Metropolitan Digital

  • Written by Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School

Across the country an unprecedented number of couples are suddenly spending every waking and sleeping hour of the day with one another.

That’s what many older retired couples do too[1], even when there isn’t a pandemic. Their experiences are worth listening to, because many psychology studies find that marriages among the Medicare-eligible set are the happiest[2] of any cohort across the life span[3].

A review of the research reveals a U-shaped pattern of marital happiness[4] over the life cycle. Early marriage features many positive aspects interlaced with a lot of conflict, while older couples enjoy the highest levels of companionship with low levels of conflict. Midlife couples who are raising children are at the bottom of the U. They tend to see a plunge in their enjoyment of one another, along with an uptick in fighting.

Of course, you might wish you could be securely retired with a partner right now, especially if you’re currently on your own. Working remotely or facing unemployment while running a one-room schoolhouse, planning three meals a day without running out of food and worrying about your family’s health makes retirement look like a dreamy vacation.

But there are some important similarities between retirement and the isolation required by social distancing. Your social networks have shrunk. Without work connections and friends to meet for lunch or at the gym, a partner becomes more essential than ever. As a therapist who has been treating couples[5] at all stages of life[6] for almost three decades, I’m currently witnessing the relational challenges of this pandemic, a big magnifier that can bring out the very best and sometimes the worst in relationships.

Stuck at home with your partner? Look to retirees for how to make it work Older couples rely on one another to help weather the storms. Adolescent Content/Niyani Lingham Green/DigitalVision via Getty Images[7]

Lean on me

Older, retired couples[8] primarily focus on supporting one another: Can I depend on you when I need help, feel scared, worry about dying or don’t feel well? And am I willing to be that source of comfort and stability when you need me?

No matter the age or stage of the couple, the current pandemic has revealed the need for much more mutual dependency. Can I count on you to protect yourself and us when you go to the grocery store? If I’m feeling scared about my parents’ health or mine, can I tell you? If teaching algebra (a subject I struggled with the first time around) to our children has pushed me to the breaking point, can I ask you to take over, kindly and with no eye-rolling?

Now is an ideal time to develop your help-asking muscle and, in turn, to welcome your partner’s vulnerability. You can practice now for the years ahead when you’ll need to be comfortable with more mutual dependency – being able to count on and be counted on in moments of need and frailty.

Have fewer, kinder fights

My colleague, psychiatrist Bob Waldinger, brings octogenarian couples[9] into his laboratory to study their conflicts. He told me that he often has trouble getting them to reenact a fight. Having had the same fights for decades, these older couples are quite bored at the prospect of another round. They already know the other one’s lines. Do we have to do this again?

When older couples do fight[10], they tend to handle conflict better[11] than younger ones: They are more likely to interject expressions of affection and are less prone to voicing disgust, belligerence and whining. Because the relationship is so central, they may be more likely to forgive their partners or let a grievance slide.

So, try to catch a fight as it starts and consider saying to your partner, “Can we talk about something more interesting? We probably already know how this is going to unfold.”

Or, if the conflict is important to air, try to remember that you can say something kind without surrendering, or give a warm nonverbal smile or touch.

It’s also a good idea to refrain from making any contemptuous or nasty comments. Couples researchers recommend following the “magic ratio” of 5 to 1[12] during a fight to secure a stable relationship: Try to say five positive things to every one zinger or negative comment. This ratio, which may seem outlandish, is based on the fact that negative interactions carry more weight[13] than positive ones.

Stuck at home with your partner? Look to retirees for how to make it work When ‘for better or worse’ includes every waking moment. Drazen_/E+ via Getty Images[14]

Focus on the present reality

Studies suggest that older couples focus on the present[15] and are better able to accept the relationship as it is, rather than looking ahead to a time when it is going to be transformed.

While they may not discuss their own mortality, older couples’ perspectives are shaped[16] by a shorter time horizon. They typically pay more attention to positive experiences, want to understand their emotions better and focus on a smaller group of close friends and family.

Try focusing on what is good about your relationship. What do you admire and feel grateful for? If you focus on the ways your partner is supportive, research shows that both you and your spouse will feel better about the relationship[17]. Focusing on emotion will not be hard during a pandemic that elicits powerful feelings of anger, fear, worry, grief, love and gratitude. What can you learn about your partner that you didn’t know before about his or her strengths, ways of coping and cracks in that coping?

Being stuck with your partner 24/7 may leave you pondering the expression “for better or worse, but not for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” But you may come out the other side with some new skills. You don’t have to wait for retirement to have a stronger relationship.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter[18].]


  1. ^ many older retired couples do too (
  2. ^ are the happiest (
  3. ^ cohort across the life span (
  4. ^ U-shaped pattern of marital happiness (
  5. ^ As a therapist who has been treating couples (
  6. ^ at all stages of life (
  7. ^ Adolescent Content/Niyani Lingham Green/DigitalVision via Getty Images (
  8. ^ Older, retired couples (
  9. ^ brings octogenarian couples (
  10. ^ When older couples do fight (
  11. ^ handle conflict better (
  12. ^ “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 (
  13. ^ negative interactions carry more weight (
  14. ^ Drazen_/E+ via Getty Images (
  15. ^ focus on the present (
  16. ^ older couples’ perspectives are shaped (
  17. ^ feel better about the relationship (
  18. ^ Read The Conversation’s newsletter (

Authors: Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

REBECCA “DAWGGONE" DAVIS” Weight of the World

When people hear my song “Weight of the World” for the first time, they always wonder if I somehow knew 2020 would be a year like no other in our history. Was there any conscious thought predictin...

Rebecca Davis - avatar Rebecca Davis

WENDY MOTEN I’ve Got You Covered

WENDY MOTEN may have launched her career as a pop/R&B artist and taken cool detours into jazz along the way, but her heart clearly belongs to NashvilleWendy Moten may have launched her career ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Smooth Jazz Music Legend “Dr. Dave” Releases An Homage To The Tonight Show

Writing and recording smooth jazz albums and performing live over the past 25 years, I’ve learned that people react most powerfully to a song’s rhythms. If you’ve got a great beat that they can mo...

Dr. Dave - avatar Dr. Dave

Singer/Songwriter Darrell Kelley Talks Music and Social Relevance

I feel very blessed that two of my songs, “The Coronavirus” and “Because of You,” are currently in the Top Five on the World Indie Music charts and continue to grow in influence, with over 100,0...

Darrell Kelley - avatar Darrell Kelley

How to Create a Melody on the Piano

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be able to write a song? Maybe you’ve wondered how anybody goes about writing a song? Once you understand how music works, you can use building b...

News Company - avatar News Company


In the midst of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the release of “In the Morning” on Pure Mission Entertainment – the label he partners on with Aaron Emig - follows on the heels of the global s...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

Expert Advice: Indie Record Producing and Engineering

My career as an independent artist evolved out of my career as an entrepreneur and restaurant owner. I moved to from my hometown of Boston Atlanta in 2013 and opened my soul food restaurant Soul D...

Darrell Kelley - avatar Darrell Kelley

Weight of The World

When the calm of the world is at stake, and every message of hope is crucial to our collective peace of mind and the endurance of the human spirit, it’s not only possible, but essential to present any...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

DARRELL KELLEY “The Coronavirus”

Even though I have been releasing tracks and albums since 2018, I never considered myself an artist until I started getting responses from people telling me that my songs were resonating with them. ...


Metropolitan Business News

New Research Highlights Opportunities for Sports Betting

Revenue Stream for Sports’ Post-COVID-19 Recovery Strategies New Rochelle, NY, June 1, 2020— Twenty-four states have now legalized sports betting, with more states considering legalization la...

Len Stein - avatar Len Stein

How to make overseas transfers easier?

Mainstream banks can charge as much as $20 just to process a basic international money transfer. Fortunately, today people are not doomed to handling personal finances only through mainstream gl...

News Company - avatar News Company

The flourishing international market of fragrance and perfume

There is something special and unique about the art of fragrance. This is a big world and there are quite literally a lot of smells around at any given time. In fact, as one of the five human senses i...

News Company - avatar News Company

Impact of good marketing on sales

Sales and marketing are brothers as they go hand and in hand. The job of both of these departments is to generate revenue so that an organization can make money. A company that does not generate rev...

News Company - avatar News Company

7 effective tips for increasing sales in retail

It seems that retailers have drawn a difficult lot in the 21st century: competition from online retail is growing steadily. After all, Internet retailers can sell your products at significantly lowe...

News Company - avatar News Company

10 Reasons to Use Labels

People cannot stop biting their nails, considering the messy condition of their homes. You open your kitchen drawer to grab some utensils, but instead, you take a glance at toys lying inside that dr...

News Company - avatar News Company



Are you planning to go on a trip? Possibly, you do not know what things are most necessary on a trip. In this article, we will guide you through some important tips. These tips help you to...

News Company - avatar News Company

New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt


Breaking News & Opinion