The spat may center on one of several themes:
Someone in your house is going deaf.
Someone in your house isn’t taking proper care of an aging body.
Someone in your house is suddenly, alarmingly forgetful.
You or your spouse is taking the other for granted.
And so the conflict flares and simmers, then fades…until the next time.
These are the emotional ghosts and goblins of older age. When we were toddlers, we feared monsters in our closets and alligators under the bed. As teens in the Cold War era, some of us feared not finding true love before a nuclear holocaust would blow up the world. Still later, some of us feared not finding a good job or not getting married or not making it to retirement.
Now, in our older years, there are new fears: the fear of decline, disease and death, the fear of losing each other in so many ways in the days to come. And sometimes these fears collide with fierce denial.
So many of our conflicts with spouses and others close to us reflect those fears as we go around and around with our concerns and our fears and our denials -- with a sense of anticipatory loss and grief as we spar with each other.
So what can one do with this unsettling mix of love and fear?
1. Reframe spousal nagging as love: If your spouse didn’t care, he or she wouldn’t be so adamant about the need for you to get a medical checkup or hearing aids or to come up with a better plan to safeguard your health and mobility or for the two of you to communicate better. Instead of assuming that your spouse is simply being mean or trying to annoy you, think about the love and the fear behind his or her words. Your spouse may really be saying “I love you and want you to be well” or “I can’t stand the idea of possibly losing you!” or “I need to hear that our relationship means as much to you as it does to me!”
2. Listen without planning a response: It’s easy to get defensive when you’re feeling besieged with requests, demands, observations and suggestions from a loved one. But just for today, try listening without planning a response. Just stay fully in the moment. Look at your loved one. Take in what he or she is saying without mulling an angry response. You may never agree. But you can listen.
3. Be open to the truth coming from a loved one: Those we love generally don’t mean to hurt us. We don’t always like what we hear but there may be more than a little truth in their words. Maybe you aren’t hearing as well as you used to. Maybe you are a bit more forgetful. Maybe you could do more to enhance your health. Maybe you have been abrupt, reclusive, moody or remote – all causing your spouse to feel shut out and even unloved. And hearing these truths, think about what you might be doing to help yourself and the one who loves you most.
4. Be gentle with each other’s feelings: Whether you’re expressing your fears for another or on the listening end, be gentle. We fear losing our loved ones in so many ways over time. And we fear losing our healthy, competent, independent selves and may lash out with denial and resentment when someone expresses concern. Remember your love and commitment to each other with gentleness.
5. Look beyond fear to blessings: Despite fears and conflict, there is a lot that is good about life right now. We may walk a bit more slowly. We may not hear each other as well. We may be a little forgetful. We may need to lose weight. We may need to be more active or be more attentive and loving with our partners. But along with these challenges are so many blessings: a wonderfully rich history together, such comfort in each other’s arms, so much love and trust, so much to cherish right now, in this moment, without letting fears for tomorrow come between us.