empty nest after children move out
  • Having more time together and learning to create new, meaningful experiences
  • How to reconnect after years of increasing distance during times of busy careers and raising children
  • Unresolved issues or past hurts that keep coming up and pulling you apart
  • Agreeing about how to handle requests from adult children, such as babysitting and financial assistance
  • Discussing intimacy and evolving desires and preferences

Unfortunately mature couples in greater numbers are heading toward divorce, with one in four couples ages 50 and over seeking to end their marriages. And, there's a new term that's emerged, "grey divorce," for this trend.

A common issue for senior couples is loss of close emotional connection.

It may be reassuring to understand that many couples struggle with life transitions. We humans find comfort in "what is" and may experience trepidation about "the new frontiers" that come with new life phases.

I often find couples have done a great job of planning for their finances in retirement, but have not known they also needed to plan for changes in their "emotional lives" together.

Let's look more in depth at four categories of change faced by senior couples.

Changes in Roles in Parenting

Many couples easily embrace the shift when children become adults and are more independent. For others, a vacuum now exists. Current generations of parents have been more involved in their children's lives -- driving them to sports activities, monitoring homework and generally focusing on their kids' development. When children go off to college and marriage, the void can feel profound to some couples.

At times, couples neglect to focus on each other and the marriage because they have been so busy meeting the needs of the children.

Additionally, emerging social shifts may be impacting your role as parents. The economy and college debt impact young adults today more than ever. It's more difficult to establish independence of parents than in the past. Couples often struggle with how to help their children become self-supporting and to set boundaries about helping them financially.

Becoming grandparents is another life change, and couples may find they each have different beliefs about how much assistance to provide. Are we "occasional" or "regular" babysitters is a question that can contribute to conflict between you. Many couples struggle with how to say "no" to requests from their adult children.

Retirement is a Major Life Change

No more alarm clocks! No long hours at work! No more work-related travel! No schedule whatsoever!!

This is the early relief many retirees feel when they first stop working. Many choose to have no plans at first, wanting to enjoy the freedom they've anticipated.

Retirement also brings certain "loses." We lose the identity we had associated with our careers; we lose structure of regular work commitments; and we lose the benefit enjoyed of camaraderie with work colleagues. For some, there is a loss of feelings of accomplishment and prestige we enjoyed from work.

Because retirement is a significant and often under-estimated life change, the marriage can be affected in profound ways.

It's not unusual for couples to discover they may have different ideas of what they seek in retirement. One may prefer lots of social activities and travel; the other may prefer more solitary hobbies. And, suddenly there's a great deal more time together -- just the two of you -- than you've had in years. Couples may discover differences that went unnoticed when you were busy working and raising children. You may become irritated with one another, arguing may increase and you feel less connected -- and may not truly understand why things have changed.

Mature Couples Can Experience Less Connection

A common issue for senior couples is emotional distance -- you feel you've lost the closeness you used to enjoy. Often, disconnection is a slow, gradual process of growing further apart.

The reasons are varied: Such as years of focus on careers and kids and less attention on the marriage.

However, the culprit may lie with unresolved and painful issues or events that have occurred in the course of your lives together that were not able to be discussed and healed. These events typically are challenging for the couple to discuss, and may be avoided because in the past, any attempt to talk about the issue led to arguments.

Intimacy and Aging

Some older couples experience a resurgence in intimacy, as fewer obligations and distractions are present.

For others, if the emotional connection is not as close, intimacy often suffers. This is true for couples of all ages. Further, many couples (no matter their generation) struggle to discuss issues related to intimacy. In counseling, there is a safe place to begin these important conversations, and a path is created for the couple to feel more comfortable talking about sex into the future.

Recognizing and accommodating physical changes also can be a part of the aging process. For some couples, it's difficult to discuss how their bodily changes can be affecting intimacy and how to work around any pain or discomfort.

How Counseling Can Help

When senior couples come for counseling, my first hope is to help you feel comfortable. We begin with building an understanding together of the history and strengths of your relationship. Our goal is to rediscover the emotional bond that originally brought you together.

We identify areas of concern -- the disconnection that is tugging at you and the current issues. I make note of any hurtful times that await resolution and healing.

I use Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy -- the most effective and research-supported approach to helping couples relieve distress and reconnect emotionally. This powerful method works to rekindle the bond you shared in previous times and to deepen your understanding of yourselves and of each other.

You can also learn more on the "My Approach" page.

Linda Schwartz is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works exclusively with couples and individuals on relationship issues. She uses Emotionally Focused Couple therapy, the most effective approach to helping couples recapture their close connection, to learn to resolve issues through deepening their understanding of each other's needs and to heal infidelity and any past hurts in the relationship. Linda offers a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about the counseling process. She can be reached at (602) 882-0533 or .

To learn More:
Three Steps to Choosing a Marriage Counselor

Emotional Intimacy: 5 Steps to Getting Closer Again

You may feel you've lost the closeness you used to enjoy. Often, disconnection is a slow, gradual process of growing further apart."

Linda Schwartz, Couples Counseling