the marriage dance at mid-life

Women Talk to Us: The Marriage Dance at Mid-Life

We often hear from our readers about their long-term
relationships and the issues that arise at this time in
their lives. Women have told us that even when they are
living with the same partner of twenty or thirty years,
things have changed and the relationship is different.
In some cases the changes have been dramatic.

For many women, the nest is empty and the couple is left
to face each other without the buffer of the children,
their activities, and friends.

Linda wants to find out how to revive her relationship
and make it vital again. “When I look back on 26 years
of marriage my immediate thought is, ‘where has all that
time gone?’ But as I break it down, I recognize that we
have accomplished a lot. We’ve raised three terrific
kids, cheered at 1200 soccer games, had a combined five
jobs, survived the loss of three parents, taken 15 summer
car trips. Those were wonderful times. Now here we are
with a huge void. Sometimes I look at my husband and
wonder, ‘who is this man?’ Our love remains strong so
how do we come back to each other?”

Focusing on the excitement of new beginnings, Susan
tells us: “With our daughter married and the boys at
college, this truly feels like a fresh start. So much
of our time, until now, has revolved around family and
work. It is like we are newlyweds, getting to know each
other again.”

For other women, the impetus to examine the relationship
arises from the different energies that each partner
wants to invest in career opportunities.

Deborah feels torn between her own needs and those of
the marriage: “We seem to be at different junctures
regarding our career paths. Although I taught for the
first few years of our marriage while he finished
graduate school, my life was primarily as a mom and
my part time tutoring. Over the past four years I have
discovered a passion for business and I am creating
a website to match students and tutors around the country.
Now that I am immersed in my work, my husband wants to
cut back and spend more time together – traveling,
exploring our goals for retirement. I don’t know how
to balance both.”

Carol is aware of her conflicting emotions and wonders
about the future: “I feel that up until now I have
devoted my life to raising children and supporting my
husband’s career. Now is my time and I feel incredibly
excited yet sometimes guilty about wanting so much for
myself. My husband understands – in fact he’s encouraging
me all the way. So for my own sake I really need to let
go of my lingering guilt and go for it. I read the
magazines that say this should be the best time of
my life and in some ways it is. I know I am lucky
to have the time and the freedom to do whatever I want –
now I just need to figure out what that is!”

In other relationships, a decline in a partner’s
well-being or a parent’s health can change a woman’s
role and threaten her sense of stability.

Anne finds that her husband’s serious illness has
led to difficulties in relating to him as she did
before. “I still love him of course, but the changes
have been enormous. He used to be so strong and he
had a great sense of humor. Now he seems down so much
of the time. His illness has sapped him of the intensity
and vitality that we all came to expect. I try to help
him adjust and I realize that I need to adjust too.
I want to remain up for him, but I’m not able to do it
on my own and then I feel guilty about disappointing him.”

For Pam, some of the changes in her relationship stem
from her mother’s sudden illness. “Just before our
youngest child moved out, my mother had a heart attack
and we moved her in with us to give her the care she needed.
I feel good having her so close but it has really changed
our lives. We had expected to be carefree without the
responsibilities of our four children, yet here we are
again rushing home after work. I am frustrated and angry
about the situation and I feel tense most of the time.
Sometimes I take it out on my husband.”


Stepping Stones: Talking With Yourself and Your Partner

As you reflect on yourself in the context of your relationship,
this is the time to start thinking about the changes you want
to make as you prepare for your future. Here are some
questions to help you begin:

* What are your needs and desires at this stage
of your life?

* How do these impact the relationship?

* How does the relationship impact you and
your choices?

Now focus on your emotions and see if you can better
understand your feelings:

* If you feel impatient, is it due to your
partner or do you want to make up for lost

* If you feel anxious, is it in response to
pressures from him or your own fears about
the future?

* If you feel frustrated, is it about your
partner’s inflexibility or about your own

* If you feel sad, is it because of the
distance between you or because of the
children being gone?

* If you feel angry, is it directed toward him
or are you upset with yourself?

After reflecting on your responses to these questions,
initiate a conversation with your partner. We recognize that
it can be difficult to begin this kind of a discussion.
Eleanor describes her situation – does it sound familiar?

“And then there is this communication thing. When I try to
talk to my husband about what’s going on with me I get one
of two reactions. The first is a blank stare and I become
aware that he hasn’t the foggiest notion what I mean or what
I need from him. The second is an annoyed response, with
the realization that we are going in two very different

Communication is as important at this stage in your life
as it has always been in maintaining a strong and satisfying
relationship. We have compiled a few questions to get you
started in your exchange of ideas. It may be most helpful
to first answer them separately and then come together to
discuss your thoughts. Listen to your partner without
judgment; stay positive and respectful of his ideas and

*** Why do you think our relationship works?

*** How can we improve our communication?

*** What has changed in our roles?
Our expectations? Our goals?

Of course, there are many other questions you could explore
with each other. These are simply suggestions to open a
dialogue. You may be surprised by your responses. Recognize
that you are setting the stage for a continuing discussion
about the future you will create together.

Let us hear from both you and your partner about your
reactions. We will present both perspectives in a later
newsletter. Thanks for helping us gain a fuller understanding
of long-term relationships at midlife.


Our Invitation to You

Do you have your own transition story? We invite you to
share it with our readers for the benefit of women who
themselves may be dealing with similar changes. The skills you
used may be Stepping Stones for others. If you are interested,
please e-mail us at

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