Divorce rates amongst couples over 40 are on the rise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ recent findings indicate that the highest divorce rate is amongst those aged 40 – 49. Adults in this midlife phase may be re-evaluating their earlier life choices, reconsidering current values, and reassessing whether their intimate relationship is living up to thier needs and expectations. The challenges faced at midlife are unique to this life stage, and have a significant impact on our relationships.
Why are we struggling to maintain relationships during midlife?
The tasks of early adulthood have to do with growing up and fulfilling the expectations of our parents and society. We learn to take on the responsibilities associated with becoming independent – working, raising a family, managing finances, etc. During this stage of life we are looking to achieve wholeness through unity with the perfect partner. We are looking for a soul-mate, a perfect fit that will bring us happiness and fulfilment.
During the second part of adulthood, which begins at midlife, our emotional growth is no longer dependant on unity, but instead on individuation. In other words, we are less concerned with pleasing or satisfying others and become instead concerned with being true to ourself. As described by Jung we are looking to grow into the person that we were always meant to become. When we fail to attend to this task of discovery we end up in (midlife) crisis. Jungian analyst and author James Hollis suggests our values, goals and needs change during midlife. We begin to ask – What is meaningful to me? What is the point of my life? What makes me feel I am useful in this world?
This presents a natural challenge within a relationship as we seek to remain connected to our partner whilst also establishing our own separate identity. This can threaten the security and predictability of our relationship, and one or both partners may begin to question whether the relationship can work.
Midlife therefore presents a new set of relationship challenges, and requires a new approach to resolve them.
The 3 major midlife relationship challenges, and how to address them
Challenge #1 – Supporting each other’s growth and development
It is difficult to try and balance our desire to please the other with our drive to do what feels right for ourselves. This is where many relationships come undone. During the early part of our relationships we work together on common goals however during midlife the focus is on growing separately, into our truest selves. And we need to be willing to grow together through this change. By honouring one another’s need to explore and discover the truth of who we are , we are each able to then bring our whole Self to the relationship.
How to address this challenge – This time of change requires that we learn to give our partner and ourselves space to grow. We need to learn to be a partner in the process, and not the rescuer or enemy. Witnessing change in the other can be anxiety provoking, and we each need to learn to manage these feelings independently and together. This is where the support of a midlife counsellor who understands the unique challenges of this life stage, can be helpful. When we can establish our own, and respect one another’s separate identity, with differing thoughts, feelings, needs, and boundaries, we are able to build a relationship that is strong and enduring.
Challenge #2 – Healthy Communication
When we can commit to taking responsibility for our own growth and evolution, along with a commitment to grow together, we have the greatest opportunity for positive relationship outcomes. But this can take some negotiation. As you begin to discover what must change for you to live a more authentic life, that aligns with your true longings, the process can induce feelings of insecurity and uncertainty for one or both partners. Questions around whether or not the relationship can survive these changes may arise. Healthy communication skills help us talk openly about our needs and the challenges we are experiencing, instead of judging our partner. These are skills for life, and empower us to repair relationships, manage conflict and build stronger emotional bonds.
How to address this challenge – One skill that may help you work through these necessary conversations, as defined by John Gottman, is self-soothing. When managing difficult conversations with your partner it is helpful to stop and take the time to soothe yourself, and your partner. This allows you to have a productive discussion rather than one that quickly goes off the rails with somebody potentially storming out of the room or the relationship. It takes practice knowing when and how to step away and take a break from conflict.
Step 1. If you notice an increased heart rate, irregular breathing, or a fight-flight-freeze response kick in it is time to step away and self-soothe. Feeling flooded by these feelings does not allow you to exercise empathy, understanding or compassion and therefore you are unlikely to hear your partner, or be heard by them.
Step 2. Practice stepping away and checking in with yourself . Give yourself time to regulate your nervous system and calm down, doing an activity that calms you for at least twenty minutes. This could be something like reading a book, going for a walk, or listening to music.
Step 3. You can then both return to the conversation from a place of calm, and check in gently with what the other needs to calm down. A hug? Offering loving words? Or just listening?
Challenge #3 – Intimacy and Sex
Your sexuality is a unique expression of who you are. It is a reflection of how you connect, your emotional and physical wellbeing, previous experiences, beliefs and lifestyle factors. The desire for sex and intimacy is complex. It is impacted by relationship struggles such as unresolved conflicts and fights, trust issues, and poor communication, including voicing your sexual needs and preferences.
The midlife struggle to attend to our own needs whilst remaining connected to our partner and supporting their needs also plays out in intimate settings. When one partner is repeatedly succumbing to the needs of the other for the stability of the relationship, it takes a toll both physiologically and emotionally. Pleasing our partner at the expense of ourselves can leave us misaligned with our own integrity.
Stress around parenting, work and family life also diminishes sexual desire, as does post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. Anger and resentment are other strong emotions that lower sexual drive and reduce feelings of empathy, which is required to build trust, love and respect.
How to address this challenge –
- Rule out any medical or physical causes that could be influencing low levels of interest in sexual intimacy.
- Manage stress by engaging in healthy lifestyle choices that includes taking downtime, exercising, eating well, getting quality sleep and gaining emotional support from friends or a counsellor.
- Make time for fun and relaxation together, and explore playful sexual re-connection.
- Address any underlying relationship issues that may affecting your sexual connection.
- Remain aware of the process of individuation by being conscious of your own inner struggles and conflicts that may be brewing within.
More than ever before, those in midlife are asking why their relationships are now in crisis. There are many unique challenges associated with midlife transition that play out in our relationships. These very challenges provide fertile ground for personal growth and evolution, but need to be navigated carefully so that the midlife task of individuation, and the chance to grow more fully into your true self whilst in relationship with another, is not compromised.
About Michelle Seelig
Michelle Seelig is a Counsellor, Meditation Teacher and Coach working with women to help them get unstuck, rediscover the joy and meaning in their lives and ultimately grow into the person they were truly meant to become. If you’re struggling in your relationship, and trying to navigate your way through the challenges, let’s chat. Book a Complimentary Discovery Call over here and together we can discuss a positive way forward.
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