Even in a Burned-Out Marriage, The Spark Can Be Rekindled

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

She is a pretty woman with short dark hair, in her early 60s. After 35 years of marriage, she and her husband broke up. Why now, after so many years together?

For adult children as well as friends, the breakup of a marriage late in life often comes as a tremendous jolt because they didn't see escalating conflict or flashes of anger.

Those outbursts simply weren't there in this woman's case. "We didn't have an outwardly fighting marriage," she says. "But it was quiet and empty."

Quiet and empty are the symptoms of marital burnout. In an era of longevity, burnout has become a major threat to couples. It's not so much the presence of conflict that kills a long-term relationship, but rather the absence of affection and involvement.

Most divorces occur within the first 10 years of marriage. By the time you get to your 50s and 60s, the high-conflict couples have already broken up. After two or three decades of marriage, you've learned how to manage conflict and negotiate your differences. Who leaves the bathroom a mess? Is one of you always late? Who is too tough -- or too lenient -- on the kids? You've worked through these perennial issues. Now you're ready to enjoy each other.

In youth, you fight; after midlife, you love. In the early years, you have to settle differences; in the later years, you want peace and affection. Men especially, say therapists, tend to mellow out. There's good evidence that the longer the marriage, the happier the couple.

But not always. Longevity changes the rules of sticking it out. You look ahead to perhaps 20 or more years together. The children are grown. Retirement looms. What holds you together? Without strong positive factors in the relationship, couples can start showing signs of marriage fatigue.

A man, 60, in Massachusetts describes how he left a marriage of 33 years. He and his wife both had careers and led increasingly separate lives -- separate work schedules, separate friends, separate vacations. "We went on in our own way. We had our roles. We sort of let go without examining it," he says. After years of drift in the marriage and on the job, he retired. And that precipitated a personal crisis. "I burned out on the job. I burned out with my marriage," he says. At that point, it was too late for counseling. He was mentally out of the marriage.

For centuries, the focus of marriage was to raise children. Personal happiness was not in the contract. But today romantic love and intimacy are now the pillars of marriage. And only about 40 percent of married people have children at home -- compared with 75 percent of couples in 1880, according to research at the University of Pennsylvania.

The agenda of marriage changes when it's just the two of you. Longevity puts a premium on mutual happiness, says John M. Gottman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, which focuses on researching and restoring relationships. The shift from resolving conflict to enhancing intimacy is a critical transition for older people, points out Gottman, who has followed couples over decades to decipher what makes a good marriage.

"Most couples who have stayed together that long have been able to manage the conflict," Gottman says. "The ones who can't -- those people have broken up." But many long-married couples may have neglected to hone the skills needed to enrich a relationship. "What happens when people retire, they don't know how to talk to each other. Their lives have been a to-do list. They don't interact very much. All of a sudden, they are faced with one another's company," continues Gottman, author of "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." If couples don't have the ability to build up the positive aspects of the relationship, "they are lost and lonely and depressed. . . . There isn't that spark anymore. They don't feel that attracted. They are not having sex."

Sometimes, it's a relationship with another person that highlights the emptiness of a marriage. Other times, it's simply a different vision of the future. As a Virginia woman says after leaving a marriage of three decades: "There were huge differences in how we were going to live out the rest of our life."

The spark can be rekindled. It's about getting playfulness, humor, a sense of adventure and gestures of courtship back into the relationship. Couples who have been together for many years have a joint emotional bank account. You can draw on that account to jump-start affection and institute rituals of connection -- a daily walk in the park, a weekend away. Do you have a sense of shared meaning and purpose? Shared values and activities? Do you have "we-ness," the mind-set of being a team that has gone through a lot together?

But in some marriages, the emotional bank account has been depleted. You aren't hurling plates at each other; you aren't doing much of anything with each other. Unless you can find ways to shore up your account with sparks of affection, you're at risk of succumbing to marital burnout.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company