After our Round Table Discussion, I came to appreciate the topic of late-life remarriage in ways that I had not previously considered. Initially I had doubts about including this in the series and by the few people who attended, others didn’t consider this an important topic either. But I have come to recognize how much the topic really overlaps and intersects with the developmental steps of an aging adult. It speaks to bereavement and how long it is appropriate to grieve; to independence, companionship and building relationships to defend against loneliness. It speaks to identity in terms of feeling valued and having a sense of being attractive and admired; and too, feeling that one now has a role and purpose which are often considered losses in old age. A very large factor is that this choice now introduces a new familial relationship that challenges feelings of loyalty, attachment and allegiance. All of these are the meat and bones of family tension that so often come into play as older adults negotiate the transitions of aging.
There seems to be contradictions in traditional notions of remarriage which were explored in two research articles. The Watson* article interviewed 8 women each of which initially denied wanting to remarry because they each had begun to enjoy some independence and freedoms they had not experienced before. They each pursued a marriage in any case, citing as reasons companionship or finding an expression of one’s sexuality in late life. The Davidson* article finds a different conclusion remarking on the fact that widows most often choose not to remarry because they no longer wish to be caregivers, in the broad sense. Since widowers seek more often than widows to remarry and form intimate relationships, they conclude how paradoxical it is that the popular image of young men relinquishing their freedom on marriage seems to be reversed in later life: it is women who resist being married.
But why care about this from a clinical perspective. And how do we construct meaning from this contradictory research?
Our policies and services promote the cultural message that even at an old age, one can, indeed, one should live a full life of being engaged in activities and relationships. We believe that forming relationships is a basic human activity, even perhaps leading to a healthier and longer life. Finding an intimate partner is certainly one way, but cannot be the only path to finding meaningful relationships. Working with clients and family members we need to explore the variety of ways to remain socially engaged, marriage being one. Which, I think, speaks to having choices, particularly at a time when other choices and time itself may feel limited. What a gift it is that an older adult, man or woman, can consider that s/he has a choice rather than an imperative or feel pressured to marry as one might have at a younger age.
*Journal articles referred to in this post include:
- Davidson, Kate, Late life widowhood, selfishness and new partnership choices: a gendered perspective, Aging and Society 21, 2001, 297-317.
- Watson, Wendy K, Bell, Nancy J., Stelle, Charlie, Women narrate later life remarriage: Negotiating the cultural to create the personal, Journal of Aging Studies 24 (2010) 302-312.
- Kalish, Nancy, Late-life Remarriages: The Second (Or Third…) Time Around, Psychology Today, November 21, 2011.