Why Marry? More Specifically, Why Do Seniors Say I Do?

An interesting question, even more so since I now claim the senior discount whenever possible. I’m not questioning marriage – a marriage is what two people make of it.

So, why do people marry? Survey says: for all kinds of reasons – but love is only one marital asset. That sounds so cold, but it takes more than just love. At the risk of being tragically unhip, one needs to enter marriage with eyes open and your brain engaged too. Love cannot conquer infidelity, violence, lying, financial malfeasance and lack of effort. People just grow apart and fail to reverse it. Lots of bad relationships move on to marriage; getting married does not save a failing relationship. That sounds strange to say it, but marriage is not a healing balm you apply to your heart.

Marriage is not the automatic that is used to be, at least in many Western cultures, but it still is a gravitational pull for serious relationships. Even for people in their third act.

Marriage by seniors is not required, as living in sin is much less a moral sin these days. However, there are pressures or expectations that still exist to tie the knot. And of course, there are financial and legal reasons for why seniors marry or don’t marry, although it depends on the people involved and their situation. In case you missed my obvious point: Being a couple does not mean you have to be married.

I am a senior now, and with a number of friends in my age group marching down the aisle, I’m interested in how age impacts the decision to marry. One consideration not in play is unexpected pregnancy. That would be quite a miracle!

A lot of couples, of all ages, simply live together. In fact, it makes sense to see if there is compatibility before making any legal and long-term emotional commitment. Living together is not a guarantee of future marital success, but it’s an important step in building a solid foundation. In some families and groups, living together is still “living in sin.” Do people still get disowned for doing that?

Recently, I was watching an episode of Love, American Style, the late 1960s-early 1970s television series on “modern love.” There was an episode where two elderly people were “living in sin” and their families were quite unhappy about it. The younger generation was not as hip as they portended. The reason these seniors did not marry was to protect their Social Security checks. They acted like a married couple and likely would been married, but for the government marriage penalty. A silly sitcom can sometimes hit a bullseye with social commentary.

Prearranged marriages are a part of history, although they still happen in many non-Western cultures. Not exactly a love connection, more like are a business deal. That’s not intended as an insult to any culture, just a quandary for my thinking. Married at first sight. That’s a great idea for a reality show!

Society has changed a lot in 50 years since Love, American Style. Overall, societal view is more accepting of cohabitating, some financial and legal marriage penalties have been removed, same-sex unions now are recognized, and on the flip-side, making dissolution of marriage is legally “easier” and less of a scandal now. Divorce is no piece of cake, unless it is from a cake left out in the rain (“MacArthur Park”). Not everyone or every religious group approves of same sex marriage, just to be clear. Fundamentalists who believe in traditional marriage continue to push back using religious freedom as a foundation for their argument. The God I believe in is about love, not hate. Go figure.

Marriage in later years can be complicated and have many thorny consequences. How unromantic is that? But it’s true. Work those things out ahead of time, because a divorce is even less romantic than practical matters like negotiating a prenup, settling healthcare responsibilities, health decision-making issues, lifestyle choices and other relationships boundaries and expectations. We spend a lifetime building our lives: accumulating assets, having families, establishing lifestyles, developing our values and beliefs. Falling in love is easy, fitting lives together is more challenging, but worth the effort.

Assuming the various legal, financial and family issues are successfully navigated: why do seniors marry? For many of the same reasons as younger people, yet those reasons may have a different priority. Companionship, shared interests, security and intimacy are often mentioned.

Some Research

According to Boston University sociologist Deborah Carr, research shows that older re-partnered couples are likelier to be more equal financially, more autonomous as individuals and freer of gender roles. Sounds like older people may have their shit together.

Studies show cohabitation over age 60 has more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2020. A lot of living in sin going on. The Pew Research Center shows that 53 percent of people over age 50 are on their second marriage.

How is being a couple in your later years different than being a couple at a much younger age? It seems more common that older couples build their relationships on what they want together – and what they don’t want together. Finances for example. Married or not married, the trend is to have separate finances and expenses. Protection is one reason, freedom is another. Your, mine and ours?

Data collected from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) shows that past the age of 32 or so, the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year of age at marriage. Making it to the finish line is challenging, making it happily is even harder. The rise of no-fault divorce and more social acceptance of divorce makes it easier to divorce, although the process and entanglements are still painful for those involved. All of those things factor into the decision to marry again and deciding ahead of time how that marriage works.

University of Haifa psychologist Chaya Koren found that in the older remarriages she studied, each spouse felt more like an individual within their relationship, fostering both greater equality and deeper intimacy. Francine Russo, the author of Love After 50: How to Find It, Enjoy It, and Keep It, found that relationships later in life focused on things that really mattered, but it was important to have healed from previous long-term relationships first.

Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb of the Open University completed a two-year project, Enduring Love funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Their book, Couple Relationships in the 21st Century, explores the evolution of how couples work. “Couples who divorce and marry again later in life often have a better sense of who they are and what they want from a relationship,” Fink says. “There is an uptick in first marriage divorce for those over 50 as more couples don’t move comfortably approaching retirement years, according to their research. The prospect of spending the rest of your life with someone not your soulmate, dissolves an increasing number of marriages. The kids are gone, spouses grow apart, fun has disappeared. Social convention stopped binding couples together decades ago.”

Dr. Kate Davidson, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender and co-author of Intimacy in Later Life, found the widows tend to remarry widowers, often someone they have known for years. Widowed men are not as picky in their future mates. “Relationships in later life are about motivation, desirability and availability,” Davidson says.

“When they get married, they say, I’m doing it again and this time I’m going to get it right. They want to reinvent older age, but not just as youth reworked,” said relationship therapist Christina Fraser of Coupleworks,

According to researchers, seniors don’t seem to fear commitment, in fact, they want it. The fear of marriage comes from what might be of higher health care costs, loss of retirement benefits, increased taxes and complications to existing estate plans.

And the marriage penalty? Much has change with tax code revisions in recent years. According to the Kiplinger Newsletter, marriage conveys 1,138 tax breaks, benefits and protections (such as guaranteed medical leave to care for a family member). Consult an expert, someone not named George Santos.

If you have found that forever someone, don’t be afraid of having the relationship you want. Married or just coupled. Does a late-life relationship take more work than being kids? No, it all takes work. As mature adults, you know the issues, get to work. Each day is one less day you have together, just don’t waste it.

Here’s to all the folks willing to take a chance, to deal with the inevitable, cold realities, to find a path through the thicket and brambles of modern life, and to allow the sweet forever of young love to warm mature bones and intersect two separate orbits.

One final thought. One reason that two people marry is to stand facing each other and vow to take care for the other, to put aside selfish things, and to commit to enrich the life of the one person that sees and accepts your imperfections and failings. Two people humbly share in the ultimate promise.

Cheers and much happiness.

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