Dr. Marina Schmitt
Interview of August 17, 2009 mit Astrid Soethe-Roeck
There is not much known about marriage and partnership in older age. Why is that?
In the section of marriage- and partnership research, a lot of studies concentrated mainly on more critical life events like the beginning of a marriage, transitions into parenthood or resolving of marriage through divorce or widowhood. Accordingly, there is little known about the more “typical” case of often many decades lasting relationships of late adulthood. Furthermore, partnerships in older age present a historically new phenomena. With doubling of the average life expectancy in the last 100 years, marriages also last longer in average. Therefore it created a new phase in partnerships- the so called after-parenting companionship. When children leave home, the spouses have a relatively long phase together ahead of them, that needs to be jointly shaped. Simultaneously there is an above-average increase in divorces of marriages that lasted a long time. So about 10% of all divorces are of marriages with a length of 26 years and more.
How does the quality of a marriage develop over the years? What changes happen?
At first it needs to be said that a high proportion of older couples are calling themselves “happily married”. Although this proportion varies from study to study, it normally lies between 70 and 90%. In view of the contentment with marriage and partnership, it shows considerable variations in the course of life that, among others, are connected to confrontations of different challenges that couples face. At older age, couples are faced with different changes: Tasks need to be newly divided because of transition into the after-work phase for example, one is searching for new purposes in life and more meaningful activities or getting used to changes in the power structure. Couples need to support each other with changed roles, with coming to terms with aging and arising fear of loss (maybe one is not so efficient and fit, health is reduced). Death in the family or outside the family must be dealt with. Spouses need support in sickness or long-term care. Especially very old couples are confronted with the fact that after death of the spouse, the other remains alone. So there are a lot of changes and challenges that couples have to deal with.
You have been familiar with this topic for many years. Have you noticed social changes in dealing with partnership and marriage in the past years? If yes, what has changed and what more needs to be done in your opinion?
Firstly I welcome the fact that chances and challenges of older partnerships as well as love and sexuality in older age are increasingly discussed and less tabooed or single-sided distortedly expressed. This encourages older couples to talk about their problems and difficulties and take more advantage of support or consulting. Furthermore, the age-groups that have a more open handling with these topics, will enter this life-phase. One contribution might be the changed gender role of men and women.
If there are differences between men and women concerning marriage satisfaction, is unclear according to available studies. Asked about satisfaction with marriage, there are often small or little differences between the genders. But distinguish different aspects of satisfaction, it shows that women are less satisfied with communication, with sexuality and with support in the marriage. Dissatisfaction in these sections of a partnership seems to be even more apparent when a partnership is altogether perceived as more encumbering. The reason seems to be that women address relationship problems more and express more emotions, while men perceive problems less or often keep out of its way.
With this topic, everyone is probably questioning the quality of their own marriage. Frau Schmitt, are there criteria on which one can recognize a “good” marriage?
Depending on the theoretical approach, there are different criteria on which one can recognize a good marriage. Thus, the lived fairness and the cost-benefit ratio in the relationship plays a role. Also, emphasis is on the importance of communication and the handling of conflicts, joint activities and lived support. With communication for example, it showed that happy couples in comparison to unhappy couples communicate more with each other and their conversations are accompanied with more warmth, empathy and tenderness. They relieve their communication also through reconciling or togetherness favouring actions. Here, humour plays an important role as well as the acceptance of the other (e.g. topic change at the right time or avoidance of negative contents like depreciation, criticism, sarcastic or scornful comments). Furthermore, joint activities contribute to companionship. They strengthen the feeling of togetherness. But also the mutual support is important for the satisfaction in a partnership.
What role plays sexuality for the satisfaction in a partnership at older age? Are there differences to partnerships in younger age?
Sexuality and tenderness are human basic needs. When physical functions change through advancing age, it does not mean that sexuality doesn’t play a role anymore. Again, important is the experience, the attitude and current behaviour that the individual brings along with his previous life story. It is essential here, that communication about sexual wishes and needs affects the satisfaction with the partnership more than the fact if one has sexual intercourse or not.
You did not only deal with older people that live in steady relationships but also with the ones that live alone. Singles at older age, that sounds unusual at first. How would you describe singles at older age- in comparison to young singles?
At first it depends on how one defines single. At our work group we include all people that do not live in a steady relationship. Therefore, this group presents itself very diverse. There are people that have been without a partner for a very long time, widowed or divorced people. These people again can have families or are alone. In our valuations it shows, that younger singles in comparison to younger people in different life forms, are altogether more dissatisfied in many sections (income, apartment and spare time) as well as life altogether. With older singles it shows similar differences altogether. But older singles show a higher satisfaction with the spare time- and living section.
Many people dream of getting old together with a loved one. What can we do to make that dream come true?
Surely we should consider many things in the dealings with each other, things I have already mentioned above. If you ask people in long relationships, about the most important ingredients for a successful relationship, the answers are foremost the following: Tolerance/understanding, trust/openness, love (love is far too little mentioned when talking about partnerships), good conflict resolutions, joint areas of life, solidarity/support, children/grandchildren as well the possibility of personal growth in the partnership and faithfulness.
Marina Schmitt, born in 1965, as been the scientific managing Director of the Institute of Gerontology at the Technical University Dortmund and also vice chairwoman of Section III “ Social- and Behavioral Science Gerontology” of the German Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (DGGG). Until 2008 Marina Schmitt was connected to the University of Heidelberg for 14 years, where she graduated at the Institute of Gerontology in 2001. Within this timeframe, she worked for the Institute of Gerontology as well as the German Center of Aging Research and the Psychological Institute of the University of Heidelberg.
Dr. Marina Schmitt is one of the few scientists who intensively works on social relations (especially couples relationships) at middle and older age and has released relevant publications. You will find a collection of publishing’s and more personal details on her webpage of the TH Dortmund.