By Dorothy Greco
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Even though the years between forty and sixty-five do not represent the true middle of our lives—few of us will live to one hundred or beyond—midlife is a very real thing. There’s something essential going on that’s worth exploring, particularly as it relates to marriage.
This is a time of multidimensional change. Caregiving responsibilities will decrease in certain areas and increase in others, leaving us off-balance and uncertain about what’s being asked of us. Seismic shifts in the workplace will force us to be agile and keep learning. Our morphing bodies require additional care. Spiritual practices that previously helped us to connect with God may begin to feel empty, compelling us to discover new forms of worship.
As these shifts alter the landscape of our lives, it can be disturbing and raise more questions than answers. Our disorientation gets exacerbated if strategies and coping mechanisms that previously served us no longer seem to work. When what’s familiar fails, we may find ourselves withdrawing, blaming, or fixating on relational dynamics that we previously overlooked. If any of this resonates with you, rest assured, you’re not alone.
Psychologist Elliott Jaques introduced the term midlife crisis in 1965. It’s no surprise that his discoveries about the inner turmoil that results from confronting one’s mortality coincided with the external turmoil of the 1960s, which included racial unrest, political corruption, the Vietnam War, and multiple assassinations. More than fifty years later the concept has taken on a life of its own. Culture has come to accept this much ballyhooed term as an unavoidable reality that lurks in the shadows, waiting for an opportune moment to sabotage our lives. But is that an accurate description of midlife, or is it unhelpfully fatalistic and passive?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty sees midlife through a far more hopeful frame of renewal: “This is a time when you shift gears—a temporary pause, yes, but not a prolonged stall. In fact, you are moving forward to a new place in life. This moment can be exhilarating rather than terrifying, informed by the experiences of your past and shaped by the promise of your future.”
As my husband Christopher and I discovered, the crises that we encounter in midlife don’t have to result in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or isolation. They can help us and our marriages to grow stronger and more fulfilling. The divergent experiences that we’re being thrust into can stimulate the kind of character development necessary to prevent us and our marriages from getting stuck or disintegrating. To get the most benefit from these soul-expanding experiences, we have to be willing to acknowledge the places where our marriages are currently fragile or even failing. And of course, an acknowledgment is not enough. We have to address those vulnerabilities with purpose and commitment.
Three Irreducible Traits
As we embark on this work, three qualities become imperative: malleability, resilience, and engagement.
Malleability fosters transformation. We become increasingly malleable as we flex and adapt in the face of health scares, financial dilemmas, professional disappointments, and family conflicts. Malleability will help us to learn how far we can stretch and what happens when we overextend.
Whereas malleability is the willingness to be stretched and changed, resilience determines how quickly we’ll bounce back after something difficult or trying has happened. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg defines resilience as “the strength and speed of our response to adversity.”
Whether it’s the death of our parents, health scares, or loss of employment, we will all have the wind knocked out of us. But there’s no stopping the clock or taking time-outs in midlife. Our world might be shaken and our ego deeply bruised. We might even forget all the things we’ve done well. But after we’ve had a good cry and caught our breath, we have toget up and get back in the gamebecause our spouses and our families need us.
Malleability and resilience presuppose that we are engaged. Engagement means paying attention and remaining actively involved. The antitheses of engagement are passivity, withdrawal, or apathy—none of which work well in a high-stakes season like midlife. In fact, the challenges of this time frame require us to be present in every sphere including caregiving, parenting, and supporting our spouse.
Becoming more malleable, resilient, and engaged won’t simply help us to be better people: these attributes may actually prevent marital failure.
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It’s true that the disruptive nature of midlife can leave us longing for peace and stability. That said, perhaps the opposite of crisis is neither peace nor stability. Maybe it’s discovery. And maybe the key for us is to use the crises as an impetus to change and reimagine something new. Through God’s strength and with the support of faithful friends, I believe that we will not simply overcome the challenges and crises of midlife but become better people because of them.
Dorothy Littel Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle. When she’s not writing or making photos, she loves to kayak and hike with her husband. You can find more of Dorothy’s work on her website: http://www.dorothygreco.com/