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Reframing Midlife Marriage

An excerpt from Marriage in the Middle by Dorothy Greco.

Published on:
April 1, 2021
Read time:
7 min.
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Without even trying, my husband Christopher and I confronted almost every major midlife challenge in three short months. When we dropped off our eldest son for his first year of college, we naively assumed that we were entering midlife’s sweet spot. In reality, we were saying goodbye to life as we knew it—and not in a way we would have chosen.

In the next six weeks, we lost his mother to pancreatic cancer, got bedbugs, witnessed a beloved neighbor die in a freak accident, and shuttled our youngest son to and from specialists to determine the extent of a bizarre football injury. 

Some days, keeping the faith meant choosing not to quit.

And then things got worse.

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For the past fifteen years, Christopher had been on staff with an amazing, dynamic church. Though we both loved partnering with and serving many faith-filled men and women, we had been sensing that this chapter was coming to a close. The same week we returned from burying his mother, it became clear we needed to leave. Two months later, Christopher resigned with no next job lined up. Though I work full-time, my annual income could only cover our living expenses if we moved someplace significantly less expensive. Like a campground. In Florida.

In the midst of this unraveling I had a dream in which the two of us were hanging onto the edge of a cliff. I looked over at him and said, “I hope you’re doing okay because I can’t do anything to help you.” It was not uncommon for us to experience four of the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression—in one week. Though we prayed, talking with God did not free us from anxiety or fear. Some days, keeping the faith meant choosing not to quit.

Prior to these events, we felt competent and stable. As often happens during a crisis, the tremors exposed preexisting fault lines. Christopher began to experience the natural insecurities that come from a sudden, mid-career job loss. Doubts about his capacity and worth—things he thought he had laid to rest in his twenties—came roaring back. Those feelings propelled him into anxious activism that crowded out the boys and me. His concerns were not unfounded; there was a lot on the line. Because I deemed Christopher’s experiences more consequential—and because I felt so overwhelmed—I shut down emotionally and marched resolutely through my days.

It was the most traumatic, destabilizing year we had gone through as a married couple. And yet this experience birthed deep transformation. Our crisis revealed itself as an opportunity to evaluate our life and make significant changes. My hunch is that we’re not outliers. There is much wisdom to be gleaned from tumult.

Reframing Midlife Crisis

Even though the years between forty and sixty-five do not represent the true middle of our lives—few of us will live to one hundred or beyond—midlife is a very real thing. There’s something essential going on that’s worth exploring, particularly as it relates to marriage.

This is a time of multidimensional change. As these shifts alter the landscape of our lives, it can be disturbing and raise more questions than answers. Our disorientation gets exacerbated if strategies and coping mechanisms that previously served us no longer seem to work. When what’s familiar fails, we may find ourselves withdrawing, blaming, or fixating on relational dynamics that we previously overlooked. If any of this resonates with you, rest assured, you’re not alone.

As Christopher and I discovered, the crises that we encounter in midlife don’t have to result in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or isolation. They can actually help us to grow.

The term midlife crisis was introduced by psychologist Elliott Jaques in 1965. It’s no surprise that his discoveries about the inner turmoil that results from confronting one’s mortality coincided with the external turmoil of the 1960s, which included racial unrest, political corruption, the Vietnam War, and multiple assassinations. More than fifty years later the concept has taken on a life of its own. Culture has come to accept this much ballyhooed term as an unavoidable reality that lurks in the shadows, waiting for an opportune moment to sabotage our lives. But is that an accurate description of midlife, or is it unhelpfully fatalistic and passive?

Journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty sees midlife through a far more hopeful frame of renewal. In Life Reimagined, she writes, “This is a time when you shift gears—a temporary pause, yes, but not a prolonged stall. In fact, you are moving forward to a new place in life. This moment can be exhilarating rather than terrifying, informed by the experiences of your past and shaped by the promise of your future.”

As Christopher and I discovered, the crises that we encounter in midlife don’t have to result in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or isolation. They can actually help us to grow.

According to author Mary Pipher, the “challenges and joys” of this stage are “catalytic.” She believes the seeming contradictions of this season create “a portal for expanding our souls.” The divergent experiences that we’re being thrust into can stimulate the kind of character development necessary to prevent us and our marriages from getting stuck or disintegrating. To get the most benefit from these soul-expanding experiences, we have to be willing to acknowledge those places where our marriages are currently fragile or even failing. And of course, an acknowledgment is not enough. We have to address those vulnerabilities with purpose and commitment.

Three Irreducible Traits

As we embark on this work, three qualities become imperative: malleability, resilience, and engagement.

Malleability fosters transformation. In the physical world a metal’s malleability is directly related to how much pressure it can withstand without snapping. Midlife is an extended season of pressure. If we’re malleable, the sustained stress will result in something new and good. If we resist change, we’re in danger of relational and spiritual rigidity. Hopefully, malleability has helped us to learn how far we can stretch and what happens when we overextend. 

Whereas malleability is the willingness to be stretched and changed, resilience determines how quickly we’ll bounce back after something difficult or trying has happened. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg defines resilience as “the strength and speed of our response to adversity.” The Japanese have a proverb that explains resilience: Nana korobi Ya oki, which translates “seven falls, eight getting up.” In other words, persevere. Don’t quit.

Resilience is one measure of maturity. Children learn to be resilient when they have nurturing, caring parents (or caregivers) who teach them how to rebound after they’ve made mistakes or suffered losses. Even if we lacked those necessary ingredients when we were growing up, we can still become resilient by cultivating supportive relationships, choosing hope, and refusing to see ourselves as a powerless victim.

Whether it’s the death of our parents, infertility, or loss of employment, we will all have the wind knocked out of us. But there’s no stopping the clock or taking time-outs in midlife. Our world might be shaken and our ego deeply bruised. We might even forget all the things we’ve done well. But after we’ve had a good cry (or sulk) and caught our breath, we have to get up and get back in the game because our spouses and our families need us.

Malleability and resilience presuppose that we are engaged. Engagement means paying attention and remaining actively involved. The antitheses of engagement are passivity, withdrawal, or apathy—none of which work well in a high-stakes season like midlife. 

Becoming more malleable, resilient, and engaged won’t simply help us to be better people: these attributes may actually prevent marital failure.

The challenges of this time frame require us to be present in every sphere. If we’re parents, our children don’t need less of us as they get older; they need us in different capacities. After needing us peripherally or perhaps not at all for most of their lives, our mothers and fathers will increasingly look to us for emotional, practical, and spiritual support. Because of the chaotic nature of midlife, our spouses will continue to need comfort and reassurance. 

Becoming more malleable, resilient, and engaged won’t simply help us to be better people: these attributes may actually prevent marital failure.

A Catalyst for Change

In the course of that one disastrous year, Christopher and I had to navigate what felt like a decade’s worth of loss and disappointment. Though the events shook us to the core, they also presented us with opportunities to trust God more deeply. Each time the bottom fell out, we had a sense of God’s presence. Sometimes he held our hands during the free fall and sometimes he met us at the bottom, but he was always there and always helped us to heal and reconnect. Thanks to his abiding presence, we found our way through the losses and emerged more in love and more certain that choosing to get married was one of the best decisions we’d ever made.

The two of us have had to work hard for the marriage we now enjoy. Prior to becoming husband and wife, Christopher and I had so much conflict that friends predicted a tumultuous first year. For the record, that first year exceeded our expectations. It was year ten that nearly sunk us. We’re both chronically opinionated and strong willed, which has its benefits and drawbacks. We’ve raised our voices, shamed each other, and withheld affection in the worst possible moments. In other words, we’re normal people who often fail each other.

Yet here we are in our late fifties, very much enjoying each other’s company, still discovering new things, and still excited about following Jesus together. Christopher and I have spent enough time counseling and pastoring other couples to know that not all marriages land where we have. Couples dig in their heels. Instead of acknowledging their contribution to the problems, they blame each other and either endlessly cycle around the same conflicts or lose their will to fight.

One of the gifts of midlife is learning to recognize our own limitations and then extending grace to ourselves—and others.

There’s no simple explanation for why we’ve made it and why other couples haven’t because we’re all under unique stress during this time period. That does not mean we will inevitably spin out or land in despair. One of the gifts of midlife is learning to recognize our own limitations and then extending grace to ourselves—and others. Especially our spouse. In fact, by choosing to accept and fully embrace our limited spouse, we can actually experience greater intimacy (both emotional and physical), deeper trust, and more fulfilling friendship. 

It’s true that the disruptive nature of midlife can leave us longing for peace and stability. That said, perhaps the opposite of crisis is neither peace nor stability. Maybe it’s discovery. And maybe the key for us is to use the crises as an impetus to change and reimagine something new.

Dorothy Greco
Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle. When she's not writing or making photographs, she loves to take long walks and go for long kayaks. You can read more of her work on Substack or by following her on social media.

[1] Adapted fromMarriage in the Middleby Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

[2] Cover image by Urosh Nou.

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