Teresa M Cooney & Kathleen Dunne. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.
This chapter addresses current research and theorizing regarding the intimate relationships of adults in mid- to late life. Within the literature on intimate and close relationships, this period of the life span has received limited attention. As is the case with research and theory on adulthood and aging more generally, scholarship pertaining to intimate relationships and aging has a relatively short history compared to scholarship focused on earlier periods of the life span.
A Bit of History
Before the 1940s, attention to the study of adult development and gerontology was largely nonexistent in the United States. The late Bernice Neugarten (1988) claimed that her course at the University of Chicago entitled “Maturity and Old Age,” which originated in the late 1940s, was probably the first of its kind to be taught at an American university. Around this same time, researchers were beginning to consider aging issues. The Social Science Research Council formed a subcommittee on Social Adjustment in Old Age in 1943, and during the 1940s University of Chicago researchers Ernest Burgess, Robert Havighurst, and Ethel Shanas initiated several studies focused on adult adjustment (Neugarten, 1988). The 1950s saw the initiation of Duke University’s longitudinal studies of aging and Neugarten and Havighurst’s of cited Kansas City Studies of Adult Life. By 1968, when Neugarten published her influential reader Middle Age and Aging, an extensive array of theoretical and empirical work on mid- and late adulthood was underway.
Despite advances in the field of adulthood and aging by the late 1960s, there was still limited understanding of the importance and meaning of intimacy and couple relationships for older individuals. Because those who survived to old age were typically single and often widowed, scholars appear to have easily dismissed the need to understand couple relationships at this point in the life span. Also, despite the work of Alfred Kinsey and colleagues (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948, 1953) and Masters and Johnson (1982), the prevailing public attitude was that older adults, who were beyond their reproductive years, were incapable of and uninterested in sexual expression and involvement. Indeed, older persons’ participation in non-marital intimate relationships and/or sexual activity (either within or outside marriage) was the butt of many jokes and generally elicited negative stereotypes (“dirty old man!”). Not surprisingly, until the late 1970s and early 1980s (see, e.g., Starr & Weiner, 1981), little empirical attention was devoted to sexuality in the second half of life. Moreover, the study of older adults’ participation in such close relationships as marital and cohabiting unions and dating relationships, where sexual and nonsexual intimacy might occur, was also extremely limited.
The last 20 years have produced incredible growth in the literature on close, intimate relationships, as well as relationship transitions, in mid- to later life. In this chapter, we explore what is known about various close, intimate relationships among older adults and consider how transitions in relationship status affect late-life adjustment and well-being. In addition, we consider some of the sociodemographic changes in recent decades that are likely to shape future relationship patterns for older adults. We speculate about how patterns of intimate relationships in late life will possibly differ for today’s cohorts of older adults and those who will reach this life stage in the next 20 to 30 years.
The Importance of Historical Context
The life course is heavily influenced by sociohistorical context. Therefore, the role options individuals have, the norms that guide their life choices and behaviors, and the institutional supports available as they attempt to carry out their roles vary for persons of different birth cohorts. As a result, life experiences of persons from different cohorts are likely to vary widely, as is their adjustment to various roles at different points in the life cycle. As noted, our focus in this chapter is individuals’ marital and intimate relationship experiences. Thus, it is useful to briefly review some of the major social changes and demographic shifts of the 20th century that are likely to have influenced marital and intimate relationships the most.
One dramatic change in the last 100 years is the reduction in mortality and the increase in life expectancy. Since 1900, life expectancy at birth rose by almost 50%, from 47.3 to 75.5 years (Treas, 1995). Another shift has been the increase in educational attainment for both men and women. Although about one in three persons aged 75 and older in 1990 had less than a high school education, this is true of less than 5% of the population aged 20 to 44 today. In 1990, fewer than 10% of older persons had college degrees, whereas now about one in four persons aged 25 to 44 has finished college (Spain & Bianchi, 1996). Women’s labor force involvement also has changed; women born between 1946 and 1955 were twice as likely and women born between 1956 and 1965 were three times as likely as women of their mothers’ cohorts to be working from ages 25 to 34.
In addition to demographic transformations, life course theorists argue that American society has changed in other ways that influence life course development. Examples include heightened emphasis on individualism and the creation of more public supports to assist families in responding to financial hardships. Consequently, individuals today, compared to those living 50 to 100 years ago, are more likely to make life choices and pursue individual goals at their own discretion, with less need to coordinate their actions with the larger family collective. Some argue that the life course has become less standardized and regimented; greater flexibility in the timing and ordering of education, work, and family roles provides adults today with increasingly diverse relationship experiences and options for shaping their lives (Buchmann, 1989).
Increasing Heterogeneity in Marital Statuses
Whether a person’s later years are shared with a spouse or spent alone is largely determined by sex, and this won’t change in the 21st century. Census data reveal that, among adults aged 65 and over today, three of four men are married, compared to just over half of women (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). Wade (1989) projected that the proportion of married older men will drop to 69% by 2040; the figure for women will remain around 42%. The decline in marriage for men will result primarily from a doubling of the percentage of older never-married men. For older women, change will primarily involve a reduction in the proportion widowed and an increase in the proportion divorced. Therefore, the 21st century will be characterized by greater heterogeneity in marital statuses for the older population. Smaller percentages of older adults will be married than is true today; more elders, especially men, will never have been legally married; and, among the formerly married, marital disruption will be almost as likely to have resulted from divorce as from death of a spouse, especially for women.
The potential for being married in later life increased substantially over the 20th century due to reductions in mortality. Of couples marrying at age 25 in 1900, only 19% could expect to stay continuously married to age 70 (Uhlenberg, 1990). By 1990, reduced mortality meant that 54% of those marrying at age 25 could anticipate such a lengthy union. However, the proportion of the life span devoted to marriage has actually declined because of concomitant increases in age at marriage and divorce rates. Marriage now occupies about 45% of men’s life span and 41% of women’s, down from over 50% for both in 1970 (Schoen & Weinick, 1993). Continuance of these trends suggests that fewer people will be in long-term marriages in old age in the future.
Long-term marriages are characterized by both continuity and discontinuity. Feelings of relative happiness or unhappiness in marriage show high continuity over time (Alford-Cooper, 1998; Brubaker, 1985). That is, the same things that make a given couple happy or unhappy early in marriage tend to make them happy or unhappy later in marriage, and couples having happier early marital experiences tend to have happier experiences later. Continuity also is evident in the division of household duties. The division of labor after retirement is generally similar to the way it was before retirement, with wives doing more of the traditional feminine chores, even when both spouses have retired (Lee & Shehan, 1989).
Discontinuities also occur in long-term marriages. For example, marital satisfaction in long-term marriages decreases from the early to the middle years, during child rearing, and then increases in later life, when children have usually left home and couples have more time together (Goodman, 1999). Thus, most people in long-term marriages report being happy with their marriages (Alford-Cooper, 1998).
Another possible discontinuity in long-term marriage is found in how individuals characterize their relationships. Couples married many years report more pleasure, less conflict and negativity, more affection and intimacy, and fewer marital problems than do couples who have been married fewer years (Carstensen, Gottman, & Levenson, 1995). These differences may exist because of the reduced stress and added time spouses in long-term marriages tend to have after retirement and the departure of children. Those in long-term marriages also may be more grateful for the relationships they have because many their age are widowed (Goodman, 1999).
How other life transitions affect marriage is important to consider. Retirement often results in long-term married spouses being home together for the first time. This requires a “reconsideration of how time is spent, of priority given to activities, and of territorial issues” between spouses (Scott, 1997, p. 371). In a study of couples married at least 50 years, those who were happier and more satisfied with marriage were less likely to report that partners got in each other’s way after retirement; overall, 43% claimed that their marriage improved, 53% reported it was about the same, and 4% claimed that their relationship declined (Alford-Cooper, 1998).
A more complete picture of the effects of retirement on long-term marriage experiences is gained by distinguishing among patterns of retirement. Brubaker (1985) proposed four types of retirement based on the work and retirement patterning of both the husband and wife in a couple. Although few researchers make such distinctions, those that have report that the effects of retirement on long-term marriage differ across couples’ retirement styles. One study found that 10% of never-employed wives complained about loss of autonomy after their husbands retired and indicated a decline in marital happiness. In contrast, 33% in dual-earning families reported increased happiness after both spouses retired (Tryban, 1985). Perhaps dual-earner wives have more control over the timing of retirement in their lives than do traditional wives, which contributes to their happiness. Another study found that husbands’ retirement had a negative effect on their marital satisfaction and on the marital satisfaction of working wives until the wives retired (Lee & Shehan, 1989). Further research that attends to different retirement patterns among couples is needed to fully understand this issue.
Both positive and negative changes for the future of long-term marriage can be conjectured. Although we can expect a smaller proportion of older adults to be in long-term marriages in the future, due to later ages at marriage and higher divorce rates, couples that are married after several decades may be more satisfied with their marriages than older couples today. Long-term marriage partners in the future are more likely to have remained married out of choice, which may not be the case for older couples today, whose marital lives were largely spent in a period that was less accepting of divorce. The greater economic dependence of wives on husbands in the past also may have trapped some unhappily married women in dissatisfying marriages out of economic necessity. This type of situation should be less common in the future.
Long-term married couples in the future also will be faced with tougher decisions regarding the coordination of the husband and wife’s retirement, as older couples will increasingly consist of two continuously employed partners. Moreover, many more of the wives will have established careers rather than sporadically assuming different short-term jobs. How greater commitment and investment to career may affect the retirement decisions of married women, relative to their husbands’ decisions, is unknown. Perhaps they will be less willing to follow the retirement timing choices of their husbands. When their older and possibly less healthy husbands are ready to retire, these women may resist because of their own career interests and attachments.
Finally, qualitative aspects of retirement in long-term marriages may change. Given the lower mortality rates and earlier retirement ages of recent decades, couples will have an opportunity for increasingly long periods of postretirement time together. For happily married couples, the expansion of years when they are free of work and child-rearing responsibilities will mean they can devote more time to each other. For the less happily married, longer retirements may be less bearable once other life roles and demands no longer exist.
Little is known about remarriages in later life, either those occurring in old age or those formed earlier and continuing over long durations. The few studies that have been done examine postbereavement remarriage. Remarried widows aged 40 and older reported fewer concerns than widows who had not remarried in one study, although those who had only considered remarriage reported more worries than other nonremarried women (Gentry & Shulman, 1988). These worries were age related, as it was the oldest women who had not considered remarriage. For some widows, feeling disloyal and other unpleasant reactions are experienced when they consider remarrying, especially if children and others object. Adult children’s concerns about parental remarriage often center on inheritance (Bulcroft & O’Connor, 1986).
Other longitudinal research from persons aged 50 and older indicates that remarriage leads to positive outcomes for bereaved persons. Although remarried adults did not differ initially from the continually widowed, after 5 years they reported higher self-esteem, more life and friendship satisfaction, and less stress (Burks, Lund, Gregg, & Bluhm, 1988). Older persons may benefit from remarriage because of the relatively high-quality remarriages they establish. One of the few studies to consider the quality of remarriages for older adults found high marital satisfaction, especially for men, when compared to remarried, middle-aged persons (Bograd & Spilka, 1996). They also may have felt more secure about their remarriages, as most had been in long-term first marriages that ended by spousal death, whereas the middle-aged remarrieds had mostly experienced divorce. Remarriage in later life appears to be a positive experience for older adults today and is likely to be more common for older adults in the future, although how remarriage quality will change is unclear. There may be less resistance to remarriage among older adults and their families in the 21st century if people adjust to marital patterns that involve more remarriages, especially after divorce. Offspring with divorced parents may be less concerned about inheritance and parental loyalties and thus more supportive of parental remarriage. Step relationships formed from these remarriages will be important to study, especially regarding issues such as caregiving and support.
Nonmarital Living Situations
A larger proportion of older adults in the future are expected to be single or formerly married than today. Currently, widowed men outnumber the divorced by more than two to one in old age, and they surpass the never-married by three to one. By 2040, an estimated 12.9% of older men will be widowed, 10.4% never married, and 7.4% divorced. For older women, the proportion of both the never married (7.3%) and the divorced (13.2%) is expected to climb in the next 40 years, accompanied by a drop in widowhood to 37% (Wade, 1989). Such changes underscore the need for greater attention to the differences in life situations and well-being for unmarried persons.
Studies of older adults often combine all unmarried persons into one group and compare them to married individuals. Whether scholars assume the common role-loss approach (Hatch, 2000) or frame widowhood and divorce as support-disrupting events, they typically focus on problems of older adults as a result of these transitions. Little consideration is given to potentially positive adaptations or benefits of marital disruption.
Gender has been a central focus in the study of adjustment to widowhood and divorce. Gender socialization theory, with its focus on differential training for and experience in males’ and females’ social roles, has been used to explain differences in marital disruption for men and women (Hatch, 2000). For example, death of a spouse usually threatens women’s financial security, whereas for men it generally creates problems in social and emotional adjustment. Gender socialization theory has been used to argue that women are more distressed than men after marital disruptions because spousal roles are more salient for women’s than men’s identities (Carey, 1979) and their social status is derived from marriage (Kimmel, 1990).
Fewer older persons will be widowed in the future, and the mean length of widowhood will decline because of later entry into marriage (Schoen & Weinick, 1993). However, widowhood will still be a common experience of later life.
Economic changes and strain for widows have been widely studied. Both sexes deal with economic loss when a spouse dies. Widows often lose the contributions of the main provider, and widowers face financial setbacks due to inadequate planning for their wives’ deaths (Smith & Zick, 1986). Many older couples have more life insurance for the man than for the wife. Thus, if the wife dies first, her husband may face reduced monthly income plus burial and funeral costs. However, the magnitude of financial loss after spousal death is greater for women than men, as is the risk of poverty (Burkhauser, Butler, & Holden, 1991). Greater economic risk for women is partly due to the longer time they are widowed, a result of sex differences in mortality and remarriage.
Social and emotional support also is threatened by spousal death. Gender socialization theory posits that social disruption will be greater for men than women; because wives are men’s main confidants, widowhood results in fewer emotional outlets for men (Babchuck, 1978). Widows have the most friends, formerly married men have the fewest, and men’s contacts with friends dissipate more than women’s when their spouse dies (Hatch & Bulcroft, 1992).
Early research portrayed widowers as seriously disadvantaged compared to widows in their relationships with grown children (Berardo, 1970). Yet more recent data indicate that children may only slightly favor mothers over fathers (Lee, Willetts, & Seccombe, 1998). Widows receive more aid after a spouse’s death than they give (Heinemann, 1983). Contact with children also increases after widowhood (Gibbs, 1985), with offspring serving as primary sources of instrumental support to widows. Indeed, the maintenance of ties to adult offspring after spousal death is predictive of longer survival (Silverstein & Bengtson, 1991).
Gender differences in social and family connections after widowhood may be explained by gender socialization theory. Females are raised to attend to emotions and relationships, so they often become the managers of social and kin relationships (Di Leonardo, 1987) and child rearing. These experiences pay relational dividends for women by fostering connections that provide assistance back to them when needs arise. Men’s reliance on women for these tasks may contribute to their reduced social interaction and isolation following widowhood.
The social context of widowhood also shapes different experiences for men and women. Because there are more widows than widowers, integration into the social world may be more difficult for widowers. Living near peers of similar status has social benefits; widows participate in community activities and interact with friends at higher rates when residing in places with a greater ratio of widows to married couples (Hong & Duff, 1994). Compared to nonbereaved peers, widowed persons report greater distress and depression, with widowers appearing most depressed (Lee et al., 1998; Umberson, Wortman, & Kessler, 1992). In most samples, widowhood tends to be more recent for men than for women, possibly accounting for this difference. Further, men exhibit less psychological recovery than women do (Lee et al., 1998). More health problems (Lee et al., 1998), lack of extensive social involvement, and resistance to help seeking (McMullen & Gross, 1983) are more typical of widowers than widows as well.
Perhaps the ultimate concern centering on widowhood, especially for men, is an increased risk of health problems and mortality compared to married individuals (Hu & Goldman, 1990). The buffering effects of marriage on health for men are attributed to their wives’ roles as “health brokers” (O’Bryant & Hansson, 1995, p. 445) and to the suppression effect that marriage has on men’s risk-taking behavior (e.g., excessive drinking). Financial stress mediates depression for women, but economic pressures are less predictive of depression for men than are domestic demands (Umberson et al., 1992).
Some research suggests that widowhood can foster positive life changes and adaptive behavior. The health of some widows, for example, has improved with this transition (Murrell, Himmelfarb, & Phifer, 1995), perhaps because they are relieved of spousal caregiving, which so many women face when their husband’s health fails. Some widows also report enhanced efficacy (Arbuckle & deVries, 1995) and self-confidence (Umberson et al., 1992), maybe due to more opportunities for autonomy and learning new skills (Lund, Caserta, Dimond, & Shaffer, 1989).
Divorce and Aging
For adults entering late adulthood in the first decades of the 21st century, divorce will have a more salient role in their lives than it has for current elderly. Many will have divorced relatively early in marriage and remarried before late life. A growing number, especially women, will divorce and stay single into late life (Bumpass, Sweet, & Martin, 1990). Finally, it is projected that among more recent cohorts, a greater share of persons will divorce during and after midlife (Uhlenberg, Cooney, & Boyd, 1990).
Economic setbacks associated with divorce are immediately apparent and continue over the long term. Among adults aged 50 to 73 who were married at least 15 years, men had a 61% decline in income and women reported a 66% loss (Gander, 1991). More attention has been paid to the economic plight of divorced women than men. In a comparison of divorced and widowed women aged 40 and older, the most serious financial problems were found for women who had been divorced at least 5 years (Uhlenberg et al., 1990). Divorced women were economically disadvantaged, despite their having higher employment rates than widowed and married peers. Economic recovery from divorce is unlikely for women unless they remarry (Hoffman & Duncan, 1988).
In late life, financial security rests on assets and savings as well as current earnings. Divorce is likely to disrupt saving and asset accumulation that couples often do in preparation for old age (Fethke, 1989). There may be a disincentive for couples to save if they anticipate divorce and the likelihood of dividing assets. Older couples that save and invest still may lose wealth by dividing assets such as home equity and losing benefits from insurance policies and pensions. Finally, costs imposed by divorce (e.g., legal fees, costs of living apart) may slow the reaccumulation of wealth. Thus, because of high divorce rates, Fethke (1989) asserted, “In future years, then, there may be a new class of elderly poor, those who have experienced the breakup of their marriage” (p. S127). Fethke’s arguments have not been empirically studied.
Divorce also has negative psychological and emotional effects in later life, especially for men. Divorced women report less satisfaction with family life and life in general than married women, although they do not differ from widows (Hyman, 1983). Divorced men report less friendship satisfaction than married and widowed men and less family and life satisfaction than married men (Hyman, 1983). Similarly, among persons divorcing before and after age 50, divorced women were more satisfied with their recent life changes than were men, regardless of age (Hammond & Muller, 1992). Similar gender contrasts were revealed in a recent study of personality change in midlife (Costa, Herbst, McCrae, & Siegler, 2000). Compared to persons who remained married over the 10-year study period, women who divorced felt greater self-empowerment, and men who divorced revealed increased depression and reduced achievement motivation. These findings suggest different costs and rewards to marriage for men and women.
Postdivorce emotional adjustment appears to be mediated by social support. Having a confidant reduces depression (Miller, Smerglia, Gaudet, & Kitson, 1998). Network support is critical too, as greater well-being and a positive self-concept are more characteristic of persons who have stable social networks from pre- to postdivorce (Daniels-Mohring & Berger, 1984). Differences in the availability and use of social support by men and women probably explain some of these gendered outcomes. Indeed, regardless of age at divorce, women are more likely than men to depend on others for emotional support during the divorce process (Hammond & Muller, 1992).
Family support to older adults is seriously affected by divorce. Whether couples dissolved a long-term marriage or ended a shorter marriage years ago when children were young, divorce influences their potential support from offspring. Adult offspring whose parents divorce later in life report less contact with both parents, especially fathers, than do offspring with married parents (Cooney, 1994). Older fathers with a history of divorce are less likely to get support from their adult offspring than are married fathers (Cooney & Uhlenberg, 1990). Women divorcing from long-term (M = 28 years) marriages are more likely than men to consider their children as supports (Wright & Maxwell, 1991). Compared to fathers, older mothers receive more advice, services, and financial and emotional support from children. Support from offspring after divorce is especially valuable for middle-aged and older persons because their parents are unlikely to help due to age. Divorces that occurred in the distant past are related to less intergenerational contact in later life (Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1991b; Cooney & Uhlenberg, 1990). Affective relations also are affected. Adult children of divorced parents felt less loved and listened to by their fathers than did adults with married parents (Webster & Herzog, 1995).
Support issues become increasingly salient when older parents are in poor health, and poorer health status is associated with divorce. Using data from 1950 on for 16 developed nations, Hu and Goldman (1990) documented an association between nonmarital status, in general, and heightened mortality rates for adults. When age is controlled for, being unmarried is a greater mortality threat for men than for women. Divorced men have the highest mortality rates relative to married men (2.5 times greater in the United States).
Few studies of divorce attend to the positive life changes it may present for individuals. Some positive personality changes may accompany divorce (Costa et al., 2000); limited data suggest that experiencing divorce in adulthood may contribute to developing coping skills important to adjustment in late life. O’Bryant and Straw (1991) found that recent widows and previously divorced women demonstrate more self-sufficiency than continuously married women and exhibit better adjustment to widowhood after age 60 than do never-divorced widows. Experiencing marital transitions across the early life course may therefore benefit future cohorts in their adaptation to late life.
The social and economic contexts of older adults who are widowed or divorced in the future may be quite different from those documented over the past 20 years. The continuous involvement of women in paid labor through adulthood, a pattern more characteristic of baby boomers than of cohorts before them, may affect both the economic and social well-being of the divorced. Specifically, the economic status of future divorced women may improve markedly relative to both widowers and their same-sex counterparts today due to their employment patterns. Indeed, Smith and Zick (1986) reported that work history is a stronger predictor than gender of economic stability in widowhood. In studying economic changes over a 5-year period spanning pre- to post-widowhood for both sexes, they found that a continuous work history reduced chances of poverty. Compared to persons with 16 to 34 years in the labor force, those working less than 4 years had a 10-fold greater risk of poverty. Women’s labor force participation across adulthood has reduced their economic dependency within marriage over the past several decades (Sorensen & McLanahan, 1987). As a result, the loss of income by older women when they lose a spouse will be less severe than it is today. As more women establish continuous work histories and move into higher-level jobs, their access to benefits and pensions will increase. Between 1990 and 2030, the percentage of older unmarried women with pension income is expected to triple from about 26% to 73% (Zedlewski, Barnes, Burt, McBride, & Meyer, 1990). Reduced adherence to gender-segregated work-family roles among young and middle-aged women today suggests that widows and divorcees in the 21st century will be better situated financially than those today.
Women’s greater involvement in paid work may affect men’s aging as well, as it has somewhat altered men’s roles in the home in the last 30 years. Men contribute more to domestic chores than they did a few decades ago (Schor, 1992). Such role changes may better equip them to deal with domestic chores when they become widowed or divorced. Increased domestic proficiency may reduce stress for older divorced men, just as improved economics will benefit older women’s emotional health (Umberson et al., 1992). Being able to better manage domestic tasks may contribute to reduced health problems for older, formerly married men.
Changing social situations also may facilitate the adjustment of divorced persons. Given projections in the growth of never-married and formerly married populations, especially for men, and increasing social acceptance of singlehood and divorce, how older adults feel about being unmarried and their range of social options may change. Growing numbers of unmarried peers may give older men a more comfortable social environment with more extensive male support systems and more formal services.
Finally, in the future, reductions may occur in the health risks associated with being unmarried for men. Hu and Goldman (1990) reported that as countries experience growth in particular nonmarital statuses over time, the relative mortality ratio associated with that particular status declines. The relatively poor health of formerly married and single men may therefore be less of a problem in the future as their numbers increase in the older population.
Never-Married Older Adults
Research has neglected never-married older adults, who make up about 8% of the older population. In the next 40 years, the proportion of never-married men older than 65 is expected to more than double (Wade, 1989).
Never-married elders are heterogeneous in their motivations for remaining single, living situations over time, relationships, and adjustment in later life (Allen, 1989; Rubinstein, 1987). This heterogeneity presents challenges for researchers.
Most empirical evidence suggests that never-married persons are not socially isolated and report high life satisfaction compared to ever-married peers (Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989). Although they may report more frequent bouts of loneliness (Rubinstein, 1987), and somewhat lower levels of happiness than married persons (Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989), the never-married appear better adjusted than widowed and divorced persons (Rubinstein, 1987; Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989).
Although never-married persons may have relatively low levels of family contacts and support in later life, because most have no children (Choi, 1996), they tend to report extensive friendship ties that compare favorably to those of ever-married persons (Babchuck, 1978; Choi, 1996; Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989). Their social lives include more salient relationships with siblings; in late life, they are more likely than divorced persons to reside with relatives, especially siblings (Choi, 1996; Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989). Such arrangements shelter older never-married persons from some of the drawbacks of living alone, like a greater risk of institutionalization (Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989). Although coresident siblings or friends may give older never-married persons support and companionship, their age similarity places them at risk for experiencing functional limitations at about the same time. Thus, the substitution value of friends and siblings for offspring may weaken over time.
Gender differences in the life experiences of single older adults have not been widely studied but are important to address given the projected increases in singlehood for men. Singlehood may be easier to adjust to for men than for women because society places fewer social prohibitions on single men. For example, it is more acceptable for men than women to participate in public nightlife alone, and men have a larger field of eligible partners for dating than do women. However, the larger number of older, single women may provide a wider support system for never-married women than it does for men. Hong and Duff’s (1994) research on widows points to the importance of this factor for socialization purposes.
Issues likely to influence the social and psychological adjustment of older never-married persons that should bear investigation are their relational careers and transitions across adulthood. Although they are not at risk for losing a spouse, they still will encounter important relationship losses and transitions if they have significant attachments to others, such as parents, siblings, and special friends (Rubinstein, 1987). In the future, some may have had long-term cohabiting relationships. Whether these ties assume a unique character when one is unmarried and how the loss of these relationships is handled by older never-married persons are unknown.
Questions about the positive adaptation and developmental strengths gained from never marrying require attention as well. Regardless of whether lifetime singlehood was chosen or was the result of factors beyond control (e.g., limited marriage market, family demands, poor health), individuals who do not marry are likely to adapt to the situation and establish strengths as single persons (e.g., self-sufficiency, reliable networks). Their lives may therefore be characterized by greater continuity (e.g., in terms of relationships, work histories) than those of married persons (Choi, 1996; Stull & Scarisbrick-Hauser, 1989), which could contribute to fewer adaptation problems in late life. The higher educational attainment, more continuous work history, and greater access to pensions of single women illustrate this. Such assets give single women a financial advantage over formerly married women in late life (Choi, 1996), with possible effects on housing and lifestyle choices, health and use of health care, and life satisfaction.
How singlehood is experienced and its meaning in later life may change in the 21st century. Although single women are generally better off financially than formerly married persons (Choi, 1996), women’s increasingly higher education and better jobs should mean greater financial security in later life for future cohorts of single women compared to single women today. Non-familial support networks are likely to be larger, as more women in the future will be either never married or formerly married. Family support systems may be more extensive as well, as baby boomers entering old age in the 21st century will have more siblings, and more singles will have children than earlier cohorts as a result of increases in nonmarital childbearing in the last 50 years. Rates of nonmarital childbearing for women ages 25 to 34 today are three times greater than they were at comparable ages for women who are now ages 75 to 84 (Spain & Bianchi, 1996). These possible variations in support systems could affect emotional and material well-being for never-married elders in the future.
Finally, it is important to consider that the meaning of being never married may also change in the future. Studies suggest that many elders today who never married did so by default, in response to family demands and missed opportunities (Allen, 1989). More single persons today, however, are likely to say that they chose this status, and social acceptance of this choice is probably greater today as well. Thus, the experience of being single may be even more positive for older adults in the future than today because they will face less social stigma and may feel a greater sense of control over how their lives have taken shape.
Gay Men and Lesbians in the Aging Population
The few systematic, representative studies regarding issues of aging among older gay and lesbian adults (Boxer, 1997) focus mostly on social support and adjustment. These studies challenge the stereotype of older gay males and lesbians as lonely, depressed, and devoid of close contacts (Friend, 1990). The support received by older homosexuals is comparable to that of heterosexuals, although the composition of their support groups differ (Berger & Kelly, 1986). Older gays and lesbians receive more support from their families of choice (Dorfman et al., 1995), which are composed of selected relatives, close friends, and current and/or former lovers (Boxer, 1997).
Older gay males and lesbians report levels of adjustment and morale similar to those reported by older heterosexuals (Cohler, Galatzer-Levy, & Hostetler, 2000). Homosexuals also cite similar concerns regarding growing older, such as potential health and financial problems and loneliness (Quam & Whitford, 1992). The adjustment of elderly gay males and lesbians probably has been shaped by the sociohistorical context in which they came of age. The heterosexism and homophobia that existed during most of their adulthoods and the lack of role models probably have affected them. Many older gays and lesbians concealed their sexual orientation in order to conform, fearing losses of job, family, and friends (Berger & Kelly, 1986; Friend, 1990), and some may even have married to hide their homosexuality.
Although aging gay men and lesbians today appear generally well adjusted, adjustment of gays and lesbians in the 21st century raises several possibilities. Because cohorts are moving through adulthood in a societal context that is more accepting of homosexuality and that presents fewer obstacles to maintaining a gay or lesbian identity, adjustment may be better for future cohorts of older gays and lesbians. Fewer persons may feel forced to conceal their sexual orientation and live their lives closeted from family, friends, and coworkers. Participation in public commitment ceremonies and recognized unions and, for some, access to same-sex partner benefits are experiences unavailable to earlier cohorts that may ultimately affect late-life well-being (Hostetler & Cohler, 1997). Along with new opportunities, however, current cohorts of gay and lesbian adults are faced with new challenges that older counterparts may have largely avoided, such as AIDS. The spread of AIDS may have led to different lifestyle choices and approaches to partnering and may even have affected social support. Middle-aged gay males have had fewer sexual partners than older gay males (Deenen, Gijs, & van Naerssen, 1994), and members of younger cohorts may have lost more friends and partners to AIDS compared to today’s elders, so they may experience less social support as they grow older (Boxer, 1997).
Dating and Nonmarital Cohabitation
Although the phenomenon is generally ignored by researchers, many unattached older adults are involved in intimate non-marital relationships. This may be true for men especially, who date more in midlife and continue to date longer than women (Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1991a).
Companionship is the main incentive for older men and women who date. Yet when asked about the rewards they derive from dating, men are more likely than women to note payoffs in intimacy and emotional support, and women are more likely to identify status rewards (Bulcroft & O’Connor, 1986). Such differences may reflect the unique gender socialization of today’s older cohorts, with men placing greater stock in women to fulfill their emotional needs (Babchuck, 1978) and women turning to men for instrumental support and social standing. In the future, what older men and women value about dating may be less distinct as their societal roles become less differentiated. In addition, older adults may date more in the future because fewer of them will have experienced one long-term marriage across adulthood. The greater diversity of relationship and marital experiences in adulthood may help older persons feel more comfortable with dating. Similarly, future elderly may be less likely than older persons today to have had only one sexual partner in their lifetime, as a result of higher incidences of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce. Thus, older adults in the future may be more open to and comfortable with forming intimate sexual relationships. Increased recognition within society that older adults have sexual interests and can be sexually active also may contribute to such changes.
Nonmarital cohabitation also may become a more common outlet for achieving intimacy among older adults in the future, given that its prevalence in the general population has skyrocketed in the past 30 years. Unfortunately, empirical evidence on cohabitation among older adults is limited. Using data from the 1960 and 1990 U.S. censuses, Chevan (1996) estimated that in 1990 there were 407,000 cohabitors aged 60 or older (about 2.4% of unmarried elders), compared to just 9,600 in 1960. However, estimates of cohabitation in later life require more validation. The figures cited here are offered to demonstrate growth in the phenomenon of later-life cohabitation rather than to serve as valid estimates.
We have no research base on cohabiting unions in later life. Quite possibly, cohabiting in later life may be preferable to marriage for some older adults (and their families), especially if the elders have been married before and if offspring believe their own inheritance is safer if an elderly parent cohabits rather than remarries.
Despite relatively low rates of cohabitation for older adults today, chances are good that these numbers will climb in the future. Not only does the baby boom cohort have a history of cohabiting across adulthood, but rates also are notably high (11% currently cohabiting) for persons born 1931 to 1950, who were ages 40 to 59 in 1990 (Chevan, 1996). Cohabitation rates also are significantly higher among persons who have been previously married (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991).
Future Research on Later-Life Relationships
We contend that relationship experiences and options for older adults will be increasingly diverse in the future. Furthermore, the aged population in the United States will become considerably more heterogeneous in terms of racial and ethnic makeup. These changes demand that research on later-life intimacy and relationships move beyond examination of primarily white samples to attend more carefully to between-group variations. This wider focus should address how various later-life relationship experiences may differ on the basis of sociodemographic characteristics, as well as on the basis of earlier life experiences and events, as discussed in this chapter.
In studying older adults in partnered relationships, a few other conceptual and methodological shifts are called for. One development that has characterized research on younger couples is increased use of methods other than, or in addition to, self-reports. Observational methods, for example, are becoming increasingly popular in studies of couple dynamics. Yet they have not been used in work on older couples. More attention also should be directed to studying dyads in later life, attending to the coordination of linked lives, as life course scholars suggest. This need is evident in studying couples’ retirement decisions and also applies to how couples coordinate the potential physical care needs of both spouses.
Whether older adults are partnered or alone, greater understanding of their well-being will also come from considering their relationship careers across adulthood rather than focusing only on their current status. Considering not only the duration of particular statuses but also their sequencing (e.g., divorce or widowhood before remarriage) will surely lend insight into individuals’ adjustment to various transitions as well as their later-life well-being.
Although many critical variables can be assessed with retrospective methods, more longitudinal studies are needed. Such designs lend themselves to assessing continuity and discontinuity over time (e.g., interaction patterns in long-term marriages, adjustment to divorce), as well as providing data to evaluate selection effects. This is important as researchers study the direction of effects between economic disadvantage and divorce, for example, and make policy and intervention suggestions.
In sum, the 21st century will present a wider variety of relationship situations for older adults as a result of sociohistorical changes in recent decades. In an effort to conduct meaningful and relevant work, we must expand our thinking to include the new issues that emerge as a result of these changes. Similarly, our methods will have to change to sensitively accommodate the increasingly heterogeneous population of older adults and their varied life experiences.