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 multi-dimensional change. As these shifts alter the landscapes 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.

Psychologist Elliott Jaques introduced the term midlife crisis 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: “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.”

The crises that we encounter in midlife don’t have to result in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or isolation.

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

Psychologist and author Mary Pipher identifies the “challenges and joys” of this stage as “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 bewilling 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 Essential Traits

As we embark on this work, three qualities become imperative: malleability, resilience, and engagement. These three are not the only attributes that we need to navigate marriage in the middle of life, but they helped Christopher and me to make it through our year from hell.

Malleability

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.

We become increasingly malleable as we flex and adapt in the face of health scares, financial dilemmas, professional disappointments, family conflicts, etc. Malleability should help 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 means “fall down seven times but get up eight.” In other words, persevere. Don’t quit.

Resilience

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 powerless victims.

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 a good sulk) and caught our breath, we have to get up and get back in the game because our spouses and our families need us.

Engagement

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

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.

Adapted from Marriage in the Middle by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco . Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

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Marriage in the Middle

Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer and photographer who lives outside Boston. The author of Making Marriage Beautiful, Dorothy and her husband Christopher lead marriage workshops and retreats, speak at conferences nationwide, and have been helping couples create and sustain healthy marriages for over twenty-five years. Dorothy has written for Christianity Today, Relevant, Missio Alliance, MOPS, Propel Women, Christians for Biblical Equality, The Perennial Gen, and The Mudroom, and is a member of Redbud Writers’ Guild and The Pelican Project. Dorothy has also worked as a professional photo-journalist for more than twenty-five years. Her work brings hope and encouragement to those longing for healing, reconciliation, and joy.

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