What Older Adults Can Teach Us About Relationships

How do we learn about healthy marriage and family relationships? We can read books or listen to experts, but experience is the best teacher. Rather than relying on trial and error, it makes sense to benefit from the experiences of others. And the people who have the most experience in relationships are older adults. So, it only makes sense to learn from the older adults in your life how to develop and maintain healthy family relationships.

Invest in Relationships

A 2017 article by University of California, Irvine psychologists Karen S. Rook and Susan T. Charles (available here) reviewed research into strengths and vulnerabilities in the social relationships of older adults. The social networks of older adults tend to shrink some over time, partly because of death but also because older adults tend to winnow out peripheral relationships in order to focus on their closest, most rewarding social ties. The elderly report investing more time in maintaining relationships than do younger adults. 

These are the first lessons that older adults teach: relationships are important, none more so than the closest relationships--family and a select circle of friends. These people will matter most at the end of life, so they are the ones that warrant the most attention through the years. Also, it takes a considerable investment of time to keep relationships healthy. Older spouses have typically poured thousands of hours into their marriages over the decades, so they might reason that additional hours would provide minimal benefits. That's not how most older adults view the matter, though. They more and more desire to foster those close connections.  

Give the benefit of the doubt

Older adults on average have more marital satisfaction than younger adults. One reason they are happier in their marriages is that they report fewer marital conflicts than do younger married couples. What is particularly fascinating, though, is how they perceive the conflicts that do occur. They rate their partners' behavior during disagreements more positively than do middle-aged married adults. But objective raters don't find any differences in actual behaviors during those disagreements! So older adults must be interpreting spouse behavior more favorably--they are looking for the good intentions underlying their mate's outburst, are hearing with benevolent ears what the mate is trying to say rather than what was actually said. Their behavior is consistent with the Apostle Paul's description of love in I Corinthians 13. Love is "not irritable or resentful" and it "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (NRSV)

Be flexible

The strategies that older adults report using when they are in an interpersonal conflict are different than those reported by younger adults. They are more likely to do nothing, to wait for the situation to pass, or to direct their attention elsewhere. These seem like rather passive ways of reacting. One might think that older adults just don't know how to actively confront problems--but they actually use more active problem solving techniques than do younger adults when confronted with instrumental dilemmas such as a dispute with a store over a defective product. This suggests that doing nothing and other passive responses to interpersonal difficulties is for them a consciously chosen strategy. It's as if they've learned to weigh the health of the relationship over against the importance of the immediate conflict and to choose relationship maintenance over winning a particular battle. Love "does not insist on its own way," said Paul, and older adults are more likely than younger adults to have learned that demanding one's way is foolish if it has the potential of harming the relationship.

So think about these lessons from research into the social relationships of older adults. Do you focus your attention especially on your closest relationships and give them a large portion of your time? When you have a conflict with your spouse, child, or parent, do you seek out the positive in their response rather than interpret their behavior in the worst possible light? With those who are close to you, do you back off in the case of minor conflicts rather than seek to win at all costs? If you do these things, you are well on the way to learning the relationship lessons that older adults have for the rest of us.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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