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Column: How our idea of love changes as we get older

The qualities we value in a partner when we are young often change as we grow older, writes Kate Burke.

Kate Burke

ROMANTIC LOVE HAS been described as ‘a human universal, or near universal’ and is associated with intense emotional experiences such as increased energy, euphoria, obsessive thinking about the loved one, feelings of dependency and craving. When people are ‘in love’ they may feel as if they have uncovered the meaning of life. One feels complete and life feels whole.

Emily Brontë superbly captured the experience in Wuthering Heights: ‘I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but, as my own being.’ The arts continue to be consumed by efforts to define, process, and understand romantic love. The book by Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, is but one example of a story of the power of enduring love, where a couple fall in love in their youth, go their separate ways during mid-life and return to one another’s arms in their old age.


Good quality relationships of all kinds, but specifically romantic relationships, are associated with psychological well-being, good health and happiness. However, the quality of the relationship is important and the questions have to be asked: How do societal and economic changes influence relationships? What makes a relationship last? How does love change across the lifespan?

Previous research suggests that marital satisfaction is typically reported as highest in new marriages, lowering during midlife and improving later in life. The peaks and troughs of relationship satisfaction map onto different life stages. For example, midlife is considered a particularly stressful period for couples due to commitments such as work, child care, financial stresses and caring for older relatives. However, older adulthood is not without its challenges with this population facing transitions such as retirement, empty nest and changes in health.

My research completed with Dr Michael Hogan at NUI Galway, aimed to identify and examine relations between elements of romantic relationship success as described by younger and older adults using a collective intelligence methodology. The top-five most highly rated elements of successful romantic relationships for the older adults were honesty, communication, companionship, respect, and positive attitude, whereas as the top-five most highly rated elements of romantic relationship success for younger adults were love, communication, trust, attraction and compatibility.

Important qualities

Notably, honesty was the most highly rated relationship success factor in the older adult group, but was not identified by the younger adult group. Older adults defined honesty as being ‘able to confide in one another in a truthful way’. Honesty is an interesting concept as it involves self disclosure and risks putting an individual in a vulnerable position, and yet the ability to disclose honestly in a mindful, trusting and sensitive fashion can facilitate a deeper level of intimacy in the relationship.

Furthermore, research has suggested that self acceptance increases with age and that with age, people have a stronger sense of their true self. It is possible that the older adult group were able to draw on their broad experience and have come to recognise honesty as critical to the long-term success of romantic relationships. In contrast, younger participants valued trust and communication as fundamental drivers of relationship success. Younger adults defined trust as being ‘able to rely on and be supportive of one another’ and ‘to be faithful to one another’.

Interestingly, older adults also selected religion as one of the key elements of successful romantic relationships. They believed that sharing religious beliefs and attending church together provided a foundation for a successful relationship. This element was not identified as important by the younger adult group. Notably, there have been significant changes in recent years in levels of institutionalised religious practice in the largely Catholic Irish population. Weekly mass attendance declined to 50 per cent in 2003 from 90 per cent in the 1970s. This may account for this significant difference between older and younger groups.

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Socialising was also highlighted as an important factor by the older adults. During the group session, older adults highlighted that socialising encapsulated going out as a couple, but also individually. During later life, ones social network may narrow, but within this context older adults often enjoy increased frequency of socialising with friends and neighbours, religious participation and volunteering, and this pattern of increased socialising may facilitate romantic relationships as it stimulates intimacy and communication amongst older lovers.

Younger adults emphasised the importance of attraction and compatibility whereas older adults emphasised socialising, trust and respect. These findings fit well with what we know about the development of romantic relationships. In Western societies, feelings of passion and desire associated with the early stages of a relationship often evolve and transform into feelings of compassionate, committed, and friendship-based love in later life. Older adults may thus drop elements such as attraction from their representations of romantic relationship success as they develop a more mature understanding of relationship success over time.

Kate Burke is a doctoral student at NUI Galway. Ms Burke and Dr Michael Hogan, a Psychology lecturer, want to examine the importance of romantic relationships for people over 60-years-old. She has created a questionnaire and ideally needs around 200 people to participate. Apart from being over 60, participants should also either be in a romantic relationship or have been in a relationship within the last 10 years.

Those who wish to participate in the online study should click here. Participants can also complete the survey in paper format by contacting Kate at kateburke85@gmail.com. More information can be found on the homepage of the NUIG website. All data will be kept confidential with no identifying information attached to the questionnaires.

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About the author:

Kate Burke

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