When people think of the midlife transition, most often their minds go straight to the infamous midlife crisis and the radical changes that go along with it. People change their looks, they change their jobs and - way more than is necessary - they change partners. In fact, I discovered a website dedicated to men at midlife, and it was basically all about finding the next, more perfect, woman. I haven't seen such a site for women (yet. . . but I'm sure one exists), but dumping the ill-tempered, unresponsive, unsupportive husband must be at least as popular a pastime as dumping a nagging, controlling, intrusive wife. This living room square dance goes on day in and day out across English-speaking North America as men and women fall in love with one another and then, over time fall ‘out of love. ’ Is any of this really necessary? Does any of this make sense?
Of course, leaving an abusive relationship is always a reasonable option when it's become unbearable or other alternatives have been exhausted. Relationships are very precious things (especially when they create new families), and nobody would recommend tossing them away lightly. We always want to give them the benefit of the doubt; but, when the doubt has been worn out, or when health and safety may be compromised, there's no question that discretion is always the better part of valor. At the same time, doesn't it seem as though many relationships end because the partners come to an impasse and they simply become too worn out to pursue them any farther? Sometimes people simply forget that ‘this, too, shall pass’ and they bail out too soon - only to regret it later on.
For those who have gotten themselves enmeshed in the emotional morass of the midlife transition and remain unaware of the dynamics of this volatile period of life (both men and women), the prospects for their relationships, even after twenty or thirty years together, may seem hopeless. He thinks that she's constantly on his case and has turned against him; she thinks he's bored and doesn't find her attractive and he's pulled back from her emotionally, refusing even to meet her half-way. Sound familiar? Yet, the reality of the situation has escaped both of them. He can't accurately pinpoint the origins of his restlessness, irritability, and discontent. He blames her for his unhappiness, whereas it's only a natural reaction he's having to the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes that midlife has brought about in him. She, on the other hand, (probably as unaware as he is of the inner changes he's going through) thinks that she must be doing something wrong; so she tries even harder to reconnect to that precious relationship that she feels is slipping away from her. It really doesn't help her, either, that, whenever they do talk about what's going on, he's blaming her for everything. As you probably know, if someone you trust repeats the same falsehood over and over again, you start to doubt your own perceptions. ‘It's black! It's black! It's black!’ you hear so many times that, eventually, you start seeing shades of gray in what you know deep down is really white.
It's a great deal easier to mend a damaged relationship than to resurrect one that's been bludgeoned to death by doubts and recriminations. Time, as they say, is of the essence. So is the willingness to fight for something that both of you value. Both of you have a great deal at stake above and beyond the value of the relationship itself. If you're a woman in this situation, you risk a proportionately greater dose of emotional pain and suffering as you watch helplessly as your marriage and family falls apart. You feel more, not because the man isn't hurting, but because you've been trying so hard. The man has the tougher role in this scenario, though, because he tends to remain oblivious to what's going on inside him, to blame his partner for the difficulty, and to use anger as his primary tool for dealing with a situation he doesn't really understand. His role is tougher because he has very likely steeled himself against seeing the facts for what they are and uses his anger to block any true realization of what he's losing on an emotional level. He's been taught to ‘play through the pain, ’ so he lacks the necessary incentives to question either his perceptions of the situation or his response to it. In many instances, by the time he wakes up to the damage he's suffered emotionally, his partner as written him off and her trust and affection is gone.
What's the answer? First, both of you have to value your relationship enough to fight for it. Second, both of you need either to learn to communicate with one another, or to put your communication skills to work at maximum intensity. Talk, talk, talk, and, when you're too tired to go on, talk some more. Third, learn to understand what's going on: why is he behaving this way? what does she want of me? Then learn what it means to ‘fight fair’ and do it. Fourth, get over yourselves, practice some real humility, set your pride aside, and get some help - either as individuals or as a couple. Forget about trying to figure this whole thing out all by yourself. Chances are, you don't know all the answers because you're probably asking the wrong questions. Furthermore, there's too much at stake in the loss of your relationship to take a chance on your re-inventing the wheel without some serious blunders. You absolutely need to rely on others’ wisdom and experience to get you through. However, keep a healthy skepticism: beware of ‘friends’ who jump to conclusions and tell you to dump your partner (often because that's what they did, and they feel guilty about it). Remember: you're hardly the first couple on earth to have gone through this. Patience, trust and good will can lead you both through this midlife dance without stumbling; and the next dance may very well be a warm and intimate waltz.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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