Your parents have been arguing for decades—but now their marriage seems worse than ever. Or maybe they have always seemed happy together, but the marriage suddenly is on the rocks. A marriage can hit rough spots even late in the journey. When that happens, the couple’s adult children typically wish to help their parents save the relationship, but what can they do to help?
When a marriage falters after decades, the best question to ask yourself is, What’s changed? Certain changes are particularly likely to create problems for older married couples, including…
Increased togetherness. Your mother and father probably spent many hours apart each week for most of their married lives. Retired couples often are together 24 hours a day, which can be a difficult adjustment.
What to do: Help your parents find individual hobbies. Suggest they return to activities enjoyed long ago…join clubs on their own…or spend more time with their own same-sex friends.
Different plans. Perhaps one of your parents wants to travel, but the other just wants to be near the grandkids.
What to do: Help them reach a compromise by suggesting, for example, that they travel for a few months each year but spend the rest of the time at home.
Depression. If one of your parents isn’t happy—perhaps because of a health problem, adjusting to retirement or a child moving away—that unhappiness can taint the whole marriage.
What to do: Help this parent see that his/her marriage isn’t to blame for the unhappiness. Suggest that he seek help—a therapist or support group, perhaps.
Financial difficulties. Your parents’ retirement savings might not have lasted as long as they had expected. Money problems can strain even the strongest relationship.
What to do: Remind your parents that they’re not unhappy with each other—they’re just tense about money. Help them find ways to trim expenses…offer financial support if you’re able…and point out that living separately is even pricier than living together.
Medication side effects. Has either of your parents changed medications recently? Drugs sometimes cause changes in behavior or personality, potentially resulting in marital conflicts.
What to do: Consult a doctor about possible behavioral side effects of your parent’s medications and alternative drug options.
Chronic illness or dementia. The onset of dementia, perhaps as yet undiagnosed, can alter a person in ways that might frustrate his/her spouse. Illness or dementia can alter your parents’ roles in ways that strain a marriage, forcing one spouse to become the caregiver and the other the dependent.
What to do: Help your parents locate appropriate support groups. If acceptable to your parents and financially feasible, consider hiring someone to ease the caregiver’s burden.
Loss of friends. Parents may be dealing with friends dying or retiring to different parts of the country. This can alter their social circles and outlook on life.
What to do: Encourage your parents to continue to expand their social circle by joining clubs or other groups.
Declining driving ability. The loss of the ability to drive safely is a common source of arguments in older couples.
What to do: Ask a family doctor to decide if a parent can still drive safely, or let a driver’s test decide so that it isn’t just one parent telling the other he’s not capable. Look into senior transport programs in your area, or arrange for family, friends or volunteer drivers to provide rides on a regular basis so that your parent isn’t stranded.
Your Proper Role
If your parents don’t want your help with their marital problems, don’t force the issue. Some parents aren’t comfortable sharing their problems with their kids. When that’s the case, you’ll only make things worse by interfering. If you’re not confident that your input will be welcomed, ask, “Is this something you would like my help with?” If the answer is no, let your parents know that you love them both…that you’re there for them if they change their minds…and that you can help them find a third party to help, such as a professional marriage counselor, if they would prefer.
You won’t help your parents’ marriage by taking sides in their arguments. As soon as you side with one parent, the other will feel ganged up on and become wary of your continued involvement. Even if you’re certain one parent is completely to blame, remember that you might not know the whole story.
Exception: If one parent is suffering from dementia or serious depression, you may need to take a more active role in helping both parents find appropriate medical and psychological help.
If your parents burden you with their problems but won’t listen to your advice, tell them they must let you help or leave you out of it. Make it clear that you’ll cut visits short if they can’t be civil to each other. Keep in mind that you’re not responsible for their marriage. If you have offered assistance and a sympathetic ear, you have done all you can do.