This was supposed to be your time together. The kids are growing up and don’t need as much of your direct attention as they once did. Financially, things may not be great, but you have some money that you can spend together. But just when you thought things were looking up, you’re blindsided. For some it comes with words that cut to the core. “I still love you. It’s just that I’m not in love with you anymore.” For others you’re devastated when you discover the affair. Some knew things weren’t good at home, but never thought their partner was that unhappy until they announced, “I can’t take it anymore.” For others, things aren’t really bad, but they’re not really good either. Whatever is going on, this may be a wakeup call that tells you your marriage is in trouble.
You’ve been through hard times before and you’re not ready to give up. You still believe in love and you’re not ready to abandon the vows you made when you married. But you don’t really know what’s going on or what to do. Here are the things I’ve learned over the years that can help:
Secret #1: Love is not lost. It’s just been misplaced.
Most of us remember the feeling of falling in love. It’s truly intoxicating. We feel totally alive. Our senses are on high alert. The colors of life are vivid and more beautiful than anything we’ve ever seen before. Our minds are totally taken by the thought of this perfect being that has come into our lives. We can’t sleep because we don’t want to miss a second of being with our beloved.
We know we can’t stay in that state forever. The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, reminds us of that. “Marriage: 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.”
Yet, many of us but would give our left arm, or something equally valuable, if we could once again feel that alive again. And that’s the key to reclaiming our lost love. We can’t keep that initial feeling of falling in love, but we can keep the aliveness and passion that are associated with it. It isn’t that love is gone from our lives. We’ve just lost connection with our partner. I think of it this way: When we’re in love, we’re connected to our partner by a golden thread. The ups and downs of life cause that thread to come loose. At some it becomes detached and we feel alone. But the thread is never lost. We just need to find it again and reconnect our centers once again. Don’t give up on your partner and don’t give up on love.
Secret #2: It’s not just your midlife marriage that sucks, its midlife itself.
When we’re unhappy, there’s a tendency to blame ourselves or our partners. When men and women come to me because their marriage is in trouble they often believe that there is something wrong with their partner or themselves:
“He doesn’t listen to me or tell me what’s going on inside him,” one woman tells me. “I feel so alone and uncared for I could cry.”
“I don’t get the physical affection I need,” a man tells me. “Sure, I want more sex, but I’d also like to be touched more too. She seems to have time for her friends and family, but I’m at the bottom of her priority list.”
“Maybe I’m just not meant be with one person,” a man tells me. “Things always start off O.K, but then something changes. I can’t seem to give the woman what she wants.”
“I’m not willing to compromise my standards, a woman tells me. “I’d rather live alone and have close friends than be lonely in a marriage. My friends tell me my standards are too high. Maybe they’re right, but what can I do?”
It rarely occurs to us that the problem might be midlife, not our midlife marriage. But new research demonstrates that men and women all over the world are most unhappy at midlife. Using data on 2 million people, from 80 nations, researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College in the US have found an extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels that leaves us most miserable in middle age.
The authors, economists Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick and Professor David Blanchflower from Dartmouth College in the US, believe that the U-shaped effect stems from something inside human beings. They show that signs of mid-life depression are found in all kinds of people; it is not caused by having children in the house, the empty nest, changes in jobs or income, or the wrong mate.
Interestingly, in the United States, unhappiness peaks at around age 40 for women and 50 for men. This may be why it’s midlife women who first feel dissatisfied with the marriage. But whether you’re a man or a woman, if you’re unhappy with your midlife marriage, resist the temptation to blame your partner or yourself. Hang in there. It’s not all downhill from here, as many people fear, but in fact, things are guaranteed to get better.
Secret #3: Evolution wants to drive you apart. Don’t let it.
When we got married we thought we were making a commitment to one other person. But the truth is that there are always three people in a marriage (no, I’m not talking about the proverbial Ménage à Trois). There’s you, your partner, and a third party I call selfish Gene. Let me explain.
Most of us have heard of the 7-year itch, either in conversation or from the well-known 50s movie with Marilyn Monroe. It’s the thought that marriages are most vulnerable to unravel at the 7-year mark. According to Helen Fisher, one of the world’s leading experts on the nature of romantic love and attachment says, “Divorces peaked most often during and around the fourth year of marriage.” She looked at data from 58 societies with hundreds of millions of men and women collected since 1947 by the Statistical Office of the United Nations. Some of course divorced before earlier and some marriages lasted longer, but four years was the peak.
Why would that be? As an anthropologist Fisher knew that for millions of years, women in hunter-gatherer societies breastfed around the clock, ate a low-fat diet and got a lot of exercise (all habits that inhibit ovulation). As a result, they tended to space their children about four years apart. “Perhaps human couples evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived,” says Fisher.
She also points out that our genetic heritage would push us to seek someone else to mate with. “By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives, and both parents could bear more young with new partners, creating genetic variety in their lineages—and passing across the eons the ‘4-year itch.’”
In our modern societies where there are fewer social supports, many couples stay together until the children are mostly grown. But the tendency to look outside the marriage to mate with someone new is part of our genetic heritage. It’s as though there is a hidden partner in our marriages, I call him “selfish Gene” who whispers to us, “Find a new mate, make some more babies with someone else.”
Of course we don’t recognize these whisperings from within. We just feel restless and unsatisfied. Gene will do his best to make our mate look bad to us and someone new look particularly good. But we don’t have to give in to our evolutionary yearnings. After all, our genes are not interested in our happiness. They are interested in more copies of themselves. So, resist selfish Gene. Look for the good in your mate and recognize that the attractive person who has caught your eye is probably not going to offer the satisfactions you long to have.
Secret #4: Trading in your partner for a newer model is usually a bad trade.
When midlife sucks you down into the depth and your marriage is in tatters, it often feels like there’s no repairing the damage. “There’s just been too much pain and disappointment to go on,” a 44-year-old woman told me. “I’ve tried to make things work between us, but I’m just warn out. He’s never going to change.” I talk to many men who feel equally discouraged. “I try to give her what she wants, but nothing seems to make her happy. I feel like a total failure. Nothing I do seems to work. What’s the use trying, we’ll just cause more pain.”
It’s a natural feeling to want to start anew. We’d like to turn the page, begin a new chapter, get away and start over again. But the truth is there’s a lot more “gold” in our old marriage than we have come to believe. And there’s a lot less “gold” in starting over than our hungry hearts are hoping would be there.
I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than 40 years and have worked with more than 25,000 couples at all stages of the life span. I can tell you that those who were able to revitalize their old marriage and start anew with the same person were happier than those who left the marriage and sought a new relationship with someone else. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. Many people left bad relationships and found better ones on the other side. But most people who hoped that a new partner would make them happy found that they often “jumped out of the frying pan into the fire” and they wished they hadn’t left.
It’s difficult to know the value of a good marriage or the costs of ending a relationship. But leave it to science to give us some answers. Based on an impressive set of research data by
David G. Blanchflower at Dartmouth College and Andrew J. Oswald at Warwick University calculated that in terms of happiness, marriage was worth an impressive $100,000 annually.
Again, most of us don’t think to ourselves, “Hey, if I someone gave me an extra $100,000 a year, I’d hang in here and make my marriage better.” But if we did, we might recognize that the love, companionship, and friendship we can have are worth fighting to keep. Let’s face it, divorce is expensive in many ways—economically, physically, and emotionally. And in these difficult economic times, restoring our midlife marriage is an even better bargain now than it has ever been.
Secret #5: Letting go of “they don’t” and getting back to “I do.”
Few people get married with the intension of leaving the relationship after 4 years. Most of us would like to believe that we could live “happily ever after.” That belief is part of the problem. We all grow up with the story of finding “Prince Charming” or “Princess Leah” and that once we find Mr. or Ms. Right, it will be smooth sailing from then on. But when our initial feelings don’t last, we either give up on the person or we give up on love. That’s a mistake too many of us make.
In her book, Love and Limerance, Dorothy Tennov describes the experience most of us have had when we fell in love:
You think: I want you. I want you forever, now, yesterday, and always. Above all, I want you to want me. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I am not safe from your spell. At any moment, the image of your face smiling at me, of your voice telling me you care, or of your hand in mine, may suddenly fill my consciousness rudely pushing out all else.
Some believe that this kind of romantic love is of recent origin and is limited to certain Western romantic cultures. But anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love has found that romantic love is a universal experience. She says, “Romantic love. Obsessive love. Passionate love. Infatuation. Call it what you will, men and women of every era and ever culture have been ‘bewitched, bothered, and bewildered’ by this irresistible power. Being in love is universal to humanity; it is part of human nature.”
It’s not surprising that when we feel we have lost this love, we are hurt and angry and feel our partner has let us down. As we experience the downward spiral of love gone wrong we create an ever longer list of the things that our partner is doing wrong. We repeat over and over to ourselves, he/she:
- Doesn’t touch me enough.
- Doesn’t listen to me.
- Doesn’t do their fair share.
- Doesn’t let me touch the way I want.
- Doesn’t cherish me.
- Doesn’t respect me.
- Doesn’t want me.
When we’re in pain, we often focus more and more attention on what is going wrong. The problem, of course, is that the more we reflect on what we don’t want, the more problems we create. It seems to be one of those laws of life. “Where we focus our attention, expands.” No matter how bad things are, they will get worse if you focus on what you’re not getting. The key is to change your focus to what you are getting and what you want.
In may seem counter-intuitive, but it works. Ignore what you don’t like and focus on the things that are going well. Instead of reminding your mate for the tenth time that they haven’t spent enough time with you or haven’t listened to you, tell them something you appreciate about what they have done right. Talk about what you’d like in the future, not what you don’t want. Focusing on what we don’t want creates a downward spiral that leads to more unhappiness. Focusing on what you appreciate and expressing gratitude for something your partner has done that pleases you creates an upward spiral of increasing joy and happiness.
Secret #6: Weaving the web of love: Why “attachment love” is the hidden treasure of midlife.
One of the basic realities of our lives that few think about is this: None of our direct ancestors died childless. I mean, think about it. Your mother and father had at least one child. So did their parents and their parents…all the way back to the beginning. That is amazing to me. Most of us have friends or relatives who are childless, but that is not true of any of our own ancestors.
That means whether our ancestors were good or bad, thieves or saints, rich or poor; they did some things exceptionally well. They were all able to find a mate, convince that person to have sex with them, bring a baby into the world, and raise them so that they survived and had the qualities to find a mate and keep the process rolling.
Modern studies suggest that our brains have evolved three networks of love that facilitated that process: Lustful love, Romantic love, and Attachment love. Lustful love gave our ancestors the craving for sexual union with any most any partner who was attractive. Romantic love focused attention on one particular person at a time to better which allowed for mutual support. Attachment love evolved to motivate our ancestors to love this partner long enough to rear their young and potentially to have a love that lasts forever.
Attachment love is the energy essence of a successful relationship at every stage of our lives, but particularly at midlife and beyond. According to social scientists Phil Shaver and Cindy Hazan, men and women want and need:
- Emotional closeness with their partner.
- Assurance that their partner would listen and respond when they were upset.
- Support when they felt separate or distant from their partner.
- Knowledge that their partner “had their back.”
After studying thousands of couples for many years, Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love concludes, “Forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection. Adult attachment may be more reciprocal and less centered on physical contact, but the nature of the emotional bond is the same.”
While we all want to maintain our lust life and our romantic life, the key to a joyful midlife is maintaining our attachment to our partner. Johnson maintains that the key to a lifetime of good sex and love is “emotional responsiveness.” The basis of Dr. Johnson’s approach is to teach people the secrets contained in the phrase, “How ARE you really?
- A is for Accessibility: Can I reach you?
- R is for Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?
- E is for Engagement: Do I know you will value me and stay close?
It’s not easy to allow ourselves to be dependent on 0ur partner, particularly when things have been difficult. But learning to be successful meeting each other’s emotional needs can prove to be the magic elixir of a wonderful life together.
Secret #7: Learning to Make Love Differently.
I have found that there are seven stages to having a successful, long-term relationship and I’ve found it can be helpful, even in a long-term relationship, to go back through each one:
- Acquaintanceship: We experience the wonder of meeting another human being. It’s like Robinson Crusoe encountering Friday for the first time.
- Companionship: We learn to enjoy doing what we love with another person.
- Friendship: Combines being and doing. It is an interaction between two people who want to practice being themselves by doing things together with a partner.
- Intimate friendship: At this stage we explore the “underworld.” Intimate friends hold up a mirror to each other showing us what has been hidden and forbidden.
- Sensual Friendship: Most of us are touch deprived. Here we learn to touch ourselves and our partner simply for the pleasure that we receive and give.
- Sexual/Creative Lovers: Though we may not wish to create children each time we make love, we learn that creation is always involved in lovemaking.
- Spiritual/Life Partners: The goal is not happiness, but the spiritual development of each of the partners and the growth of the partnership itself.
There is a practice that allows us to experience and deepen each of these stages and it works particularly well for mature couples. It’s called bonding-based intimacy or Karezza. In our day-to-day lives it involves such bonding behaviors as smiling with eye contact, skin-to-skin touching, listening intently with appreciation and openness. When making love it involves lots of loving touch and intercourse, but not orgasm.
When I first heard about this, I thought “intercourse without orgasm, what’s the point?” But I’ve learned the point is more connection, more intimacy, better sex, and more love-making. Marnia Robinson, author of Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships, suggests we learn to make love differently. “The solution I propose has been around for thousands of years, at least since the time of the ancient Chinese Taoists,” she says. “Basically, the key is to avoid over-stimulation of the pleasure/reward center in the primitive brain – which means avoiding fertilization-driven/”peak” orgasm in favor of more relaxed approach to lovemaking.”
If you want to learn more about how to “make love differently,” I recommend Marnia’s book and also her website, http://www.reuniting.info.
Whether your midlife relationship is on the rocks or you just need an injection of something new, these “secrets” will help make things better. Midlife is a difficult time for most people. Sometimes it feels like adolescence the second time around. We feel awkward and unsure of ourselves. We hunger for love, but often get in our own way. But it can also be the best time of our lives. It is the doorway to the future, a future that can be more powerful, productive, and passionate than any time in our lives. Don’t give up now.
Thank you for reading. Please share your questions or comments below. You can also follow me on twitter for more conversation: @MenAliveNow