Growing old together gracefully
WHEN you have been married for more than 20 or 30 years, it becomes very easy to take your spouse for granted. With a lack of communication, not enough time spent together in the past 10 and more years, and faced with retirement and an empty nest … what a recipe that can be for a strained relationship and perhaps divorce, even.
Author, trainer, wife and mother Jamilah Samian believes that very often, couples who have been married a long time take each other for granted and have even grown apart because they hardly see each other over the years as both have their own lives and work schedules.
“One day, when you are put together (after retirement) you realise your spouse has changed so much. Before this, it was so different. When both worked, maybe you just sat down together for a quiet dinner and then went to bed.
“Now that you are spending so much time together, you may not be able to communicate because suddenly it seems like your spouse is a different person from who you once knew. It’s not like you don’t like each other,” says Jamilah, who has been married to trainer and Toastmaster Ahmad Fakhri for 31 years.
Taken for granted
Ahmad adds that it is easy for husbands and wives to take each other for granted as the years pass.
“There’s a vow and a binding contract, so automatically things get done at home, but we are not in the world of robots,” he says.
Jamilah believes it is crucial for the husband and wife to remember what their spouse has done for them in the past and how he or she stood by them during trying times.
“I think sometimes when you are married and have gone through trying times, one of the things that chips away at the love and respect for each other is that we forget those momentous times when we were able to overcome challenges and problems by virtue of being together.
“I’m sure where the husband and wife have been loyal to each other, either in raising their children or through financial issues, there would have been trying times that they went through together, but sometimes they forget these things.
“You start taking each other for granted because you forget how the other person stood by you in tough times. Personally, it really helps when I remember those times lest I forget what Ahmad has done for me.
“In 20, 30 years of marriage, I’m sure there would have been some major moments that you went through and this is true for all couples. If you are able to keep those moments in your memory and remind yourself that you are more grateful for your spouse, you are less likely to take him or her for granted,” she says.
Sometimes they take their spouse for granted and instead show gratitude to strangers who do less for them, points out Jamilah.
“Why are you so grateful to a stranger when your spouse has done much more for you? Because you are my spouse, you are expected to do more? We tend to focus on what is not done rather than what has been done,” she adds.
Ahmad believes that often even though couples have lived together for many years, men will still crack jokes and make unnecessary remarks which are hurtful to their wife.
“They don’t realise this is what chips away at that strong sense of love between them. The remarks are hurtful and will be kept in the wife’s memory and brought out again and again.
“So, when the children leave the home, the wife might feel like she can stand on her own and no longer needs to share her life with her husband as these remarks are hurtful and not helping her achieve a high quality of life. If you have the combination of a mundane life and all these negative remarks, you have the ingredients of a breakup.
“You might feel happier to stay on your own because the spouse has not learned to respect you and has taken you for granted,” says Ahmad.
But is the husband entirely to blame?
On one hand, the husband is insensitive, and on the other hand, the wife never nipped it in the bud. She allowed the hurtful comments to be hurled at her for the past 30-40 years.
“So, it takes two to tango. When you don’t nip it in the bud, hoping that it will stop, it can become a pattern,” says Ahmad.
Forgive, forget, rebuild
He points out that a couple sometimes has a lot of “baggage” in terms of things done and said in the past which were never forgiven, nor forgotten, by their spouse.
“Sometimes people say ‘I can forgive but I cannot forget’. I want us to go one step further which is not only to forgive because it may not necessarily be attributed to your spouse, and forget because there are other good things that he or she has done, but to also rebuild the relationship. The rebuilding is missing in any breakdown of relationship, including marital.
“I find some people forgive and forget and stop there. I think they should go the extra mile to learn from it – the context of why it has happened – and rebuild the relationship. That makes you a better person as it really enhances your perspective,” says Ahmad.
Jamilah admits humility is key. “The moment you allow your ego to get the better of you, it is very difficult to forgive the other person. Just think, if you were in that situation you might have done the same thing, whatever forgetfulness or expectations that have not been fulfilled,” she says.
Acts of kindness
Ahmad suggests that husbands and wives take time to perform deliberate yet random acts of kindness like giving the spouse a foot rub after a long day.
“The act should be conscious and deliberate and random. You don’t have to do it every night. You don’t have to invest money in it, but such a simple act of kindness would certainly send a long lasting message to your spouse,” says Ahmad.
Making it better
So, what is a couple to do now that they see each other 24/7 and without the kids at home to be the buffer between them?
Jamilah believes that it should start with the couple believing that the marriage can be better than what it was before.
The couple needs to realise that it is very possible that it will become better in terms of the quality of their relationship. Knowing that it is possible is the first step.
Secondly, you have to make that commitment to make it even better.
Thirdly, it’s not just a matter of saying “we are going to make it better”; how are you going to make it better?
She says couples should take into account that as they grow older, they would have their own idiosyncrasies and become more sensitive.
“So, it’s not just you becoming more sensitive. Your spouse is also more sensitive. So, there has got to be more give and take,” she adds.
Couples should also not feel compelled to spend every waking moment together.
“I think at the end of the day, even if you’re married, you still deserve to have your own space, to do your own thing where you can just centre yourself without the presence of your spouse because it’s important to not lose touch with who you are as a person.
“If you are too dependent on your spouse, then what happens if he or she is not around? There is no guarantee that your spouse will be around for you forever. Therefore, for me, in a marriage your spouse is not everything for you; never will be. You need friends, siblings … you need your own support,” says Jamilah.
New activities together
While it is important to do things separately, it is equally important to spend time together meaningfully.
She suggests that the couple find new activities to do together, not necessarily hobbies, but perhaps meaningful and enriching activities such as charity work, which can make them both feel better about themselves as individuals and as a couple.
Ahmad says it’s a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what they are going to do in their retirement years. In fact, he says it’s a conversation that should start before retirement and they can even start doing some of these activities together before retirement.
“Prepare early, otherwise it’s going to be very mechanical or it looks like you are faking it. You need to build that habit so that it comes to you naturally when you retire. I would suggest proactive preparation,” he says.
Ahmad sums it up asking what is the endgame and what legacy would you as a couple and individuals like to leave behind.
“Either you want it to be a miserable ending or a happy ending – you make your choice. If you have built your marriage, like growing a tree with all the nurturing, you will yield the best fruits and the outcome will be fantastic.
“If you have not done what you were supposed to do, did not bother to check your spouse’s emotions, made hurtful remarks and uncalled for actions, it is a recipe for disaster for your marriage,” he says.
Jamilah Samian’s book The Kindness Miracle – A 5-Point Plan to Make Your Marriage Work is now available at all leading book stores. For more information, go to coolmumsuperdad.com.