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Midlife Love: Navigating the Landmines

Midlife Love: Navigating the Landmines

By Barb Depree, MD

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I don't know about you, but I love seeing old people in love. The way they hold hands toddling down the street. The way they go about their daily tasks having made peace with the past. I think it's a miracle when love lasts this long and ages this gracefully.

Relationships encounter lots of challenges in a lifetime, but from my own observations, which are supported by data, the midlife transition is a somewhat fraught passage.

In addition to menopause, the awareness of time passing often arrives unexpectedly and with surprising intensity. It can lead both women and men to make decisions that belie common sense—the red Corvette might be among the most benign. For example, the highest divorce rates from 1990 to 2010 occurred among couples over 50, according to this study. Concurrently, cohabitation rates among those over 50s tripled from 2000 to 2013.

Whatever the cause—longer lifespan, greater economic freedom (for women, especially), cultural change—the fact is that something shifts when folks approach that midlife marker, and it's often the woman who agitates for change.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Periodic reevaluation and readjustment are healthy. So is honestly confronting ingrained habits and responses that ultimately stifle intimacy and deflect communication. Like a vintage car, most lengthy relationships require a major or minor tune-up now and then.

Still, midlife often opens a Pandora's box of restlessness and dissatisfaction—the perennial "Is this all there is?" What happened to the passion? Am I missing out? Do I really have to endure the quirks and habits of this individual for the rest of my life? What is really important? What dreams have I buried?

Those existential questions herald an important crossroad—the frontier between youth and maturity. With regard to your most intimate relationship, you can:

  1. Invest in what you have. Work on ways to reinvigorate and reignite the flame. This won't be the passion of your youth, but something burnished by time and familiarity—a golden glow rather than red-hot embers. If your relationship is solid and things have just cooled with time and neglect, it's worth investing for the future.
  2. Reinvent it. Sometimes a creative change eases the chronic irritations that can erode a long-term relationship. Some couples successfully stay together but give themselves extra space with separate households or separate bedrooms, for example, or planned time apart, or splitting the daily finances and decision-making that cause problems. Rejiggering the quotidian foundation might ease the annoyances enough to allow a couple to value and appreciate the familiarity and intimacy that have developed over many years.
  3. Scrap it. This is a tough judgment call, but some relationships have never worked well. Some matches are misses, and sacrificing the years you have left may not be worth it for one or both of you. Dismantling a lifetime is a heartbreaker (or maybe a release), but you may end up in a better place when the dust settles.  

Major life transitions should never be done in haste. They deserve a considerable degree of mature reflection. We all know people who make fast and sometimes rash decisions in the throes of passion or as a desperate attempt to seize a day that appears to be slipping away.

Here's a little reality check.

However irresistible the urge, don't blow up your life. Wait. Reflect. Seek counsel. The demand to create something more authentic, to realize cherished dreams is real and should be honored. But the best path forward probably isn't over the shattered pieces of your present life.

You still have time. You can still seek your bliss, optimize potential, maybe with more freedom and effectiveness now that the kids are grown and you're more self-confident. Start a business. Learn Chinese. Travel. The world is your oyster—just in a different shell than when you were younger.

Romantic passion is a landmine. Passion is powerful, blinding and temporary. You can't make good decisions in its throes. And even the most incredibly passionate relationship will inevitably fade with the demands of daily life. White-hot passion doesn't last; it's not meant to. And when reality checks in, the dirty socks on the floor look the same. Trust me on this one.

Talk to someone if you need to. A therapist. A friend. You can't see things clearly (even if you think you can). Trust the counsel of someone wise and objective.

Don't freeze out your partner. However restless and unsettled you may feel, your partner is probably not the enemy. You want to elicit support, not resistance. Anyone would feel threatened when cracks appear in the foundation of a secure life. Anyone would feel uncomprehending and maybe hurt. If, however, you are able to communicate what you're feeling, even if it's confused and incoherent, at least there's a bridge rather than a canyon.

"This too shall pass," writes blogger Deb Blum in this article. "It will pass more gracefully and completely if everyone is gentle and loving and gives the space necessary to get through this time."

And that study about over-50 divorce rate also found that the longer a marriage lasts, the less likely it is to end in divorce. So those old folks holding hands in the park? The real deal.

Barb DePree, MD, has been a gynecologist for 30 years, specializing in menopause care for the past 10. Dr. DePree was named the Certified Menopause Practitioner of the Year in 2013 by the North American Menopause Society. The award particularly recognized the outreach, communication and education she does through MiddlesexMD, a website she founded and where this blog first appeared. She also is director of the Women's Midlife Services at Holland Hospital, Holland, Michigan.