Mind Matters - October 2006
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Partner Conflict
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- October 2006

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I am a wife who has been married to the same man for 33 years. I am on the verge of filing for divorce. We haven't seen eye-to-eye for years. It seems like we are just not meant to be together for our whole lives. I think this is true for a lot of adults around age 60. Marriages aren't what they used to be. People used to die at much younger ages than we do now. Signed: The Conflicts Never Seem to End.

    Dear "Conflicts Never End":

      Thank you for writing! You actually bring up two important questions: (1) do we have unrealistic expectations about marriage based on old data and traditions about marriages; and, (2) are there ever conflict-free relationships?

      The short answers to these questions are yes, we have unrealistic expectations about marriages based on old data and traditions, and, no, there is no such thing as a conflict-free relationship. Comprehensive answers to these questions are the subject matter of books, but I think I can point out a few things that might be helpful.

      Divorce among all age groups, including those over 50, has been rising for many years. A widely-reported 2004 AARP survey of people between the ages of 40 and 79 showed that a majority of midlife divorces were initiated by women. Sixty-six percent of women asked for divorces, compared to 41 percent for men. Men, more often than women, were caught off guard by their spouse's request for divorce. Although many men were "surprised" by their wife's divorce action, the marital discontent had often festered for years.

      The overwhelming primary reason that most people delayed divorce actions related to children. Fifty-eight percent of men and 37 percent of women in the AARP survey cited their children as the top reason the postponed a divorce for five years or longer. In the not-too-distant past, people did not live much past age 60, and thus, there was not much "free time" to contemplate what an independent life might be like. That has clearly changed.

      We do not yet know for sure whether the increased divorce rate is a sign that we are coming to our senses about how difficult it is to stay happily married and we are more unwilling to pretend to be happy or conform to certain outmoded traditions or whether the increased rate is an indicator of increased problems in marriages. However, there are some things we know for sure. Divorce is a serious matter for older adults. People who stay married live four years longer than people who don't. Happily married people are much healthier than unhappy couples.

      Since you did not specify exactly what kind of conflicts have been occurring in your relationship, I am not sure how to address the conflicts issue. However, here are a few things to keep in mind about marriages and conflicts. There are no conflict-free relationships. According to John Gottman, Ph.D., a world-renowned marriage researcher who has filmed, evaluated and studied thousands of married couples, the main indicators of a potential divorce are (1) the way a couple argues, (2) differences in conflict-resolution styles, and (3) whether "negative sentiment" has begun to significantly overwhelm the "positive sentiment" in the relationship.

      One of the major myths that Dr. Gottman addresses is the myth that the primary solution to conflict resolution involves "better communication" and the way to develop that is through "active listening." What Dr. Gottman has clearly documented is that successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed. "Most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they are upset."

      Gottman has discovered that what makes a marriage work is surprisingly simple. "Happily married couples aren't smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others… they have hit on a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones." According to Dr. Gottman, they have what he calls "emotionally intelligent" marriages.

      I highly recommend reading Dr. Gottman's book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" before you make any major commitment to a decision about a divorce. I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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      Have a great day!

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