It's not working!
Middle age is a time when many women question whether or not to stay in their long-term relationships. Often they've coasted through the years convincing themselves to stay even though they are unhappy. They've tried to make it work and feel like they don't get anywhere. Maybe they've stayed because of everything else on their plates, or they just don't want to be quitters. Then, their roles change. Their views of themselves change. They feel time ticking and feel less and less inclined to settle for stale and un-nourishing. They speak of wanting more emotional connection. They feel "locked out" of the inner world of their spouse and "locked in" to a dissatisfying relationship.
Usually their partners also want to have a better relationship. The problem is they don't really know how to do what their wives are asking for. Or, they don't believe they are capable. Most men were not raised to connect emotionally and they, confused by the complaints, feel that their wives demand too much. They may complain and get angry, too. The reasons behind all this conflict is another subject altogether. What's relevant to whether or not to stay in the relationship is that after layering year upon year of unhappiness and frustration, feeling like nothing works; many couples have difficulty believing that things can change. Even as a last ditch effort, they think couples therapy is for others who have less deep rooted problems. To leave the relationship and have a fresh start can seem like the perfect way out. The only problem is, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD says, "wherever you go there you are." Consider that your significant other may not be the entire problem.
It takes two to maintain how a relationship is. Ironically, it's often because this relationship was at one time so important that it became so troubled. The current problems come from and are amplified by both partners. Significant relationships, because of their importance, have a way of intensifying old, largely unconscious patterns. Negative thinking is meant to be protective, but it can get in the way and take over. With these thoughts running the show, you won't give the relationship a chance.
It’s easy to blame the other person. To do so, without looking a little deeper is a big loss - to you! You miss out on a unique opportunity to learn about what negatives you may bring to a relationship. They'll eventually catch up with you, no matter who you are in relationship with. They may also get in the way of other relationships or other parts of your life. Why not work with what you have before you throw in the towel? There is no better way to improve your relationship skills than by taking ownership of what you contribute to an ailing relationship. You'll need to open up your mind to look at things differently than you are used to. You'll need to recognize the pattern that you and your partner created and be able to gently urge your partner to do the same. That sounds hard but, as you change and relate differently to your partner, you may find that your partner also changes and relates differently to you. If it is too hard, couples therapy can help keep you both oriented toward this. Together, you can work to distance yourselves from that rigid, self-defeating pattern that has taken over and sucked up all the good stuff. You have the chance to reignite a relationship that may be worth saving. How long has it been since you made your relationship a priority? At the very least you will be well on your way to ridding yourself from old, awkward ways that have made you unhappy.
A Kick in the Pants
Midlife has a way of giving you that extra push to unload what doesn't work anymore. While it may be tempting to look around us for what to cut out, it is most beneficial to look at ourselves. Long-term relationships are a great way to show us to ourselves. They also have the potential to thrive when we let ourselves and each other have space to grow. Try to recognize and appreciate genuineness when you see it, both in your partner and yourself. Partner-up with your partner in a quest to be more real with each other; get rid of judgment and blame, see where one may be looking to the other to provide something that they really need to do for themselves, or where one can stop self-defeating behavior. Be okay with mistakes, it's new after all.
Reconnect with conversations about what you both like and about the future. Your partner may be having similar thoughts to your own. Talk about what brought you two together in the first place. Chances are it was more than just hormones talking. You had shared values and interests. See if you can get back in touch with those. What are some shared activities you can do together that will get you plugged back in? If you find that trying to have these conversations doesn't get anywhere, or end up back in a blame game, see if a few sessions of couples therapy will help. Frequently, there have been long-time hurts or misunderstandings that spark ongoing problems. A neutral professional can see what is happening from a more objective big picture, and can help get the conversation flowing during couples therapy. Studies show that we tend to feel happiest with our marriages later in life. If your relationship can get through the crucial changes at midlife, you will have a good chance of growing and supporting each other for the rest of your lives.