How to Save Your Midlife Marriage

Growing up watching romantic movies it all seemed so simple. Find your true love, win their heart, and live happily ever after. But in practice it never seems to work out like it does in the movies. My first marriage ended in divorce after ten years. My second marriage lasted less than three years. As a practicing marriage and family counselor I didn’t feel I was a very good role model for what I was trying to teach people who were coming to me for help.

The statistics were not heartening. Somewhere around 50% of first marriages end in divorce and 60% of second marriages end badly. Even marriages that stay together are not always happy and many people deal with emotional problems as a result. I know during both my marriages I suffered from anxiety and depression.

What’s more, mid-life stresses make marriage for those over 40 an even bigger gamble. In my new book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, coming out in August, 2016, I cite research that shows that mid-life couples are particularly susceptible to divorce.

A recent research study found that the divorce rate among adults aged fifty and older doubled between 1990 and 2010. In 1990, one in ten people who got divorced were over fifty. Roughly one in four divorces in 2010 occurred to persons aged fifty and older. The study found that over 600,000 people aged fifty and older got divorced in 2010 and this trend of mid-life divorces is expected to increase each year.

I find this a great tragedy since mid-life is often the time when couples look forward to more time together. The children may be grown or demand less day-to-day care, and the couple longs to having time, “just for us.” But then, things start to unravel for many and the couple finds themselves in trouble. Here are a few comments I received from people who read my earlier article, 5 Secrets for Saving Your Mid-Life Marriage – Even When Only One of You is Trying to Keep It Alive:

One man wrote: “I am in a 42 year marriage, and have been going through a rough patch for the last few years. Things just seem to keep getting worse, and I wonder if they can ever get better.”

A concerned woman wrote: “I don’t know how to save a marriage when my husband spends hours in the gym trying to get buff, runs off with another woman, quits his job of twenty years, and is pushing for a divorce. I’m 18 months into this nightmare and the push for divorce is stronger than ever.”

These are not simple issues. Often men suffer from irritable male syndrome (IMS) and depression, but don’t recognize that they are having problems. More than 60,000 men and women have taken my Irritable Male Syndrome quiz. Here’s what one concerned reader had to say: “I am certain that my husband of 17 years is suffering from IMS. He has changed so much from the man I married. We have 3 beautiful kids and what I thought was a wonderful life. Last year he started showing signs of depression. I encouraged him to seek help and did my best to support him. This past summer he told me he no longer loves me and needed space to think. We have been separated for the last two months and he has said he is no closer to making a decision about our future.”

 I’ve found the key to saving our mid-life marriages is to understand the five stages of relationships and why too many stop at stage three. After more than forty years as a marriage and family counselor I have found that most people are looking for love in all the wrong places. We all know the first two stages of relationships:

Stage 1: Falling In Love
Stage 2: Becoming a Couple

We fall in love in the first months and years of a marriage. Then we deepen our love over time, become a couple, and build a life together. Most of grew up believing that these were the only stages of love and believe they can coast into the time when “We live happily ever after.” It’s not surprising that when we hit the difficult times, we are convinced that we’ve chosen the wrong partner and need to start anew with someone else. But I’ve learned that this period of disillusionment and despair is actually the third stage of a good marriage.

If we hang in there and go deeper, we are really at the beginning of the best time of life.

Stage 3: Disillusionment
Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love
Stage 5: Finding Your Calling as a Couple.

The key to staying the course is to recognize the true purpose of stage 3. The conflicts we are having are usually not indicators that we’ve chosen the wrong partner, but actually that we’ve chosen the perfect partner. That’s difficult for most couples to understand. “Are you kidding, how can this be perfect?” one woman asked me. “We’re both miserable.”

It helped the couple when I explained that 90% of the pain they were experiencing was not due to the problems they were having as a couple, but were the result of the surfacing of old wounds from earlier relationships going back to childhood.  Our mate is the perfect person to surface these old wounds. They are painful, but can be healed. As we heal the past, we heal our present relationship as well.

In my own marriage with Carlin, I realized the same anger I felt toward her when she seemed to be closing down, was the same anger I felt towards my father who was distant and depressed. The same worry and anxiety I felt when I was unsure of myself, was the same feelings I had growing up with a mother who was always afraid of death.

Once couples recognize that there is a reason for the pain, it can be handled with love, support, and guidance. Couples are, then, much more willing to hang in there and move through to stage 4, creating real, lasting love, and stage 5, finding your calling as a couple. When people enter the difficult times of stage 3, disillusionment, I want to call out to them: “Don’t give up, go deeper. The best is still to come.”

I’m developing an on-line course to guide couples through this whole process. If you’re interested in learning more, please join our mailing list and we’ll keep you informed. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments and ask questions. I’ll be glad to answer.

Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live well throughout their lives. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Diamond’s new book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best Is Still To Come, brings together the wisdom accumulated in 40 years helping more than 20,000 men, women, and children.

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