AARP Love and Meaning after 50

The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships—and How to Overcome Them


By Julia L. Mayer, PsyD

By Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD

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Sustain loving relationships and set yourself up for emotional wellness in your fifties, sixties, and beyond with this valuable collection of advice from two psychology experts.

“Drs. Mayer and Jacobs use their clinical wisdom and story-telling abilities to bring to life the challenges for couples as they age. Their advice will help strengthen long-term relationships to combat the rising trend of Gray Divorce.”
–Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, author of After the Affair and Life with Pop

With couples divorcing at higher rates than any generation before, and longer lifespans leaving people unwilling to settle for an unsatisfying partner, it’s more important than ever to refocus and strengthen your relationship. The only question is: how?

In AARP Love and Meaning after 50, husband-wife psychologist team Julia Mayer and Barry Jacobs — with 50+ years of experience between them — identify the 10 most common challenges to sustain loving relationships:

The Empty Nest * Extended Family * Finances * Infidelity
Retirement * Downsizing and Relocating * Sex
Health Concerns * Caregiving * Loss of Loved Ones

AARP Love and Meaning after 50 offers insights and anecdotes, do it yourself assessments and follow-up exercises, and tips for connecting through the difficult times. With this book, you’ll find deeper meaning and greater satisfaction for the decades ahead–together.


Tips for Talking and Listening

Throughout this book, we suggest you talk and listen to deepen and strengthen your relationship. It’s more challenging than you may think. It requires patience and practice.

You aren’t solving specific problems during this time; you are sharing feelings and learning about each other.

The couples we work with have found the following guidelines helpful.

1. Make an appointment in advance to talk with each other. Pick a time when you are both likely to feel able to listen and talk at your own pace without pressure.

2. Choose a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted and where you’ll feel comfortable and have privacy.

3. Turn off or silence devices if you can.

4. Remember that this likely isn’t easy for either of you.

5. Let yourselves be vulnerable.

6. Give your partner time to talk.

7. Do your best to listen patiently, quietly, and openly.

8. Refrain from being critical, judgmental, or defensive.

9. Respond to your partner with validating comments, even if you’re feeling surprised or upset. Just listen closely and summarize aloud what you’ve heard.

10. Be respectful and supportive.

Remember that your goal is to strengthen your connection. This will be an opportunity to feel closer.

Challenge 1

The Empty Nest

Carol leaned toward Julia as if to speak in confidence, though Ben was sitting next to her on the black leather couch in Julia’s office. Putting her hand to the side of her mouth, Carol loudly whispered, “I don’t know what to do with him.”

Their twin daughters had left for college six months earlier, and the couple was sitting in Julia’s psychotherapy office because it wasn’t going so well.

Ben shrugged and looked uncomfortable. Carol continued: “He sits in front of the TV and watches cable news all day long on the weekends and every night. Or he’s on his phone. What are we going to do when he retires? I can’t live like this. He doesn’t want to go on walks with me or join me when I go shopping.” She sighed. “He always spent the weekends doing sports with the girls. It’s like life ended for him when they left.”

Julia looked over at Ben, who shrugged again before saying morosely, “We have nothing in common. I don’t like to take walks, and shopping sounds like torture to me. Either I’m going to the gym or I’m relaxing at home. I don’t really know what she wants from me.”

Carol responded, “I was hoping, now that you aren’t so busy with the girls every weekend, that you and I might spend some time together. I’ve been waiting for this time. It’s not that I don’t miss the girls. I do, but I want my marriage back.”

Ben said suddenly in a loud, derisive voice, “As if you can magically make that happen. Snap your fingers.” He snapped his fingers in her face.

For many couples, the empty nest is a rude awakening. After years of close cooperation with raising children, coordinating chores, and juggling family and work schedules, it can come as a shock when spouses are finally alone together and turn toward each other with a feeling of unfamiliarity. Just as Ben and Carol discovered, the children are no longer there on a day-to-day basis to fill the house with activity and unite the parents in common cause. Instead, in the sudden quiet, uneasiness creeps in. Do the spouses still know each other as people, not just co-parents? Do they love each other as much as they once did? Or was something in their relationship lost through the years of child-focused family life?

Some partners do thrive during the empty-nest stage. After the last child leaves, they are exuberant about the decreased housework and day-to-day responsibilities; the increased opportunities for independent and social activities and self-development; the time for travel, new career pursuits, and hobbies. But for those who flounder through this transition, four main reasons often arise: mishandled emotions, divergence of interests, lack of relationship-building skills, and conflicted family priorities.

Mishandled Emotions

Carol’s main complaint about the state of their marriage was that Ben was emotionally distant. All those hours in front of the TV, at work, or in the gym didn’t bring him into conversation with her. Rather, his preoccupation with other things felt to her like a withdrawal or even rejection. She could understand that they were a little rusty with talking about their emotions; they’d been talking for so long only about how the kids were coping. But Ben didn’t even seem interested in relating to her. They were coexisting, passing each other in the hallways or at the kitchen table without much interaction.

They’d drifted into parallel lives in which they’d devoted so much time and energy to their girls that they’d forgotten to pay attention to each other. Sitting in Julia’s office, they seemed awkward even looking at or speaking to each other. Years earlier, they’d stopped sharing feelings that weren’t about their children.

For many couples, emotional distance is often spurred by emotional misalignment. One spouse is beset with sadness; the other with anger. One volubly expresses how she feels; the other is stoical and silent. When stress in a marriage increases, including during the empty-nest period, differences in emotional styles become more pronounced. Then both spouses can feel alone with their feelings and convinced that the other spouse is out of touch.

Carol and Ben were misaligned in this way. She missed their children but felt mostly annoyance with him because for years he had hardly talked to her about anything but the girls and never inquired about her. In her mind, he didn’t seem to care. Ben did care, at least to a degree, but he was preoccupied. Because the twins, not Carol, had constituted so much of his world, he was now utterly bereft. At Julia’s prompting, he admitted he felt dread and sadness, as if his life were dwindling away.

Feelings of grief are not uncommon for the empty-nest transition. For many couples, raising children can be the most meaningful activity they have ever experienced. They may throw themselves into it, savoring every moment of it, relishing their identity as parents. Many enjoy providing emotional support and guidance as their children grow up. They love feeling needed and being able to meet their children’s needs. Making favorite meals, throwing parties, or driving carloads of children to activities can feel extremely rewarding to eagerly involved parents. Many become active, valued members of their community by getting involved with their children’s education, sports, or activities: offering to serve on the school board, coach a sport, or raise money for costumes for a play. When these roles—which have become so crucial to a parent’s self-concept—disappear, that parent may suffer an identity crisis. What will define me now? he may ask himself. What do I have to look forward to that will be as meaningful as raising my children? The departure of the last child is also a clear signal to parents that they are getting older and must deal with their own aging and disappointments about past hopes and dreams.

Integrating those painful feelings of loss can be a lonely process if the spouses don’t feel similarly or if they grieve too differently. There is an opportunity here for couples to feel closer if they mourn the past together and connect emotionally over their anxieties about
the future. But some people need to cry and sit with their sadness while others keep busy or devote themselves to new activities to counteract their sad feelings.

When Julia asked Ben if he’d explained to his wife why the kids’ departure was affecting him so intensely, he looked at the floor and mumbled, “Carol wouldn’t understand.”

Why wouldn’t she understand? Julia wondered. The couple had been together for decades. Why was it so hard for them to grieve together? Like some struggling empty-nesters, Ben seemed mildly depressed. He seemed to be pining for the past—for the sheer joy of being a dad—and couldn’t imagine any possible fulfillment other than raising a family.

Carol’s sharp tone, though, seemed to indicate she’d lost patience with what she considered to be his wallowing. But her resentment didn’t shake him out of his malaise. It only made him resent her for not feeling the loss of their children as much as he did.

Emotional misalignment is usually made worse by a couple’s history of pent-up resentment. The child-rearing years, rosy in retrospect, are often stressful and difficult, and spouses may blame each other during them for a multitude of offenses, such as working too much, not earning enough money, not helping with chores enough, or spending too much time with friends. When the family includes a child with special needs or challenging behavioral or academic issues, spouses often regularly blame each other for the attendant burdens or struggles. Not infrequently, couples allow the blame to build up unexpressed. It becomes an underlying current in the couple’s relationship that they never confront or adequately manage. At the empty-nest transition, that resentment is no longer masked by attending to the children’s needs and can be suddenly and painfully revealed.

Even if a couple has stayed together for the kids’ sake through a marriage of silent resentment or endless bickering, denigration, and blame, a relationship reckoning often occurs once the children leave. A partner may finally say, “Either my spouse will care more about how I feel—after I’ve experienced so much emotional neglect and hurt—or I will walk away.”

Diverging Interests

Even couples in relationships that seem close can find themselves divided during the empty nest. They discover that, without realizing it, their interests have diverged over the years. Carol was surprised to learn that Ben had no desire to take walks or shop. She couldn’t relate to his eagerness to spend hours at the gym or in front of the television. Because they had never made it a priority to spend much of their precious time together, pursuing activities as a couple, they were startled to find they had grown into different people—partners they each barely recognized and weren’t sure they liked.

At all points in committed relationships, partners need to negotiate their independence and feelings of dependence on each other. It often comes down to finding a sustainable balance between what we call in our practices Me Time and We Time. Too much Me Time may mean the couple has too few mutual interests and activities. Too much We Time, on the other hand, can stifle the need for individual pursuits and growth and ultimately lead to a stale and stultifying marriage.

Finding the right balance becomes even more pressing when the children leave home and both spouses have more time available. They may approach this happily to pursue hobbies, start new businesses, strike up new friendships, and enroll in new classes after years of making school lunches, checking homework, and standing on soccer field sidelines. But both partners need to choose these new pursuits thoughtfully to be sure they enhance, not detract from, the relationship.

Ben had mentioned he was spending a lot of time at the gym. Because Carol wasn’t as interested in physical exercise, his choice effectively excluded her. Carol enjoyed going shopping to blow off steam. Ben experienced shopping as torment. They’d both developed activities that reduced their stress and gave them enjoyment, but they hadn’t done it together. There wasn’t much We Time.

On the other hand, couples can get on each other’s nerves with the increased time together. If Carol insisted on running side by side with Ben on adjacent treadmills every time he went to the gym, he might feel he was losing essential Me Time. If Ben had suggested joining Carol’s long-standing book group because he thought reading the same things she did and becoming a bigger part of her social life would bring them closer, Carol might feel he was intruding on what had long been an important activity and relationships that were hers alone. Any new life that Ben and Carol crafted would have to be negotiated carefully so each felt neither abandoned nor infringed on.

In our psychotherapy practices, we often suggest to couples long before they become empty-nesters that they develop interests and pursuits as a couple, separate from those of their children. We
recommend date nights, occasional weekends away, couple friends, and other activities that do not include the children. We help clients explore what other meaningful interests they may have separate from child-rearing. Even if there is little time, beginning to focus on each other reminds the couple that raising children is an important part of their lives, but not the only important part. Life can have plenty of meaning in the empty nest, but couples need to put in the efforts to create that meaning.

Lack of Relationship-Building Skills

Our American culture tends to value and support couples when they marry and have children. We know what a typical wedding is supposed to look like and can find plenty of advice about how to make one perfect or unusual but always memorable. We have a multitude of often- conflicting guidelines for how to be good parents at all stages of our children’s lives. Those earlier life phases are so well studied that most couples have at least some sense of how they are doing compared to the larger population. But we don’t have many societal norms regarding what to do after child-rearing has ended.

Many couples lack the tools to negotiate next steps. Effective communication is the most important one. Spouses who haven’t talked about the future or imagined together what the possibilities might be may instead resort to complaining about each other. Or they may become defensive, feeling judged or criticized when they do try to talk about the many challenges at this phase of life. In their session with Julia, Ben had responded with irritation to Carol’s outreach and withdrawn further. Carol would likely put up with this kind of behavior for only so long before getting fed up. It would take a great effort to help them communicate better and find ways of reconnecting.

Uncovering years of missed opportunities, layers of resentment, old longings, and feelings of betrayal is extremely challenging for couples who inwardly believe that talking about these issues may be extremely risky to their relationship—or that it won’t do any good at all. So many couples avoid these concerns for so many years. For there to be a good chance of success, both spouses need to be willing to feel vulnerable, acknowledge mistakes, and forgive the past. They need to be able to focus on the here and now. Letting go of old hurts and power inequities is especially hard for couples when they haven’t been adequately discussed, remorse hasn’t been expressed, or trust hasn’t been reestablished.

Through individual sessions with the couple, Julia learned that Carol had been angry for years about Ben’s late hours, travel, and avoidance of housework but had kept her mouth shut for fear of disrupting the peace in the family. Once the children left, though, she felt a need for justice and struggled to express herself to him in a way that he would hear and understand. She wanted to tell him about her sense of disappointment about their marriage but didn’t want to alienate him further by being too negative. “I’ve missed our relationship for years,” she told Julia, “but I thought that’s what couples did—focus on the children. Now I want us to have the romance we had years ago. I’m not sure how to get there. I don’t know if he still loves me. I don’t want to be alone.”

To strengthen relationships, partners need to remember to regularly turn toward each other throughout and not take each other for granted. With the hectic pace of our daily lives, that’s often difficult.

It was easy for Ben and Carol to get caught up in their childcare and work activities. As with too many couples, they ignored the signs that whatever closeness they once had was fading during the busy years of child-rearing and career ladder climbing. They didn’t recognize that all relationships require ongoing effort. Failure to build these skills can lead to a breakdown in the relationship.

Julia was not surprised to learn, during an individual session, that Ben had recently considered having an affair with a divorced woman at work who was also an empty-nester. She really listened to him, he said. It is a truism of couples psychology that, when spouses are unhappy within their relationship, they may seek comfort outside the marriage. This is more likely to happen during stressful transitions such as the empty nest as an attempt to manage difficult feelings, such as grief. Especially when they’ve already been emotionally distant, spouses don’t trust each other enough to let themselves be vulnerable and grieve together. They may be constrained by the belief that if they express all their emotions, they will look weak in their spouse’s eyes. That leaves them in a lonely place, managing their powerfully sad feelings by themselves. For Ben, the anticipation of a new relationship was a convenient way to sidestep his fears of Carol’s judgments while still gaining the support that he needed at a stressful time. He hadn’t pursued the affair, he said; he and the woman had only talked. If he did let this new friendship replace his more important connection with Carol, Julia knew, he would sidestep his marriage altogether.

Now at the empty-nest stage, Ben and Carol would have to squarely face the fact that their marriage up to that point had not been as satisfying as they each had hoped. That would be painful. They would have to commit themselves to viewing the empty nest as an opportunity to renegotiate what they expected from their partner to better meet each other’s needs. That would be the challenge that would tell whether they had a future together.

Conflicted Family Priorities

The empty-nest period, signaling a shift away from concentrated time with kids, also coincides with the start of other difficult life transitions. Even when children leave home, they, like Ben and Carol’s twins, still have needs. Couples need to negotiate how they will be in this new iteration of family—and they may not always agree. Couples are also feeling more pressure to save for retirement, hopefully not too far down the road. Many now have parents who are aging and need help, or will likely need help in the future. Disagreements about which family resources
to devote to each priority is often a source of debate and strife.

Conflict over how much time to spend with aging parents—often at the expense of an immediate family’s needs—is an increasingly common issue in our society. (You’ll find more about this in Challenge 9: Caregiving.) Even determining the amount of support to give their soon-to-be-adult children can drive a wedge between spouses. Without alignment of values, not just emotions, couples are likely to struggle over the decisions they must make and the changes they must face during the empty-nest phase.

Ben and Carol had had conflicted family priorities even before they had kids. Ben had traveled frequently as he worked his way up from sales to management. This bothered Carol; she thought they should spend more time together. But she never expressed her feelings because he was so good to her once he came home. Besides, she had a job as a corporate attorney and plenty of friends to keep her busy. Then, within two years of their wedding, Carol became pregnant with the twins, and much of their relationship after that became consumed with working as a child-rearing team. Their family priorities coincided.

They went along that way for years, joined through parenting. But as the girls became more independent in their teen years, Carol felt the need to rebalance their priorities to focus more on their marriage. She’d suggest they go to a movie while the girls were spending a busy afternoon on school projects, but Ben insisted on hanging around the house, just in case they needed his help. She asked him more than once to come with her to visit her parents an hour’s drive away, but he always declined. Now the twins had gone off to college and Carol wanted to make rekindling their marriage their highest priority. But Ben wasn’t ready for that.

On at least one family priority, Ben and Carol wholeheartedly agreed: They didn’t want to disappoint their eighteen-year-old girls by breaking up the family. Even so, it seemed to Julia they had nearly reached a breaking point. While they were concerned that separating would hurt the girls, affect their social connections, and cause severe financial difficulties, one or the other usually threatened to leave whenever they fought. They hadn’t had sex for years, and Carol suspected that Ben had cheated on her. Ben swore that their lack of sex wasn’t a problem for him. Neither really wanted to divorce. But it was becoming more and more difficult to be together.

Tying It All Together

During the next session, Julia asked Carol to try to talk about how she felt about the girls going away to college and the child-rearing phase of her life coming to an end. Julia encouraged her to be thoughtful and as honest as possible and to try not to worry about how Ben might react. She started cautiously, naming obvious changes like no longer feeling connected to the kids’ high school and other parents and frequently finding the house quiet. But as she spoke, she bravely began to comment about feeling older and less attractive, not knowing what the future would hold, and feeling lonely and even frightened. Then she looked down and went silent. Ben and Julia waited. Finally, Julia asked Carol what was going on. She looked up with tears in her eyes, shaking her head no.

Ben had been listening carefully with a look of surprise on his face. When he realized that she was crying and that she was trying not to cry, he spontaneously moved closer to her and put his arm around her. Then she cried harder. When she finally calmed down, Julia asked Ben and Carol to look each other in the eye. They looked at each other for a bit and then Ben began to smile. Then Carol did too. It felt like a moment of recognition. Carol had let herself be vulnerable and had allowed Ben to comfort her. He felt needed by her. For a brief instance, they had found some of their old feelings for each other.

Because Carol had allowed herself to feel vulnerable with Ben, he felt able to share his feelings of grief and fears about the future as well. Carol listened without the usual disdain Julia had witnessed in the first sessions. Ben said he’d felt heard for once and his mood seemed to brighten. Carol was able to show sympathy. She reached out and held his hand.

Ben and Carol still had plenty ahead to discuss and negotiate. Restarting their sex life was one hurdle they’d have to address. But that’s for another challenge (see Challenge 7).

How to Address Your Empty-Nest Concerns

If you and your partner are approaching or in the empty nest, try the following suggestions—which have worked for our clients—to improve your marriage as you go through this transition.

To start, you and your partner should fill out the following Check-Up separately and then compare your results. There are no right or wrong answers, only places where you and your partner may have diverging or similar feelings, experiences, or hopes and dreams. All are important to know about. The divergent places are opportunities to share and learn so that you can plan mindfully how you’d like your empty-nest life to be.


1. My partner and I agree about how to spend our free time together and apart.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

2. My partner and I agree about how much socializing we plan to do together and apart.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

3. My partner and I agree about whether we’d like to make new friends.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

4. My partner and I agree about how much time we’d like to spend with our adult children.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

5. My partner and I feel the same way about letting go of our children.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

6. My partner and I feel supported when we express to each other the difficult emotions (such as sadness, loneliness, and relief) we sometimes feel about the empty nest.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

7. My partner and I talk about how we feel about being empty-nesters.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

8. My partner and I began discussing the empty nest before it happened.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

9. My partner and I are both satisfied with the amount of time we spend together.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

10. My partner and I enjoy doing activities and projects together.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

11. My partner and I feel close to each other.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

12. My partner and I have discussed our hopes and dreams.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

13. My partner and I discuss our feelings about the challenges in our lives.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree

14. My partner and I have talked about or made lists of activities we’d like to do.

Strongly   Disagree   Disagree   Neutral   Agree   Strongly Agree


  • "Drs. Mayer and Jacobs use their clinical wisdom and story-telling abilities to bring to life the challenges for couples 50-plus. Their advice will help strengthen long-term relationships to combat the rising trend of Gray Divorce."—Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, author of After the Affair and Life with Pop
  • "A must-read for anyone over 50 who is married or wants to be. I wish my parents had read this book when they were in their 50s! It's a practical, hopeful guide to renegotiating and reinvigorating your relationship. It will save a lot of marriages, because it will really help you and your spouse talk to each other."—Stephen Fried, New York Times bestselling author of Husbandry: Sex, Love and Dirty Laundry: Inside the Minds of Married Men and Rush: Revolution, Madness & the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father
  • "A beautifully written guide for couples who want inspiration, a refresher, or a reboot after the kids are gone."—William J. Doherty, Ph.D., Professor of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, and author of Take Back Your Marriage
  • "Julia Mayer and Barry Jacobs have given us an eminently practical guide to maintaining connection and re-establishing intimacy for couples over 50. They provide engaging descriptions and clear step-by-step guidance to help couples forge deeper meaning and greater closeness. As the percentage of Americans over 65 continues to grow, this will become an increasingly important and relevant book for an ever-larger segment of our population."—Dr. Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't, and, with Karen Bonnell, The Stepfamily Handbook: From Dating, to Getting Serious to Forming a "Blended Family"

On Sale
Aug 4, 2020
Page Count
256 pages
Hachette Go

Julia L. Mayer, PsyD

About the Author

Julia L. Mayer, PsyD is a clinical psychologist, and has been doing individual and couples therapy for more than a quarter century. She has a busy full-time private practice in Media, Pennsylvania, where she specializes in women’s issues, including relationship concerns, sexual abuse, eating disorders, caregiving, and aging. She has done readings and given talks at libraries, art galleries, clinical supervision groups, retirement communities, and graduate programs in clinical psychology. She also previously published an article in the APA journal, Family, Systems and Health.

Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD
is a clinical psychologist, family therapist, and long-time journalist and writer. He works as the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and has had adjunct faculty positions with the Temple University School of Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and the Department of Psychology of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University and his Doctor of Psychology degree from the Hahnemann/Widener Universities.

Learn more about this author

Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD

About the Author

Dr. Julia L. Mayer is a clinical psychologist, and has been doing individual and couples therapy for more than a quarter century. She has a busy full-time private practice in Media, Pennsylvania, where she specializes in women’s issues, including relationship concerns, sexual abuse, eating disorders, caregiving, and aging. She has done readings and given talks at libraries, art galleries, clinical supervision groups, retirement communities, and graduate programs in clinical psychology. She also previously published an article in the APA journal, Family, Systems and Health.

Dr. Barry J. Jacobs is a clinical psychologist, family therapist, and long-time journalist and writer. He works as the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and has had adjunct faculty positions with the Temple University School of Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and the Department of Psychology of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University and his Doctor of Psychology degree from the Hahnemann/Widener Universities.

Learn more about this author