Non Traditional Couples

Non-Traditional Couples

In addition to married couples, other types of couples exist among older populations.

Cohabitating Couples

As baby boomers age and social mores around cohabitation relax, an increasing number of older heterosexual couples live together and enjoy sexual intimacy but never marry. For some couples, it makes financial sense: widowed or divorced women may lose some of their retirement, pension, or Social Security benefits if they remarry. For others cohabitation offers a degree of autonomy, flexibility, and independence (Gierveld, 2004). In terms of social support, cohabitating couples appear to have more support than divorced, widowed, or single persons, but less than married couples.

Nonsexual Couples

Another type of couple relationship consists of good friends, usually the same sex, who do not have a sexual relationship. A recent article in the New York Times (Gross, 2004) offered anecdotal evidence that a number of baby boomer women are making concrete plans to live with one another in retirement in order to pool financial resources and maximize social support. In general, however, little is known about nonsexual, cohabitating couples and how they impact social support systems (Atchly & Barusch, 2004).

Homosexual Couples

Gay and lesbian couples represent another category of couple relationship. Most social scientists argue that statistical information about gay and lesbian relationships in general, and among older couples in particular, are tenuous at best (Huyck, 1996; Kimmel, 1993). Recently, however, researchers estimated the prevalence of same-sex couples based on intense review of 2000 U.S. Census data (Bennett & Gates, 2004). According to his study, more than 1 in 10 same-sex couples include a partner age 65 or older; nearly 1 in 10 couples are comprised of two people 65 or older. Two-thirds of these couples have lived together in the same house for five years of more, and more than four out of five own their home. The proportion of same-sex couples is significantly higher if the age of 55 is used; nearly one in four same-sex couples include a partner 55 or older, and nearly one in five couples are comprised to two people 55 or older.

Social Support in Gay and Lesbian Couples

Gay and lesbian couples have unique social and legal barriers to social support. Despite great strides over the past few decades in social acceptance of homosexuality in some parts of society, it is by no means universal. Prejudice still exits on the streets and in the courts. By and large, gay and lesbian couples lack the same legal and social recognition given to heterosexual couples. In the past few years, some cities and states have begun to pass laws that recognize domestic partners (also includes heterosexual cohabitating couples) for some benefits. In addition, some states have passed laws to legally allow same-sex marriages, but in every case these laws are being challenged in court. Without legal rights, gay and lesbian couples face formidable challenges in forming and dissolving families, financial and estate planning, health care decisions, and other legal affairs.

Gay men and lesbians differ from heterosexuals with respect to their social support system. In some cases, gay and lesbian individuals are estranged from family members who do not accept of support their sexual identity (Quadagno, 2002). In such cases they may have little, if any, contact with a traditional system of social support. Instead, many form their own families of friends, significant others, and possibly some biological family members, including their own children, to be their social support system (Kimel, 1993). One recent study found that gays comfortable and open with their sexuality where more likely to use and be satisfied with the social support available to them (Farberman, 2003). Moreover, these individuals reported more commitment to their relationships with their significant others or partners (Farberman).

Not all gay men and lesbians are estranged from their families of origin. Kimmel (1993) noted that sometimes by virtue of their social position, gay men and lesbians have special roles within the family. For example, they may be “elected” to be the caregiver for an aging relative because they are unmarried, can easily travel, or simply poses the willingness to do so. They may also be perceived as having more financial resources to help with an aging parent or with other family situations. Finally, they may be called upon to provide counsel or emotional support, especially to younger family members.

Never Married

In the United States, less than 5 percent of those 65 and older have never been married, and that percentage has stayed relatively stable over the past 50 years (Census Bureau, 2003). That is not to say, however, that never-married seniors have lived alone most of their lives, or that they are lonely or socially isolated. Research shows that never-married older people have lived with others throughout their lives – friends, family, even lovers (Choi, 1996; Rubinstein, 1987; Simon, 1989). In fact, in at least one study, never-married people were more likely to be living with others, especially siblings, than were divorced persons (Choi). Some evidence suggests that what never-married people may have missed in having a spouse and children, they have made up for in social activities, satisfying careers, friends, and fictive family (Genevay, 1993; Simon). Furthermore, never-married women tend to be better off financially than those their age who are widowed or divorced (and never-married men appear to be no worse off financially than divorced men) (Choi).

Up until recently, those who never married, particularly women, were often pitied – or view with suspicion: “I wonder what’s wrong with ___ that she can’t find a mate?” Even in the gerontology literature, older single people have been presented as loners (Troll, Miller, & Atchley, 1979), lifelong isolates (Gubrium, 1975), and living lives without love – as in “it may be easier to have never loved than to have loved and lost” (Troll et al.). This negative social perception about single life has been especially true for women. Men, on the other hand, have been perceived as remaining bachelors “because they want personal freedom from involvement” (Troll et al.). Several books in recent years about women who came of age in the early 19th century counter this viewpoint (Delany, Delany, & Hill Hearth, 1993; Kuhn, 1991; Simon, 1989), for many people, especially women, no marrying was conscious choice for a different type of life, usually a career, but sometimes it was simply a choice not to be a wife and mother. Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers and lifelong social activists, articulates: “Many people ask why I never married. My glib response is always: sheer luck! When I look back on my life, I see so many things I could not have done if I had been tied to a husband and children.”

Social Support in Never-Married Life

Most people who have chosen to stay single throughout their lives have a strength and resiliency that actually may serve to help them cope better in later life with living alone (Troll et al., 1979). Never-married older women have particularly strong social ties with family, friends, and social organizations (Choi, 1996; Simon, 1989). On the other hand, never-married older men tend to have weaker social ties across the board (Arber, 2004; Perren, Arber, & Davidson, 2003).

Currently, frail adults that do not have a partner or children to turn to siblings, extended kin, fictive kin, an friends for social support (Goldberg, Kantrow, Krmen, & Lauter, 1986). Some studies find never-married men and women, however, are less likely than married or divorced people to have a caregiver in times of illness (Choi, 1996) and are in more need for emotional and instrumental support (Keith, Kim, & Schafre, 2000).

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.