- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Curmudgeons? Grumpy old men? Not necessarily. It is husbands rather than wives who tend to embark upon a sentimental journey as the years go by, according to a new study.

Imagine: Here sits the hubby, awash in sentiment and appreciative of the olden days, sometimes at the point of tears. And the wife? Perhaps she's heard it all before and is quite ready, thank you, to move along.

It's all true, according to University of Denver communications professor Fran Dickson, who interviewed 20 couples for the study, all over 60 and all married an average of 42 years.

The husbands were unabashed about their emotions, sentimental, polite and even excited about sharing their stories of nuptial bliss and dark days alike. Wives were often more reserved.

"Men have gotten a bad rap in relationship literature," said Ms. Dickson yesterday, adding that her study deliberately used personal narratives rather than dry questions to get to the heart of relationships that have stood the test of time.

"This helps illuminate a very understudied group," she said. "Later life couples."

The couples tended to follow the same pattern in the study. Far from unfeeling old boors, husbands were willing to reveal the good stuff and the bad, including infidelity or alcohol problems.

"They were showing remorse, they were showing sadness. Some husbands cried," Ms. Dickson observed, adding that the women had a "been there, done that" attitude and were not eager to revisit old hurts.

In many ways, this is typical behavior from those of a certain age and circumstance.

The couples in the study were all from a time when wives stayed home and husbands worked full time. These wives, Ms. Dickson said, had been through the typical emotional mill of child rearing and day-to-day domestic drama, and perhaps longed for some serenity.

"The later life woman is a hero in her own way, too," Ms. Dickson said. "She's put up with a whole lot in her time."

Aging men have their own challenges.

After retiring, these once absent husbands become privy to the many small passion plays common to the average home. At times, it seems a revelation; he becomes involved while his spouse turns away.

Ms. Dickson says her research underscores other studies about emotional role reversals in long-haul marriages.

Indeed, researchers at the University of Oregon found that "traditional wives" were less happy after a husband retired because they felt his presence was an invasion of turf, or that he actually increased the work load.

A University of Nebraska study, meanwhile, found that "older men become as interested in giving and receiving love as in making conquests or acquiring power; as interested in personal relationships as in professional success."

In this case, older husbands were "painfully aware of their own mortality and start to examine their lives," the study said. Wives newly liberated from their apron strings, often after decades at home, were eager to try their hand at new skills or even a fledgling career.

The transformation of stalwart men who finally give in to feeling moments is also addressed in "Aging Well," a new book by Dr. George Valiant, a psychiatrist and director of the Harvard Medical School's comprehensive Study of Adult Development, which tracked the aging patterns of 864 persons for decades.

"Those among the old who love life are not exceptions they are just healthy," Dr. Valiant wrote. "As they surmount the inevitable crises of aging, the study members seem constantly to be reinventing their lives."


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