Coaching an Older Couple

She married him for better or for worse but not for lunch.

It all started when I found a delightful gentleman in his mid-70s waiting outside my front door early one morning. He dropped by because his wife told him he needed fixing. That’s often the way couples come in; one says that the other is broken. They usually make an appointment instead of just dropping by.

He knew that she was angry because a few days earlier she had demanded that he leave the house. He told me she said, “Go!” He dutifully left but couldn’t really figure out why she was so upset. He tried to spend the night in his car, the police found him and chastised him and he finally went to an inexpensive motel even though he was outraged by the price.

We decided that since he still couldn’t understand why she was so angry at him we had better ask her specifically, what about him needed fixing.

She agreed to a joint appointment with the understanding that the only reason she was coming was to explain what was wrong with him. They were both so actively involved in the community that it was hard to find a suitable time to see them together.

When I finally saw them the affection that clearly existed between them almost overwhelmed the room. It was absolutely clear that they loved each other. Our initial talk showed me a couple that had built an incredibly rich life together by doing all the things they believed they were supposed to do.

After many years “on the Road” from Monday to Friday, he had recently retired from his full-time sales job. Now they were enjoying a rich travel and family and community life together. But some things didn’t seem to be working very well.

He gave her a huge amount of credit for managing the household and the family so well when he was working and they both described the joy of their weekends together. The first thing he would do when he returned home on Friday night was to take the whole family out to dinner.

So why was she so frustrated? After 30 years together she just couldn’t train him to think the way she wanted him to. She was an admittedly “neat freak” and waged a continuous war to keep an immaculate house and keep the germs at bay. He was appreciative and willing to help now that he was spending more time at home — but he just didn’t notice all the things that needed to be done! No matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t get that right.

And he did try — although he admitted that he didn’t agree with how frequently she wanted things cleaned and that he often put off doing the jobs she asked him to do for several days.

He was perfectly willing to take out the garbage when she reminded him to — but he just didn’t notice the things that she had been teaching him. She just couldn’t understand why he didn’t notice when the garbage needed to be emptied. He didn’t understand that she wanted him to take care of it without being reminded.

He did own up to sometimes dragging his feet instead of just telling her he wasn’t ready to do a job. In fact he was surprised when I even suggested that he could tell her he wasn’t ready to do a job immediately. He reluctantly agreed to tell her when he was going to delay doing a job. She didn’t seem to mind.

We spent a delightful 90 minutes together. In fact my husband commented afterwards that so much laughter was leaking out of my office during the session that he wondered what was going on.

Our talk was peppered with statements like, “doesn’t everyone think this way?”

She was truly surprised when I told her that not everyone thought the same way she did. I even admitted that I had never even purchased Clorox wipes and that after 48 years of marriage I still had some of the same kinds of husband problems that she had.

I explained that I have never been able to train my husband to think the way I want him to and he seems to have the same problem with me. What’s different is that over the years we’ve come to accept this and have stopped getting upset about it.

Mostly, we spent time clarifying what they both had been silently fuming about and discovering how normal they sounded. We discussed whether it was possible change the way they were thinking about their problems and they thought it might be. I also spent quite a bit of time giving them information about how other couples handle similar issues.

They decided they wanted to practice my suggestions for a few weeks to see how things went before their next appointment. A week before they were to come in again he called to thank me. He explained that they were doing so well together that they felt like there was no reason to come back, so he was canceling their next appointment.

What happened with this couple isn’t usual. When couples retire and need to change their old familiar patterns of interaction, they simply don’t know how. They do their best to do what they think they’re supposed to do and feel miserable about it. They blame each other.

The women often share their problems with friends. (I hear them complaining in the locker room before their water exercise class.) Sometimes the men just withdraw. In any case it doesn’t occur to them that just a little bit of help and some new information could make a big difference in quality of their lives.

They need to be reminded that it’s never too late to learn new ways to be happy together.

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