What is it about midlife marriage that so spins us off the predicted path? Dorothy Greco vulnerably invites us close to see the lessons she's learned.
Reframing Midlife Marriage
By Dorothy Littell Greco
In the course of three short months, my husband, Christopher, and I experienced all of the following:
We dropped off our eldest son at college and brought home bedbugs.
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away six weeks later.
Our next door neighbor died in a tragic accident.
Our youngest son got a concussion and bizarre throat injury in a football game.
We chose to leave the church we loved and where Christopher had been on staff for 15 years due to a theological shift that we could not agree with.
During this unraveling, I had a dream in which my husband and I 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. 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 lives and make significant changes. My hunch is that we're not outliers. There is much wisdom to be gleaned from tumult.
Christopher and I had to navigate what felt like a decade's worth of loss and disappointment during that disastrous season. 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 marry each other 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. Before we got married, we had so much conflict that friends predicted a turbulent first year. For the record, that first year exceeded our expectations. 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, still having great sex, 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. 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 midlife. That does not mean we will inevitably spin out or land in despair. One of the gifts of this time frame 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, 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. Together. As a unified front.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing, making photos, and supporting couples as they create and sustain healthy marriages. She is the author of the newly released Marriage in the Middle, as well as Making Marriage Beautiful. She and her husband of 29 years live outside Boston. They love to kayak, hike, see good theater (remember that?), and feed friends.