Relationship strategies helpful to younger couples may be hurtful to older couples

Sarah Seraj

Studies on relationships tend to focus on younger couples, but UT researchers want to compare them with older couples.

As people grow older, their priorities and motivations shift, which changes the way they approach relationships. However, a lot of what researchers know about relationships and how they work is based on young people. There is a risk in generalizing results from younger demographics to older age groups, since relationship strategies that work for younger couples might not be applicable to older couples.

Lisa Neff, UT human development and family sciences associate professor, and her colleagues are conducting a three-year study on this very issue. The study, known as the Relationship Experiences Across the Lifespan Project, looks at how older couples differ from younger couples in tackling relationship challenges and how different coping strategies affect emotional health.

The REAL Project is currently ongoing, and researchers expect to enroll 300 couples by the time it is complete. The project focuses on both couples that have been married for at least 10 years and couples that have been dating for less than three years of ages between 30 to 45 years and over 60 years.

One factor to consider when comparing between older and younger age groups is the fact that the older couples may have been together longer, said Courtney Walsh, graduate student researcher in the project. This can throw off results.

“We are trying to tease that apart a little bit more by focusing on these different age groups and different relationship lengths,” Walsh said.

The relationships of unmarried couples aged 60 years or more are not well-studied, Neff said. Most research on relationships and marriages has focused on couples in their 20s. Moreover, studies that have looked at older couples tend to focus almost exclusively on married couples.

“Nationally speaking, there is a change in our demographics in that there are more people over the age of 60 than we’ve had in previous decades, and more of them are unmarried,” Neff said. “There is a shift in that adults over 60 are dating to a much greater degree than they were in previous decades.”

It was harder to recruit older dating couples to participate in the REAL Project compared to the other age groups, Neff said. She attributes this to generational differences: Older people typically lead more private lives, while younger people have more public personas due to their greater use of social media.

The researchers overcame this barrier by conducting more outreach, speaking to people in the community about the importance of the research and explaining that participants’ responses are confidential and anonymous. 

Walsh said one of the most exciting parts of the projects is interviewing participants about their relationship history when they first enroll in the study. It helps her gets a sense of the unique personalities behind each person and reminds her that there are people behind the numbers. It also improves their team’s understanding of relationship processes, which stimulates new research ideas, she added.

The relationships of newlyweds have been a focal point of Neff’s previous research. She has interviewed over 600 newlywed couples on issues such as external stress spillover, or how stressful situations outside the marriage can seep into a relationship, and emotional capital, or how small everyday positive moments act as a buffer against marital conflict. However, based on theories of aging and development, Neff believes some of her findings on younger couples might not apply to older couples.

“There are certain strategies that … are helpful to newlyweds that may be hurtful in older relationships and vice-versa, which is really fascinating to think about,” Neff said. “If there are some strategies that only work in some age groups and not others, you want to be aware of that for interventions and tailor your help to address the unique needs of the couple that you’re seeing.”