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What Does A Happy Marriage Look Like In Midlife?

Hoca

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I frequently discuss the way that different comparison groups can change how you view yourself and your circumstances. One major way that people sabotage their happiness within intimate relationships is by comparing themselves to couples at different ages and stages. In this post, I hope to help level-set expectations for what a happy and healthy relationship looks like in your 40’s and 50’s, as opposed to your 20’s and 30’s.



Obviously, as I discuss all the time, marriage changes after the hormonally-driven 1.5-3 year honeymoon stage. (Listen to this and this for more.) But, as people used to understand more than they do now, age is a hugely impactful variable in terms of mindset, physical strength, and emotionality. It is not “just a number”!

First, let’s think about the media that we are exposed to throughout our lives. In TV, books, and in songs, most popular media that is focused on love and romance tends to be about younger couples. Happy couples in midlife are not going to be the protagonists of most romantic shows or movies, because their lives are stable and centered around career and childrearing. The exception would be shows about people cheating on their spouses, because that is an interesting plot device. Years ago, as discussed here, there were more “parent” aged couples on TV that had active sex lives, but nowadays, this is not a plot point of the teenage television shows I have seen.

Therefore, the ideas most people have about romantic love are subconsciously skewed by how younger people act, or possibly older people in the honeymoon phase. Particularly for people who did not see happy marriages growing up, as discussed in the video below, these fictional couples are how you think couples should act, and there are not many 45 year old couples married for many years who act as love-drunk as couples who are two decades younger.


Romantic desire and sexual desire generally covary, with the exception of avoidant-attachment men. As you age, most healthy people focus on raising healthy children, their careers, physical fitness, friendships, and community involvement, versus focusing primarily on their romantic relationship. A healthy marriage reparents you, and provides the “secure base” from which you can go out and explore the world, like a parent provides for a child. The people who obsessively focus on their long term marriages, putting time spent with their partner (including, often, time spent arguing) over everything, including kids, career, and other aspects of life, tend to struggle with a preoccupied attachment style, or even personality disorders, as discussed here and here.

As you age, you tend to see life as more fleeting, and prioritize everything that is important to you. To most parents, time spent with kids is a huge priority. Of course, this can shift into hyperfocus at the extremes. But, overall, for parents of kids to think more about the kids than one another during the course of the day is normal, and especially normal for mothers. It is also normal to see midlife as your prime earning years, and to want to focus on building your career, or possibly transition to another.

People in their 20’s and 30’s are in a very different stage of life psychologically, as evidenced by looking at Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development (which you may remember if you took psychology classes in college!). There are eight stages in his model, and at 40, people tend to move from one to the next:

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young adult years from 18 to 40)​

Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle age from 40 to 65)​


The central question of the Intimacy vs Isolation stage is “Will I be loved?” This is very different from the central question of the Generativity vs Stagnation stage, which is “How can I contribute to the world?” It is interesting how many people think that it is totally normal and healthy for their teenager to act much different than their child, but chafe against the idea that it is just as normal and healthy for a midlife adult to act differently and have different motivators and core values than a younger adult. I discuss more about this idea here and here. The core motivator for most healthy midlife adults is to make an impact in the world, outside of finding and maintaining an intimate relationship. Recognizing that this is a normal shift can be eye opening for many couples.

Practically speaking, age has a huge impact on sexual performance, capacity, and desire as well, as I discuss here. Neither men nor women operate the way they used to. Women start going through perimenopause in their 40’s, and that is when men’s refractory periods tend to lengthen as well. Frequency of sexual encounters declines for married couples with every decade of life, as you can see below:




Men who watch porn frequently are generally most surprised by these figures, as they tend to believe that “everyone” is having a lot of sex all the time. The reality is that human beings age, and their bodies and brains do as well. Often, when men quit porn, they have a much lower drive than they had thought they did when it was artificially inflated by constant porn use. And remember that, psychologically, it is healthy for people to want to spend more of their time at midlife doing things that aren’t just about themselves. This includes a decreased emphasis on sex and romance and an increased emphasis on activities that include others and have a longer lasting legacy (e.g., parenting, community/spiritual activities, career), as discussed previously.

So what does this mean for a happy marriage at midlife? The same basic expectations for a healthy marriage apply. Additionally, the happiest couples that I observe tend to have a shared project, similar values, and enjoy growing together. Working together, whether on a business or a shared project, can help couples stay connected to each other while also building something that is about more than just them. Here is a whole post on which age-related transitions to discuss to build closeness and empathy. The more of them that you view similarly, the easier your relationship will feel at this stage. The issues I see cause the most conflict in couples that come into my office are feelings about kids (whether to be more hands-on or hands-off with teenagers and adult kids), and feelings about career/money (if/when/where to retire, how much emphasis to place on career vs leisure).

If you struggle with a pursuer-distancer relationship at midlife, especially if you have been to couples counseling already, with every passing year this is more and more indicative of deep issues within the marriage or the individuals. For younger couples, having a more dramatic style is more normative (although open marital conflict is always unhealthy), because they are in the stage of life where their relationship is their primary focus. However, if in your 40’s and beyond you remain centrally focused on how to make your partner love you more, this is less and less of a common problem and more of an outlier that needs to be addressed. “Pursuers” at this age tend to be those with more severe unresolved childhood issues, and possibly a fearful avoidant attachment style. Individual therapy can help you figure out why you remain as obsessed with your relationship as ever, despite maturing in other ways.

Sharing this post with your partner can be a great way to spark discussion about the transition to midlife and how it tends to affect individuals and couples. The piece about Erikson’s stages alone can yield an interesting discussion about how each of you feels about the switch from an intimacy- and relationship-driven perspective to one that is informed by broader meaning-making concerns. To what extent does this idea reflect each of your experiences? Remember, if these types of conversations feel too difficult, and you and your partner feels worlds apart on what constitutes a happy marriage for you at this age or any other age, couples therapy can help. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Generativity For The Win!
 
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