Four ways to protect your marriage from midlife stress
Hectic 40’s is when we often find ourselves coasting in only one area – our marriage.
Separation II, by Edvard Munch, 1896
In our busy, hectic lives, work, kids, ageing parents and in-laws demand much of our time and attention. These are the years when most marriages in India begin to get relegated to the bottom of any list. Yes, couples vacation together. But, most no longer hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes over candle-lit dinners. To many, it may seem silly to even think of doing that. After all, as a couple you have gone through many more significant experiences together, the candle-light dinner seems juvenile.
So, we assume the marriage does not need much attention and care. It is that old, comfy couch that will not go anywhere. But then one day you realize that the old, comfy couch groans and creaks, and eventually breaks. This is what happens to some marriages, too. Affairs, separation and divorce. Friends and family are shocked. Nobody, including most spouses, see it coming.
Most relationships can be prevented from breaking down. Most relationships can be repaired and made stronger.
Here is how not to let midlife stresses affect your decades old relationship.
– Stop avoiding difficult issues.
Often couples find specific topics difficult to talk about. These include intimacy, parenting, finance and caring for elderly in-laws or parents. Whatever be the topic, if you feel stressed by it and avoid talking to your spouse about it, then it may take a toll on the relationship. Resentment over these topics often builds over time and comes out as anger. When one spouse attacks the other in anger, the response is of a similar kind. The outcome is frequent fights or long, withdrawn silences. Both over time undermine the marriage. If you are unable to resolve your differences then it may be time to seek help.
– An hour a day of meaningful conversation.
An hour a day can actually keep the therapist away. There is usually enough and more going on in our lives to keep us super-busy. And, most couples communicate. However, what they talk about is transactional – who’s coming for dinner, who’s picking the kids up from drama class, when is the maid on leave, and so on. Couples do need to work as a team around these aspects of daily life. The problem is that often communication does not go beyond these aspects. Over time spouses become oblivious to each other’s emotional landscape. Or, everything is attributed to personality quirks – “Oh, he always complains about the traffic,” or “She just needs to go shopping to feel better.” No extra attention is then given when either spouse needs support. An exclusive hour everyday talking about what one is thinking and feeling, what one’s dreams and worries are, is the key. These conversations must be uninterrupted by phone, internet or anything/anyone else. This one hour can go a long way in re-establishing an emotional connection.
– Finding fun things to do together.
Having fun together helps create happy memories. The more happy memories one has with a person or activity the more positive one feels about that person or activity. Most couples do enjoyable things together in the early years of the relationship. Over time, though, more mundane, daily living activities seem to take over. The focus may also shift to kid centric activities. Or, either spouse may discover or begin to nurture an individual interest, such as golf or running that takes care of their fun and social needs. The downside is that as the couple does less and less together, there is less and less to bond over, to laugh over, to enjoy together. Exploring and trying out different activities may help you find something that you enjoy doing together. This can bring the fun back in the relationship.
– Resetting boundaries around the relationship.
Midlife is when responsibilities peak. One’s kids are not yet financially or emotionally independent, parents have become dependent, work place responsibilities and stresses are higher. Add to that the feeling that one is neither invincible nor is life unlimited. Most people, therefore, feel the need to nurture themselves, re-discover passions or re-prioritise life. The external demands and one’s internal needs often take away time and attention from one’s relationship. It is important at this time to protect the relationship by openly talking to each other about what one is thinking and feeling. It also means supporting each other through various decisions and handling family challenges as a team. There is also a need for balancing one’s own unique interests/involvements with the needs of the relationship. Hence, it becomes important to balance the time and effort we spend on individual pursuits with the time and attention we give to our spouse.
None of this is rocket science. However, if you have neglected your marriage for a long time, you may find it difficult to implement these suggestions. If you find yourself stuck, do seek the help of a trained marriage or couple’s therapist/counsellor.