Suzi Godson is the sex and relationships columnist for The Times newspaper
Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married? Psychologists don’t really know the answer to that question, but they do know that the physical and emotional benefits of being in a stable relationship in later life are legion. Numerous studies show that older couples are physically stronger and can walk further than unmarried people of the same age. They have lower stress levels, lower rates of depression and they sleep better. Research also shows that married people who have a stroke, a heart attack, or get cancer are more likely to survive the experience. Marriage provides you with a good social support network, which is known to improve ‘quality of life’ and decrease feelings of isolation. Of course, being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Plenty of people who live in isolation are perfectly happy. There are advantages to being single. You don’t get nagged for snoring and you can hog the remote control to your heart’s content, but the bad news is that older people who live alone are more than twice as likely to die prematurely. This might be, in part, because there is no one to dial 999 if you need an ambulance.
Day-to-day companionship makes people happier, healthier and more relaxed at any age, but in later life, a close relationship with someone who knows every intimate detail of your life is tremendously reassuring. Your other half has seen you at your best and at your worst. They can guess how happy or stressed you are from the expression on your face, and you don’t need to tell them not to talk to you during the Archers, or that you don’t want ice in your whiskey. Having a partner who knows you so well is a privilege, but when you have been with someone for donkeys years, it is very easy to take them for granted. We can all become complacent, yet we all know how important it is to feel nurtured and appreciated. The following exercises are designed to help you rejuvenate the romantic bond that first attracted you to each other. They are not complicated or difficult, but if you give them a try you will find that very small changes can make a very big difference to the quality of your relationship.
1. Take the time to touch
Touch has proven to be more effective than verbal social support at reducing the harmful effects of stress such as elevated blood pressure, cortisol levels, and heart rate because it stimulates regions of our brain that are known to produce pleasurable feelings. Going without touch for three days has been shown to increase stress and anxiety levels, whereas being touched reduces feelings of stress and anxiety for up to five days after it occurs. Touching can be as simple as holding hands and hugging, or you could try gentle massage with vitamin E oil. It feels great and moisturises dry skin at the same time. Touching also includes sex. Although sex in later life is not a topic that gets a lot of press, in 2015, results from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing – the first ever UK study into the sex lives of people over the age of 80 – found that 37% of men and 41% of women aged 80-90 were still having sex. And results from the Stannah ‘Ambitions’ Silver Census 2018 show that 22% of people over 65 say that sex actually gets better once you hit retirement age.
2. Get Closer
Stand about four feet away from each other and focus on each other. The boundary for personal space is about 18 inches so every 10 seconds or so, you move a bit closer until, after several shifts, you are well inside that area and keep going until you are as close to each other as you can get without actually touching. Studies show that when two people consciously and deliberately allow each other to invade their personal space, feelings of intimacy grow.
3. Change Your Routine
When you have been doing things in the same way, week in week out, for eons, changing your routine can re energise you. If your partner always does the cooking, volunteer to do it one night a week. You might only manage cheese on toast (delicious with a good rioja), but your partner will appreciate the effort and you will feel like you have achieved something. Taking up a new hobby – Salsa, Singing or Ceramics – will give you a shared interest, a sense of purpose and something to chat about between classes. Stannah research highlights that 60% of over 65s have learnt a new skill during retirement. If you find you spend a lot of time watching TV, schedule one afternoon a week for a matinée at your local cinema. Make sure to sit in the back row, eat popcorn, hold hands and have a sneaky snog.
4. Get a Pet
Pets in general, but dogs in particular, are known to decrease anxiety and protect against depression. When Fido is whining by the door with his lead in his mouth, exercise is no longer optional. Taking a walk together will keep you both fit and you’ll also feel needed and valuable. If taking on a pet full time feels like too much of a responsibility, websites like Borrow My Doggy will match you with people in your area who need someone to entertain their dog while they are at work. It’s a great way to see what having a dog is like without making a full commitment.
5. Take a Trip Down Memory Lane
Couples in happy relationships tend to construct mutually agreeable narratives about their past and they have a shared sense of meaning about their future. Make a scrapbook of important photos and letters to remind you of the amazing life that you have shared with each other. Make plans to revisit a place that is emotionally significant for both of you. Use the journey as an opportunity to think about what brought you together, how far you have come and what you have to look forward to.
6. Count Kind Acts
In one experiment, psychologists asked couples to count up the number of times each day that they said or did something kind for each other. The simple act of documenting kind words and deeds made people happier, kinder and more grateful.
7. Make Each Other Laugh
Laughter has all sorts of life affirming benefits but research by neuroscientist Robert Provine, Ph.D confirms that it plays a crucial part in our relationships. In his experiments men proved to be the laugh-getters and women were more likely to be the laughers. In fact women laughed 126% more frequently than men, which is a good thing, because female laughter turns out to be the critical index of a healthy relationship. A good joke book will give you both a guaranteed giggle. Alternatively, take turns reading a funny book to each other. Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes funny, but a couple of my personal faves are Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris and ‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay. If reading is a strain, now is the time to explore the wonderful world of audiobooks.
8. Play Mr and Mrs
Remember the classic 1970s TV quiz show where couples were asked penetrating questions such as “How often does she weigh herself?” or “What age was he when he passed his driving test?” in order to establish how much they knew about each other. Turns out that it was based on some sound psychological theory. Research shows that emotionally intelligent couples tend to be intimately familiar with all aspects of their partner’s personality, history and aspirations. The marriage guru John Gottman describes these couples as having a richly detailed “Love Map” which grows and changes as their relationship matures. To play Mr and Mrs at home, you each make a list of interesting facts about yourself and your personal history and then ask each other questions to establish how well you know each other.
9. Plant Something Together
Whether you opt for a window box or an oak tree, research shows that being around plants can help to improve relationships and increase concern and empathy for one another. And when professors from the University of Texas and Texas A&M asked 298 older adults how they would rate their “zest for life,” gardeners had significantly higher levels of optimism than non-gardeners.