Long-married couples who have been together 20 or more years inevitably witness their relationship undergo changes that even the most happily wed find challenging. In the beginning of a life together, absence may make the heart grow fonder. But if a couple isn’t mindful, as time passes, familiarity can breed contempt.
My husband and I met in 1979. I was a private investigator who looked for patterns in external behavior. He was an author of thrillers with a highly developed interior life. We seldom got the chance to fight because while he was working alone in a sparsely furnished room, I was traveling around the world almost constantly.
Today, however, we are both writers working just steps apart. We have become so fused at the hip that one can barely move from room to room without the other sensing a gravitational shift. Outside the house we do many things together: run errands (he drives, I navigate), go to the gym (he swims, I do resistance training), attend the same parties (he tells stories, I rescue people from his stories). Together we raised two dissimilar children, survived illnesses and accidents, celebrated professional triumphs and weathered setbacks and evolved into an unexpectedly conventional, happily-married old couple.
Despite our differences and occasional snarls, we’ve found a way to co-exist under the same roof all day, every day. Yet many couples find their rhythms suddenly disrupted and the dynamics of their relationship radically altered when the last child leaves the house — or one of them accepts a buyout or starts working from home. Decades of relating to each other as co-parents or working around career schedules abruptly shifts, and suddenly they fall out of step in their well-rehearsed, tuneless dance.
When patterns suddenly change, a life companion can feel unintentionally snubbed or intruded upon. This is when you discover the need to attend to something you might have taken for granted for decades. Growing old and spending all day together is as significant a developmental phase as any other, and keeping the romance alive requires at least as much attention as it did in the early years. You couldn’t have predicted it, but managing your intimate partnership is now your full-time job.
The Midlife Marriage Crisis
Whatever the reason, when couples go from spending just a few hours together to nearly the entire day, they must improvise a fresh script for act three. They need to establish new boundaries, cultivate a reinvented vocabulary, learn to adjust priorities and, as my husband and I have discovered, embrace irony as never before.
David and Claudia Arp, authors of The Second Half of Marriage, have spent the last half of their 49-year marriage leading seminars on how to avoid what they call the “midlife marriage crisis.” (Their program is approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for grants under the healthy marriage initiative.)
A common trouble spot is when spouses have incompatible expectations for their so-called golden years. Often the men, after decades of work, want to turn their attention to domestic pursuits. Because so many women of this generation waited longer than their male colleagues to achieve professional recognition, they're still interested in their ever-evolving careers or in pursuing more community or creative interests outside the home.
To avoid the negative emotions that can build, the Arps recommend that couples renegotiate certain altered aspects of their relationship by having a “date night” at least once a week. The same “getting to know you” ritual of early courtship offers long-married couples a blueprint to create a new vision of their shared future.
In what they term "10 Great Dates," the Arps offer an outline of how to approach this. Date 1: Talk about what you celebrate most in your family’s new configuration. Date 2: Discuss what hopes each of you has for your future together. Topics for dates 3 through 10 range from financial investments to intimacy to spirituality.
Claudia Arp emphasizes that one should never start a discussion with “Honey, it really annoys me when you…” A happy marriage, she says, is a continually satisfying, though-often-interrupted conversation between intimate friends that lasts a lifetime.
Rebuilding a Life Together
Another pair of married therapist/relationship trainers, Drs. Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski, remind their clients that romance does “not happen to us and that we must cultivate it.” Actively listening, demonstrating compassion, resolving conflicts amiably and engendering mutual respect are the heavy lifting of keeping a marriage strong.
They recount the story of married clients who embarked on a kitchen-remodeling project as the first joint activity of their retirement. No sooner did they start to discuss the budget than they were at each other’s throats. Through therapy, they became aware that what was really bothering them was the contempt they heard in each other’s tone. Neither thought their spouse valued their ideas. Once they learned to ask what the other imagined for the project, they were able to build a room that would meet all the needs of all their future mornings together. “That’s the real romance,” Sniechowski says.
It’s easy to subscribe to bromides about keeping the love alive, but ultimately, when the pheromones fade, what romance is about is character. The best advice of all? Remember who you fell in love with. A love match makes you glad to see your mate over and over again, no matter how many times a day — or hour — that happens.
At my local gym, there’s a glass wall overlooking the Olympic-size pool. Sometimes I spot my gray-headed husband when he has just finished his laps and is walking back to the locker room, his wet trunks slipping in the back and his age-appropriate gut rounding out in front. After 33 years, I still think to myself, "I’m so happy he’s mine."
Sherven and Sniechowski's 9 Steps to Working Through Marital Conflict
- Define the issue by truthfully expressing what is disturbing you in as much detail as possible.
- Feel your feelings and communicate them as honestly and openly as you can in the moment.
- Remember that you care and that ongoing relationships are a mosaic composed of many facets. There’s more to your partner and your relationship than any single issue.
- Beware of self-sabotage by noticing what’s going on inside you during the rough patches. Don’t allow old negative behavior patterns intrude on the present moment.
- Be willing to change your mind and acknowledge that any issue can be understood and interpreted in a variety of ways.
- Take personal responsibility by asking yourself how you’re contributing to an upsetting situation (i.e., it takes two to tangle).
- Remember that your partner is not you and find ways to empathize with the other’s point of view.
- Be consciously creative by holding the other in your consciousness as you want to be held.
- Seek “both/and” solutions that work for both of you two different people.