Ellen, 72, has been single again since her early twenties, when she divorced her physically abusive ex-husband. "So what's the secret for a good marriage?" she asked me.
"Choose wisely and learn what it takes to succeed in marriage," I answered instinctively.
Never Too Late for Love
While this advice applies to people of all ages, it's helpful to recognize special challenges of later-in-life marriages so we can deal with them constructively. The three to be addressed here involve money, sex, and "unfinished business."
Tools to address all of them included your natural resourcefulness and creativity, as no one-size-fits-all-solution will apply to everyone. Suggestions that follow are ways to get started thinking about how each can be adapted to fit a particular situation.
Money matters should always be discussed before marrying. Newly marrying seniors are likely to have adult children. When their offspring, at least in the back of their minds, to inherit a significant part of a parent's assets, their happiness about the parent finding love can be greatly diminished if they fear losing what they think should be coming to them.
When Ruth, 77, a retired New York City teacher, announced that she and Jerry, also 77 and significantly less financially well off than she, planned to marry, Ruth's two daughters responded differently. Ruth owned a house, received a pension, and had accumulated substantial savings.
Ruth's daughter Nancy was thrilled for her mother. After being divorced for decades, she had found a wonderful, kind, loving partner.
Ruth's other daughter, Leslie, felt different about the planned marriage. "What Mom's doing is really stupid," she told her sister. "If she goes first, he can get the house and everything else."
As it turned out, there was no need to worry because Ruth and Jerry had signed a prenuptial agreement that assured that Ruth's children would inherit virtually all of her assets, while allowing Jerry to live in Ruth's house for as long as he chose to, should he outlive her.
Not every marriage needs a prenuptial agreement. When Janet, 45, was planning to marry Ben, 41, a first marriage for both, he said he didn't want one because "every marriage I've heard of with a prenuptial agreement has ended in divorce."
His reasoning was probably based on widely publicized divorces involving a rich older man and a women three or more decades younger. Neither Janet nor Ben had been married before. Neither had children, and there was no big difference in their total financial assets. So arranging for a legal document as a precaution seemed far from essential and they didn't get one.
Sex can get more complicated as we age, but there is no reason to give up on it and a huge reason for staying connected intimately and passionately. Men typically slow down sexually around age seventy, give or take a few years. Getting and keeping an erection long enough for mutually satisfying sexual relations may become more difficult.
The good news is that "erectile dysfunction" is no longer considered a shameful thing to hide or ignore. Viagra and drug solutions are widely advertised, making the topic a normal one to address with one's physician. Similarly, women who've become drier "down there" can get help from a gynecologist for prescriptions for a cream to keep the area lubricated for pleasurable sex.
As sexologists Masters and Johnson have pointed out, the most important sexual organ is between the ears. This points to the need for partners to communicate their sexual, as well as other, needs. Women, especially, need to do this because it's so important for most women to feel responded to emotionally and to receive the kind of foreplay that is likely to make them receptive to sexual closeness and intercourse.
We all have "old baggage" in that we carry parts of our past with us, whether from childhood or from a previous relationship as an adult. When we haven't achieved enough closure concerning a hurtful past relationship, it can get in our way of creating a good current one.
For example, Ellen, mentioned earlier, who asked me for the secret of a good marriage, is smart, funny and compassionate. She grew up with a physically abusive father and married an abuser, whom she divorced. Her subsequent relationships were with men who weren't outwardly abusive but were not respectful. Years ago, she basically gave up on finding a good man to marry.
Although many women say they want marriage, like Ellen, they convince themselves that all the good men are already taken, which is certainly not true. If they sincerely want marriage, they can think about what's holding them back and then do something about it.
Ellen's obstacle was her false belief that no available man existed with whom she could be happy. She adamantly refused suggestions that she get psychotherapy, although if she had engaged in the process, she might well have gained enough self-understanding and confidence to move forward and create a good marriage.
Grieving over a loss or major disappointment helps bring a sense of closure and a readiness to move forward, whether doing so involves mourning after a spouse has passed away, after a divorce, or over something from one's childhood.
Unlike Ellen, Ruth moved on. It took her a long time to recover from her divorce from an unfaithful husband. Men and women who've been divorced, widowed, or otherwise left shocked and hurt beyond words by the loss of a loved one, or by a painful past relationship, need to grieve before they will be emotionally ready to enter a new, healthy relationship. Otherwise, unfinished business will show up one way or another.
How to Discuss Sensitive Concerns
These three aspects of a relationship -- money, sex, and unfinished business -- are likely to show up in any marriage. But with the extra complexities of later-in-life marriages, it's particularly important to be aware of them and to discuss them constructively.
Step-by-step guidelines for how to talk about sensitive topics with a relationship partner are featured in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Marriage You've Always Wanted. These gentle, respectful conversations will set the tone for a marriage that fulfills both partners emotionally and spiritually as well as physically and materially.
Note: Names and identifying details of people referred to in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.