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Retirement can unravel marriages, experts claim

Published August 13. 2011 09:02AM

Years ago we heard a lot about "the seven year itch."

Psychologists claim it's a time of dissatisfaction many marriages don't survive.

I used to joke with friends that we can't be sure our marriage will last until we're married for 25 years.

Mark Twain must also have thought there is something special about 25-year-marriages. In 1894, he wrote in his journal: "No man or woman knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century."

But look at the divorce notices in the newspaper and it soon becomes evident that many marriages are ending after 40 or 50 years.

When a couple stays together that long, what makes them decide on a late-in-life divorce?

"Retirement itself often brings about the end of a marriage," said James DeMaio, a family therapist I recently interviewed.

That's when problems that were pushed aside when both spouses were working become magnified.

"Often times, couples grow apart when they are busy working and raising children. If they don't work to keep a strong relationship during those years, when retirement comes they are suddenly faced with living with someone they don't like," he said.

The very fact that retirement changes daily living is often daunting. That's especially true when couples pull up all roots and move to a new state, leaving behind a support system late in life.

"They leave behind their children, grandchildren, friends, and entire social network. They have to build an entire new life for themselves new friends, new activities, new things to fill the time once occupied by working hours. That alone can be stressful," said DeMaio.

All that is done at a stage in life when couples have a harder time making new friends, he claims. "So all they have for a support system might be each other. When he's no longer at the office and she's not taking care of kids, there's a gaping hole in the meaning of life."

That's often complicated, according to the relationship counselor, by whatever baggage and hurtful patterns couples have built up throughout the years.

"We tend to see each other through old eyes," he says. "Some couples build destructive patterns - they've learned to interact with each other in a way that guarantees conflict. But they've never learned to deal with their problems in a constructive way."

Dr. Joan Ashkin says the woman is frequently the one who decides to seek counseling or end the marriage.

"After 40-some years of marriage, a woman may start looking at her life and reassessing her marriage. Often, the woman is the doer the one who takes charge and does everything. It's common for women to tire of that role. They want to see their husband step up to the plate and start assuming some of that responsibility," she says.

She adds that dissension sometimes erupts after retirement because the husband can golf or do what he wants. But in many traditional homes, the woman resents that her role doesn't change that much. She still has to cook and handle the majority of household chores.

When a woman does decide to call it quits, often times her husband doesn't see it coming.

"She'll say, 'I don't want to be married any more and he'll ask why. She'll say, 'I've had enough.' The bottom line is she's fed up because he doesn't meet her needs. Couples have a hard time articulating their needs," says DeMaio.

He admits it's not easy to tell someone what you want or need. "There is a risk involved. You might not get the attention you deserve or you might be criticized, both painful experiences," he says.

"Couples can put the marriage back on track if they find ways to get their needs met. In order for that to happen, they have to learn to communicate what their needs are," he says.

Both DeMaio and Dr. Ashkin say communication is the biggest problem in any marriage.

"A couple will come in and say they are having relationship issues, sexual problems, control issues or some other problem. But it soon becomes apparent their main problem is learning how to communicate with each other," says Dr. Ashkin.

DeMaio thinks that's true 100 percent of the time.

"Words are powerful. They can soothe or destroy a person," he says.

"Couples have to learn to use words that communicate feelings but don't inflame," says Dr. Ashkin.

But both therapists believe the real communication problem is lack of listening skills. "Men simply don't hear what their wives are saying," DeMaio states.

"I tell couples it's easy to know what a man or woman wants. Most of all, a man wants to feel accepted. A woman wants to be wanted," he says.

While both Dr. Ashkin and Jim DeMaio are happy with the successes they have had in keeping couples together, they both admit it doesn't always happen that way.

"Sometimes counseling emphasizes each partner has changed and it's better to go their separate ways," says Dr. Ashkin.

But before they do, DeMaio says they should first go to counseling to let go of their anger toward each other. "They need to remember what it was they loved about each other and to remember that love," he says.

"Couples who do that will heal faster and are more likely to go on to a new, healthy relationship."

Decades ago, couples often stayed together, no matter what. "It's obvious," the therapist says, "that's not the case now."

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