“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” Charles Dickens could have been talking about mid-life when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities.
For more than 40 years, I’ve been helping women and men find the right partner and keep their relationships alive and well. But mid-life is a most difficult time for many. And mid-life marriage can truly bring us “the best of times or the worst of times.” The stresses can impact our health and at mid-life we may be dealing with everything from rheumatoid arthritis to enlarged prostates, menopause to male menopause (Andropause).
Every day I hear from women and men who are struggling to keep their relations afloat. Here are a few comments from a woman and a man who could be speaking for millions:
“I’m living a nightmare,” says Martha, a fifty year-old mother of two. “I want to save my marriage, but I don’t know what to do. He says he just doesn’t love me and wants out. We tried marriage counseling, but that didn’t help. We’ve been together for twenty-eight years, but now it looks like the marriage is falling apart. What’s even worse is I don’t know why it’s happening.”
“I’m fifty-three and my wife is forty-eight,” says George who seemed distraught and confused when he called me. “I know this may sound strange, but I’ve reached a saturation point. I don’t feel the same things I once felt for my wife. I still love her, but I’m not in love with her. I miss what we once had, but things seem dead and I don’t know how to bring them back to life.”
Do these short descriptions ring a bell with you? Are you or your partner over forty? Do you long to have a relationship that is passionate, alive, and engaged? Does it sometimes feel like you want the relationship more than your partner does? Do you feel deeply troubled, but haven’t given up on the relationship? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, read on. Here are five critical things I’ve learned helping more than 25,000 couples over the last four decades.
Keep a Long-Term Mindset in a Quick Fix Culture
Most of us made a vow to our partner when we got married that went something like this:
I, ____, take you, ____, to be my lawfully wedded(husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
We were in it for the long haul, “until death do us part.” But 40 to 50% of marriages end in divorce and the statics are even higher for subsequent marriages. It’s not easy keeping a relationship alive and well through the years and it’s even more difficult in our quick-fix, throw away culture.
We buy new clothes, new cars, new computers, new phones when we grow tired of the old ones or just want to get the “next best thing.” It shouldn’t surprise us that our consumer driven habits rub off on our relationships. If we want to save our marriages we have to change our mind set to “the joys of longevity” instead of “the fun of a newer model.”
Understand That Even Good Relationship Have Long Periods When Things Look Bad
Shortly after my wife and I got married we went to a lecture by the world renowned psychologist Carl Rogers. He was giving a talk on how to have a successful marriage and we were on the edge of our seats wanting to learn from the master. At one point he looked over to his wife of fifty years. With a chuckle he said, “Remember that difficult stretch we went through?” She nodded and smiled.
I was amazed that even a world-class expert on marriage had his problems. I was thinking, “well I guess we’re not so different.” I expected him to go on to tell us about the difficult month they once had and was floored as he continued his remembrance. “Things just got off track for eight or ten years, until we worked things out and got back together. It was a miserable time.”
As a newly married couple we were sure we would be ecstatically happy forever, with a few down turns that might last a few weeks, a month at the most. Difficult times lasting eight or ten years were beyond our imagining. But I’ve since learned that good marriages that last thirty, forty, fifty years, or even “until death do us part” will have long stretches where things look bad. So, don’t give up too soon. Hang in there. Get help if you need it.
To Keep Your Relationship Alive You Must Keep Your Eye on the Prize
When we first fall in love, we are ecstatic, head over heels entranced, engaged, and awestruck. But of course, it doesn’t last. With his usual caustic wit, George Bernard Shaw gives us a glass-of-cold-water-in-the-face bit of wisdom: “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”
I happen to agree and disagree with Shaw. Being in love isn’t a delusion. Its real and it can last, but we have to risk being honest if we want to keep it alive. At the beginning of a relationship we are in an altered state. We overlook our loved ones faults as we revel in all those cute little idiosyncrasies we think we’ll love forever. But as time goes on, we inevitably run into things we don’t like.
There are three ways people handle the things that come to bug us. Only the third choice will improve your marriage. The first is to ignore the problems and hope for the best. The second is to focus on what you don’t like and hope your partner will change if you let them know what you don’t like. The third focuses on what you would like.
Instead of ignoring your partners lack of attention or focusing on the problem, focus on what you’d like instead. “I’d really like to spend more time with you. Let’s find a time to do something glorious together.” Negativity breeds negativity. Positivity breeds positivity. I’m not talking about being Pollyanna, but keeping focused on what you want and exploring creative ways you and your partner can meet your needs for connection. In other words, be a good friend. It’s the basis for a good marriage.
Do Love Your Partner Like a Child
One of the main complaints I hear from women and men about their relationship is that their partner often seems as needy as a child. “It’s like I’ve got three children in the house,” a 40 year-old woman told me. “I’ve got two young ones and a husband who acts like a child.” I hear similar complaints from men about their wives. “She always needs massive amounts of reassurance. She’s worse than my three year old.”
In our independent-oriented culture, any kind of dependency seems suspect. But scientific studies on good marriages show that we all need the same kind of love that good parents give to their children. Social psychologists Phil Shaver and Cindy Hazan, then at the University of Denver, decided to ask men and women questions about their love relationships to see if they exhibited the same responses and patterns as parents and children. To their surprise, they found that adult lovers have the same needs that we had when we were children and that healthy love includes healthy attachment.
The adults spoke of needing emotional closeness from their lover, wanting assurance that their lover would respond when they were upset, being distressed when they felt separate and distant from their loved one, and feeling more confident about exploring the world when they knew their lover had their back.
It May Take Two to Tango, But Only One Partner is Needed to Save a Marriage
“I still love my husband and I want to save our marriage,” a 52 year-old woman told me, “but I can’t do anything if he’s not willing to work on the marriage with me.” Many of us believe that both partners have to be actively committed to improving a marriage. Otherwise, the marriage is doomed.
But after working with men and women for more than 40 years, I’ve found that it only takes one person who is committed to the relationship to turn things around. No one gets married because they want to be miserable. Every marriage starts out feeling good. Things deteriorate for many reasons, but they can be revitalized with the right kind of help and support.
The good news about humans is that we are all mammals. As such we are social and truly desire to have a good, loving relationship with our partner. When one person begins to change things for the better, the other person will naturally start to come around. It isn’t always easy, but it is always possible. Toparaphrase the anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a thoughtful, committed spouse can change a marriage for the better. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Please share your input in the comments below. Together we can heal.
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