Although not everyone acts out middle-age angst in such a way, many of us do experience a reckoning or longing as we approach midlife, the feeling of hitting a wall and wondering if there isn’t more to life — and in, particular, to marriage.
I often see this phenomenon in my own practice, as one or both partners begin to question their relationship. Even in younger couples, disagreements over classic issues such as finances, parenthood and sex can lead to concerns that they may not be on the same page regarding many of life’s greatest stressors and demands.
But are such couples headed for divorce, or are they simply mired in difficulties that could be better navigated together?
According to de Marneffe, it’s not only common but natural for today’s couples to experience rough patches. In the past, marriage was often an economic arrangement based on a division of labor and child-rearing. Now, we want a partner in love, too. And we live longer than ever. “We aspire to close, intimate marriages, but emotions can be complicated and inconvenient,” she explains. “We want to have it all in a relationship, but that can be challenging.”
Here, she shares some advice for couples trying to get out of midlife rough patches, as well as for younger couples hoping to avoid them altogether.
Develop your communication skills
Good communication is key, de Marneffe says — not just the ability to discuss critical relationship issues but to know what you want and express that. “We get hung up on the idea of having a lot in common with a potential partner,” she says. “That’s all well and good, but your ability to communicate in a healthy way is more important.”
You might be uncomfortable expressing your needs and desires at first, but learning how is the single most beneficial step you can take. And you’ll probably save yourselves some unnecessary arguments when you realize that you can’t expect your partner to be a mind-reader.
Work on yourself
It’s tempting to expect our partners to change to suit our preferences, but the tough work in marriage starts with yourself: If you don’t know what you want or how to articulate that, how can you expect your partner to know? Work at it on your own or with a therapist to learn how to express your emotions.
“I’m suggesting a paradigm shift in the way we view relationships,” de Marneffe says. “It’s not all about your partner — it’s about changing yourself, too.”
Talk about big issues early on
In “The Rough Patch,” de Marneffe gives advice for tackling a variety of major relationship demands, including one of the biggest issues for many couples: money.
Of course, when you’re newly in love, hashing out finances is hardly sexy. “Money seems far too mundane to discuss for couples in the first blush of romance, but it can be a huge source of stress,” she says. “Good communication skills will help you talk sooner rather than later about difficult subjects, including financial concerns.”
Learn to listen
Self-awareness and self-responsibility are critical ingredients to a successful marriage, de Marneffe says. Even if you’re still in the process of working on your own issues, simply expressing that to your partner can make a difference in your relationship.
For instance, if you tend to interrupt your partner or act dismissive of their feelings, you can acknowledge that you’re aware of the problem and are trying to change. “You can say, ‘I know that how I act affects you, I’m sorry, and I’m working on it,’ ” she says. “Your partner will feel heard and understood — and that’s what we all want.”
If you’ve both given it your best shot and have concluded that you’re not just in a rough patch, there’s no shame in parting ways. “Not every divorce is a failure,” de Marneffe says. “Some divorcing couples understand each other better than some married couples do. If you can come to a compassionate and responsible decision about your relationship, sometimes that’s better for everyone.”
“The Rough Patch” can be beneficial for both single people and couples. One great way to introduce the topic into your relationship: follow de Marneffe’s suggestion and read the first chapter together with your partner.
Ian Kerner is a licensed psychotherapist and sexuality counselor in New York City.