5 Reasons Older Couples Grow Apart—and How to Avoid It

By Locke Hughes |

Divorce rates among older adults are on the rise. Rekindle the spark with these fire-starters.

healthy relationship

There’s a reason why life after retirement is called the golden years: You’re no longer sitting in an office every day, your kids are grown and out of the house, and you’re free to rediscover the passions that took a backseat during your busy midlife.

It sounds wonderful, but sometimes those big life changes can take a toll on your relationship. A lack of shared interests and, yes, too much free time together can cause the sparks in a previously strong marriage to flicker out, says Deborah Carr, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and an expert in aging.

In fact, the divorce rate among adults 50 and older (often called gray divorce) has roughly doubled since 1990, according to the Pew Research Center. If you find yourself feeling sort of “meh” about your relationship and drifting apart from your spouse, rest assured that it is possible to rekindle the spark—but it does take a little work. Below are the five most common reasons older couples grow apart and how to re-establish your bond in each scenario.

Reason #1: You’ve Gone on Autopilot

“People become complacent—not only with each other, but in their lives,” Carr says. When you’re not going to work and coming home with news from your day, it becomes more of a challenge to find conversation topics.

Too often, people forget to find new interests to replace old ones, says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and coauthor of SNAP Strategies for Couples. “Some people tend to believe a relationship will continue to last just because it’s lasted so far,” she says. “But nothing does well on autopilot—least of all marriage.”

Strike this match: Now’s the time to find new interests that enrich your life, Carr says. Start volunteering, pick up painting, or take a dance class. Learning new things will make you a more interesting person to your partner, and it helps add intellectual spark to your relationship that may have dimmed over the years, Carr explains.

And discovering a new hobby alone can actually help strengthen your bond, Carr says, especially if you’ve been spending every waking moment together. When you come home after doing something new, it acts as an aphrodisiac, Carr says. At the very least, you’ll have a lot more to talk about with your partner over dinner.

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Reason #2: You’ve Lost Common Interests

While spending time apart and pursuing your passions is important, you also don’t want to start leading completely separate and independent lives, Schwartz says. This can happen when kids are out of the picture, since many couples no longer have a shared “project” to work on.

Strike this match: Discover something you’re both enthusiastic about and can enjoy together, Schwartz says. And going out to dinner once a month doesn’t cut it. Think big picture: planning your bucket-list vacation to Paris, getting a dog, taking a sculpting class, or even starting a nonprofit or small business.

You can also start sharing existing interests with your partner, Carr says. “If you’re already exercising on a regular basis, make that a shared activity by going to the gym together every morning, even if you don’t do the same workout,” she suggests. “Or get season tickets to the theater or a sports team—it’s fun to know you have something to look forward to on Friday night.”

Reason #3: Your Sexual Chemistry Has Faded

Most of us aren’t getting busy as often as we were at 25 or 30 years old. After all, some physiological changes occur naturally as we age. But while there may be physical impediments, they shouldn’t make sex impossible, Schwartz says.

Strike this match: First, remember that sex isn’t just intercourse, and there are other ways to be sensual in your relationship. “It’s important for couples to talk about it and know they can express attraction in other ways,” Carr says.

Also, gain confidence by taking pride in your appearance and prioritizing your health. You don’t have to look like a supermodel or famous actor, but if you feel comfortable and confident, that will carry over into your relationship, Carr says. We all inevitably go through changes that’ll make us feel less attractive than we once were—hello, wrinkles and extra pounds! But instead of feeling awkward or insecure about it, own those bodily changes and go with it, Carr suggests. Few things are more attractive than confidence.

If physical intimacy is painful or difficult, check in with your doctor, who can help determine if there is an underlying medical issue and the appropriate treatment.

Reason #4: You May Experience Emotional or Mental Health Issues

“Health problems and serious illnesses can come along and either make or break a relationship,” Carr says. Many other things happen over the course of our lives, especially as we age—family members die, jobs are lost, financial worries grow—that really put a wedge in a relationship, especially if one partner puts a wall up.

Strike this match: Talk about it. Be mindful about your partner’s mental health as well their physical health, and have conversations about any issues that arise. “If you notice an emotional change in your partner, that’s something you need to talk about,” Carr says.

Also, know the common warning signs of dementia, which can start to show up in your sixties. While it’s normal to become irritable from time to time, if you notice frequent or ongoing changes in mood or personality, it’s worth a conversation with your doctor.

Reason #5: You Realize You Have a Lot of Time Left

“When people turn 65 or 70, they realize they have 20 or more years left, especially if you’re in good health,” Carr says. In turn, they start to wonder, “Am I happy staying in this marriage?”

Strike this match: “Ask yourself, ‘Do I love and respect this person enough, and do I feel loved and respected enough, to hang in there when things get tough?’” Carr says. As you answer, watch out for these red flags: “If you feel like your primary emotion is not love, but resentment, contempt, or pity, or if you’re staying in the marriage just because you feel bad or feel like you should, those aren’t good reasons,” Carr says.

What is a good reason to stay? “Both of your lives are better with each other than without,” she says.

If you’re seriously wondering if a marriage is worth saving, you need to see a therapist stat, Schwartz says. “Getting a divorce deserves careful consideration, especially if you’re older,” she says. “You have to fight for it before you give up. You owe it to yourself and your partner to get help—sooner rather than later.”

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