With the aging of the population and increased life expectancy in western societies, there has been growing research interest in the period of late adulthood, which can span several decades. That life stage is characterized by three major events that can affect the individual as well as the marital unit: decline in health, retirement from work, and entry into the role of grand parent or sometimes even great grandparent. The following main aspects of the dyadic unit are emphasized here in light of their relevance to late adulthood: caregiving, satisfaction with marriage and quality of marital life, power relations, and the division of household tasks.
In late adulthood, caregiving involves a considerable investment of time and energy by spouses, who are usually the main caregivers. Some couples report that the caregiving role increases their sense of commitment, closeness, and love. Husbands usually approach caregiving as a project and are comfortable delegating tasks, whereas caregiving wives usually give more direct assistance in the form of ADLs (activities of daily living) and IADLs (instrumental activities of daily living) (Miller 1990). Caregiving wives usually look for activities that will involve their spouses, and are concerned with providing for their spouses’ needs, whereas caregiving husbands usually prefer to do things on their own. In addition, wives are more negatively affected than their husbands by caregiving. For example, Miller (1990) found that caregiving wives have less access to social support, although they do not differ from their husbands with regard to emotional strain. Other researchers indicate that caregiving wives feel burnout, because the responsibilities of providing care may cause them to feel trapped at a time when they should be free. By contrast, caregiving husbands may feel less burnout because they are more likely to supplement the care for their wives with formal services. It has also been argued that husbands are better able than wives to cope with problems in the marital relationship and maintain an emotional distance (for a review, see Walker 1999).
Satisfaction with Marriage and Quality of Marital Life
In general, researchers have found that most older people report happy marriages, and attribute this perception to the selective examination of couples whose marriage did not end in divorce (for a review, see Huyck 1995).
Cross-sectional studies of older people have revealed that, compared with younger populations, older couples report fewer marital problems, although there is a decline in positive interaction compared with earlier stages of marriage. As for gender differences, husbands typically report higher marital satisfaction than do wives (Walker 1999). In this connection, qualitative studies suggest that husbands tend to idealize the situation and deny existing tensions, whereas wives tend to recognize problems and initiate changes as the children start leaving home. Wives who have been married for 20 years indicate that resolving disagreements becomes more difficult (Vaillant & Vaillant 1993), and tend to report lower marital adjustment over time, whereas husbands tend to report a greater decline in sexual satisfaction. Among elderly couples, wives are more likely to consider separating than husbands. Elderly wives are also less likely than their husbands to name their spouse as their main confidant, although both elderly partners consider their spouse as a companion. Kulik (2001) found fluctuations in marital satisfaction at different stages of the retirement process. In the remote pre-retirement stage (about seven years before retirement), couples express more emotions (tension and marital enjoyment) than in the near pre-retirement and post retirement stages. Kulik also found that levels of burnout, i.e., feeling tired of the marriage or feeling trapped in late adulthood, are much lower than in earlier stages of marriage, and that when marital relations are egalitarian, both spouses feel less burnout in marital life.
Few studies have focused on marital power relations, and even fewer have dealt with the topic in late adulthood. In their well-known study Husbands and Wives (1960), Blood and Wolfe found that a husband’s power increases from the time the first child is born until the youngest child enters school. Afterwards there is a steady decline in the husband’s power, which reaches a particularly low point when the oldest child leaves home. The husband’s power continues to decline after retirement, when he loses some of the resources that he had while he was working.
Recently, Kulik found that throughout the retirement process (remote pre-retirement, near pre-retirement, and after retirement), men show a greater tendency than women to report an advantage in the areas of major decisions (e.g., budget). With respect to domestic power (decisions about household matters), women have reported an advantage, although no gender based differences were found regarding decisions about such issues as time use. Moreover, attempts have been made to analyze power relations in late adulthood as a function of occupational status and timing of retirement among couples. For example, a comparative study of synchronous couples (both spouses retired or employed) and asynchronous couples (one spouse retired and the other employed) revealed that all types of couples tend to have relatively egalitarian power relations, as expressed in decision making in all areas of life (Kulik 2001).
Division of Household Tasks
According to family development perspectives, role differentiation declines in the late stage of family life, when work obligations and the demands of childrearing diminish. However, findings are inconclusive and inconsistent. Some studies have found that after retirement most couples continue the traditional patterns, which are characterized by a clear differentiation between gender roles. According to this perspective, men continue to perform typically masculine tasks such as household repairs and gardening, and even increase their involvement in those activities (Vinick & Ekerdt 1991), whereas women maintain traditional feminine roles such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. In a similar vein, researchers have found that retired men with employed wives do not seek to increase their involvement in household tasks, and that certain women even increase their involvement in household tasks after retirement (Szinovacz & Harpster 1994). In contrast to these findings, which indicate that traditional gender roles persist after retirement, other studies have revealed that gender role differences diminish (for a review, see Atchley 1992). Additionally, some studies have found that the husband’s participation in typically feminine household tasks increases after retirement. Kulik
(2001) found that the division of feminine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and ironing, as well as general tasks such as paying bills and purchasing household commodities, is usually more egalitarian among synchronous retired couples than among synchronous pre retired couples. The division of feminine tasks was relatively egalitarian among asynchronous couples (retired husbands/employed wives). However, no differences were found between different types of couples with respect to masculine tasks such as household repairs, which are almost always carried out by men.
As for future research, with the increase in life expectancy in western societies and the growing population of elderly couples over the age of 80, it would be worthwhile to focus studies on that age group. Additionally, because most studies on later life marriage are cross sectional, longitudinal studies that follow the development of marital relations in late adult hood among the same group of couples would be very useful.
- Atchley, R. C. (1992) Retirement and Marital Satisfaction. In: Szinovacz, M., Ekerdt, D. J., & Vinick, B. H. (Eds.), Families and Retirement. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 145-58.
- Huyck, M. H. (1995) Marriage and Close Relationships of the Marital Kind. In: Blieszner, R. & Hilkevitch, V. (Eds.), Handbook of Aging and the Family. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, pp. 181-200.
- Kolsberg, J. I., Cairl, R. E., & Keller, D. M. (1990) Components of Burden: Interventive Implications. Gerontologist 30: 236-42.
- Kulik, L. (2001) Marital Relationships in Late Adulthood: Synchronous versus Asynchronous Couples. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 52: 323-9.
- Miller, B. (1990) Gender Differences in Spouse Caregiving Strain: Socialization and Role Expectations. Journal of Marriage and the Family 52: 311-21.
- Szinovacz, M. & Harpster, P. (1994) Couples: Employment/Retirement Status and the Division of Household Tasks. Gerontology: Social Sciences 49: S125-S136.
- Vaillant, C. O. & Vaillant, G. E. (1993) Is the U-Curve of Marital Satisfaction an Illusion? A 40-year Study of Marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family 55: 230-9.
- Vinick, B. H. & Ekerdt, D. J. (1991) The Transition to Retirement: Responses of Husbands and Wives. In: Hess, B. B. & Markson, E. (Eds.), Growing Old in America, 4th edn. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ, pp. 305-17.
- Walker, A. J. (1999) Gender and Family Relationships. In: Sussman, M. B., Steinmetz, S. K., & Peterson, G. W. (Eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family, 2nd edn. Plenum, New York, pp.439-74.