Feature Archive

Women in Love

How to keep your relationship strong through the decades.

By Neil Osterweil
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

What do women want?

That question had even Sigmund Freud stumped, and he was supposed to be an expert on human desire, sexual and otherwise (remember Oedipus and his Mommy?).

But it's no myth that women often want the same thing out of relationships as men do; they just go about getting it in different ways and in different phases of their lives, says Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD. She should know: as co-founder and clinical director of the Gottman Institute, she focuses on helping couples build and maintain healthy relationships. "There's kind of a developmental process to relationships that in some ways parallels that of the individual, and then calls on different things from partners in relationships throughout a lifetime," Gottman tells WebMD.

Gottman says that what each woman needs, wants, and expects from her marriage or intimate relationship may change from one phase of her life to the next. Yet there are tips that help couples in all phases of life. So let's start with those:

  • Make time for conversations where you find out what your partner has experienced lately.
  • Express fondness, appreciation, and admiration for your partner often.
  • Acknowledge your partners interests, even in small moments.
  • Avoid the "Four Horsemen" of Marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness (which follows criticism and contempt), and stonewalling (that is, when one partner completely shuts down and refuses to respond).

As the song says, "You got to have friends." Research shows that in the 20s, women and men alike need solid friendships from their partners, as well as ways to manage conflict when disagreements occur.

And did we mention good sex?

"What colors this period, at least at this time in history, is that both men and women in their 20s are forming careers or moving forward into their work paths, and there's a lot of stress in that process," Gottman says.

Let's imagine Alice A, a 20-something newly married to Bob B and just setting out on her career. To begin with, unless she or hubby has a fat trust fund to live off, Alice is probably going to have to embark on her career straight out of school.

In addition to laying the roots for her professional life, our heroine has the added the stresses of dividing household labor, coping with in-laws, paying bills, and, possibly, pregnancy and children.

"Children in infancy in particular can be stressful for new parents, primarily due to a couple of things," Gottman says. "One, of course is the physical demands of having a new baby. Another is the changes in the family system itself." To recap: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Alice with a baby carriage and the costs of day care, a mortgage, and gasoline for the suburban assault vehicle sitting in the driveway.

Women in the "deuce" decade need partners who will be able and willing, even if only grudgingly, to share the burden of housekeeping, doctors visits for the kids, bill paying, and all of life's other major and minor annoyances (paying attention, guys?). It's equally important for partners to stay flexible, Gottman says. "Particularly in this day and age of recession there can be job instability -- that's throughout the ages -- and couples need ways of handling the stress of changes in jobs, etc."

Friendship, with its implicit values of patience, understanding, compassion, and cooperation, is the key to weathering both the peaks and the troughs of a relationship in the early years.

And when it comes to keeping the romance alive, that may be as simple as setting aside time for a "date" for a least a few nights every month. Alice and Bob should get a babysitter and go out to dinner, if that's possible, or make a nice, intimate dinner at home and share their thoughts, hopes, and dreams with one another, just as they did when they first met.

"One of the most important things we've discovered is turning toward your partner in very small moments, where your partner is making a bid for attention," Gottman says. "If your partner is looking out the window and says 'Wow, look at that beautiful boat that just went by,' you respond with 'Oh, wow it is beautiful' -- that's all it is, it's a little tiny response as opposed to continuing to read your newspaper and not look up. That makes a huge difference."

Just as in the 20s, women want love and friendship in the 40s, but they may prefer to sow their oats on the domestic rather than the wild side.

Many couples are well settled in career and family by the time the 40s roll around (or leap out from the bushes and grab them by the throat). But for Alice and Bob, the 40s are the time when the lovable, compliant, cute-as-hell little darlings they've raised are suddenly snatched away and replaced by evil alien clones, otherwise known as adolescents.

"That is another very vulnerable time for marriages, when there are children involved," says Gottman." Adolescents and kids pulling away from families, and trying to separate puts great stress on the couple and particularly on parenting issues, and those parenting issues come up again in a big way when couples are in their 40s."

For Alice, the challenge of parenting teenagers is compounded by the first reminders that her biological clock just doesn't have the tock it once had. "Many women are beginning to go through menopause in their 40s; that can create some changes in terms of sexuality, and there have to be adaptations to women's physical and emotional changes," Gottman says.

But aside from the stresses of adolescence and menopause, the 40s tend to be a more peaceful time in a relationship. "If things have gone well in the first let's say 10-15 years of the marriage, which is where most people are entering into their 40s, if there's a foundation where there has been friendship, if there's a way in which couples have been able to talk about conflict, then they do pretty well in their 40s," Gottman says.

To stay out of a rut, she advises couples to "make sure to express fondness, appreciation, and admiration for your partner. What the research shows is that in happily married couples there's a ratio of about 5-1 positive to negative interactions, and those positive interactions include things like expressing appreciation. In unhappy relationships the ratio is about 1.9- to 1, so there's still some appreciation being expressed, but not enough, and that can make the difference."

In the 60s both men and women are still intensely interested in a four-letter word that ends in "k" and means "intercourse." However, for women of "a certain age," that word may be "talk." (Men may have a different word in mind.)

Research has shown that for many women, when the hot flashes of menopause have cooled off, the sex drive chills out as well. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, but for quite a few women the most important type of intimacy at this stage may be conversation and companionship, plus hand-holding, hugs, and proximity.

For their partners, it may help to remember that the woman's loss of sex drive is nothing personal; it may just be a result of dwindling hormones. More cuddle time is important to keeping a decent sex life at this age.

Other than that, the seminal events of the 60s for Alice and Bob are retirement and the emptying of the nest. "For the most part, it's toughest for the women," Gottman says. "But then again you have women who want to return to the work world and it's easier for them to do that if they've been at home when their kids are leaving home."

When the house is suddenly empty, some couples discover that their marriage is a void as well.

"When it has been a very child-centered family the marriage can sometimes get lost, especially when there are a large number of kids, so there's the stress in the 60s on the couple getting to know one another once again at a deeper level -- not just at the level of planning the day's schedule, but [by asking] What are our values? How do we want to live out our 'golden years?'"


For men and women both, the answer to that last question is: with respect, appreciation, fondness, and a positive outlook about your partner's moods and motives. "In other words," says Gottman, "give them benefit of the doubt."

Published February 2003


SOURCE: Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, co-founder and clinical director, The Gottman Institute.

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