Many cou­ples who con­sider they have a happy mar­riage, struggle to dis­cuss their fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties

Many cou­ples who con­sider they have a happy mar­riage, struggle to dis­cuss their fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties, writes


Midlife can shake your con­fi­dence like a dog with a rag doll. Sev­eral years ago, when I hit my mid-40s, I re­alised that my vo­cab­u­lary had ap­par­ently halved and my anger lev­els had dou­bled.

“What’s the mat­ter with you?” my hus­band would growl, ex­as­per­ated, as I snapped over his tiny mis­de­meanours — leav­ing the but­ter out, play­ing jazz. I re­fused his in­vi­ta­tions to din­ner or to play ten­nis (“I’m too ex­hausted”) and al­though I’d act in­ter­ested dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tions, I was largely in my own world. I spent a sad, ir­ri­ta­ble few months iso­lat­ing my­self.

Mean­while, my hus­band of 20 years lost weight, got fit and was in ex­cel­lent phys­i­cal and men­tal health. He was em­brac­ing life, I was hang­ing back — and push­ing him away.

One day, be­fore Christ­mas, he came home with a beau­ti­ful fir tree and a sil­ver star to crown it. How­ever, for the previous 12 years, tree-top po­si­tion had been held by a toi­let-roll snow­man, made at nurs­ery by our el­dest son, Os­car. I felt the pris­tine star wasn’t us. It was for those wish­ing to present a glit­tery sym­bol of an aspi­ra­tional life­style.

“But what about Os­car’s snow­man?” I said, puls­ing with hurt and dis­ap­point­ment. Mad as it sounds, in that mo­ment, I felt the star was a re­jec­tion of all we stood for. Al­though I knew, deep down, that wasn’t how my hus­band meant it, I felt threat­ened. I was re­lieved when that sharp, cold star was too heavy for the tree, and the snow­man was re­in­stated.

I barely felt sane. When I tried to park the car while lis­ten­ing to loud music, I backed into a tree. What with the ir­ri­tabil­ity, ir­ra­tional­ity — and be­com­ing a li­a­bil­ity — I feared I had de­men­tia. My doc­tor re­as­sured me that my brain cells weren’t pop­ping like bub­bles — these were some of the symp­toms of pre-menopause.

My ter­ror sub­sided but I felt self-con­scious about telling my hus­band. In two decades of mar­riage, we’d nav­i­gated de­pres­sion, be­reave­ment

and raised three sons while pur­su­ing our ca­reers. We’d come through gru­elling, tough times, yet I felt a strange shame in telling him about the con­stant melo­drama rag­ing in my head. It felt too risky to re­veal this about my­self.

I de­cided, in­stead, to help my­self. I felt com­pletely des­per­ate to feel ex­cited, alive, and in­ter­est­ing again — and I re­alised this wouldn’t get bet­ter un­less I did some­thing about it. So, I took up run­ning. I also bribed our el­dest, then 15, to look af­ter his broth­ers, while my hus­band and I went climb­ing (a new pas­sion of his). Those small changes made a huge dif­fer­ence — to me, to us.

My midlife do­mes­tic drama strikes a fa­mil­iar note with clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Daphne de Marneffe, au­thor of a new book, The Rough Patch: Midlife and the Art of

Liv­ing To­gether. She ex­plains that many cou­ples — even those who con­sider their mar­riages sta­ble and happy — struggle to speak openly about their fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties. In­stead, the ter­ror of our part­ner find­ing us lack­ing can prompt some peo­ple to with­draw, which makes the re­la­tion­ship colder.

“There was a painful change in you, which scared and an­gered you,” she says of my ex­pe­ri­ence. “The hope, in that sit­u­a­tion, is that peo­ple can share the bur­den with their part­ner, and not feel that they’ve lost their value in their part­ner’s eyes. On a ba­sic level, we all want to con­tinue to be loved.”

She adds: “Talk­ing to your part­ner about your vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties would help bring you closer.”

Al­though I didn’t feel able to speak to my hus­band about my wor­ries at the time, de Marneffe points out that my in­stinct to change my­self was help­ful. “Some­times, we feel so ter­ri­ble about things we don’t like in our­selves, we blame and crit­i­cise our part­ner. That can be toxic. The healthy po­si­tion is to try to un­der­stand your­self. Some peo­ple can get overly fo­cused on their re­la­tion­ship be­ing a solution to ev­ery­thing, but you said to your­self, ‘I need to take on some­thing in the world to help re-ori­ent me, ex­plore other parts of my­self.’ You did the right thing.’

It was telling, how­ever: I thought my hus­band and I could dis­cuss any­thing, but when it came to an is­sue so per­sonal and pro­found, I was mute. I’ve also re­alised I’m not the only one to un­dergo a mar­i­tal rough patch at this time of life — many of my friends in their 40s and 50s have also had one

sharp­en­ing sense of mor­tal­ity clar­i­fies what re­ally mat­ters. That im­pacts us, and, con­se­quently, the per­son we’re spend­ing our life with.

Re­late coun­sel­lor Bar­bara Bloom­field ex­plains, “When you’ve set­tled down, put all your eggs in some­body’s bas­ket, a hor­ri­ble grey re­al­ity can hit: ‘Oh, I’m never go­ing to be an opera singer,’ or what­ever your dream might be. Peo­ple in highly com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ments or who have a per­fec­tion­ist streak can have a lot of trou­ble.”

As my friend Lucy, 48, con­fided “You look around at who’s to blame, see the near­est per­son, your hus­band, and think, ‘It would be all right if he wasn’t here. If we hadn’t met, I might have trav­elled the world and been a hu­man rights lawyer.’ But you can’t blame other peo­ple for the things you didn’t do.”

Rather than en­gage in a painful dis­cus­sion about what’s not working and risk hurt­ing or be­ing hurt, many cou­ples re­treat into si­lence or — as one now-di­vorced friend puts it — “drink to anaes­thetise the re­la­tion­ship”.

Sim­i­larly, Chris, 52, de­scribes his mar­riage as be­ing “very sta­ble, even though it’s dif­fi­cult” and ad­mits, “My wife and I love each other very much but we’ve ended up in this weird brotherand-sis­ter mode. If I’m not at the gym, I’m at the of­fice or with the kids. Time with my wife is or­ches­trated like a meet­ing: points of dis­cus­sion, then get out fast to avoid any con­flict.”

So can we af­ford to let our re­la­tion­ship tick over while we fo­cus on our ca­reer or rais­ing chil­dren? It’s a de­fen­sive story, de Marneffe tells me, a tale we tell our­selves when some­thing isn’t working be­tween us and we’re ig­nor­ing it. Af­ter all, no mat­ter how busy you are, if you feel lov­ing, how hard is it to kiss your part­ner or make time for them? “Some­thing’s driv­ing your alien­ation and your in­abil­ity to be close,” she says.

Dis­tance or de­tach­ment in midlife is of­ten seeded ear­lier on, says de Marneffe, when peo­ple feel their part­ner has “repet­i­tively or trau­mat­i­cally” failed them. “It be­comes: ‘You weren’t there in my hour of need’, or ‘When­ever I need some­thing you’re unavail­able’,” she says. “That does wear down emotional trust and the will­ing­ness to be open. Peo­ple get to a point of no re­turn.”

At­ti­tude, as well as com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, is price­less in re­solv­ing this. Emma, 50, and mar­ried for 22 years, says she and hus­band Paul ex­pe­ri­ence weeks of dis­lik­ing each other, which end when she’s struck by his kind­ness or a pang of at­trac­tion — or vice versa.

“We feel lucky,” she says. “We ap­pre­ci­ate our home and fam­ily, rather than mop­ing af­ter what we don’t have. He hasn’t got a job he loves, I never got to live in France, but we have what mat­ters. A nice rou­tine, sit­ting to­gether, light­ing the fire, tak­ing the dog for long walks. Lit­tle things.”

I agree. My hus­band and I now spend more qual­ity time to­gether — but we also do more apart. Amid the grief of los­ing par­ents and friends, the shock that your baby has grown taller than you, the un­set­tled state of the world, we recog­nise the value of now. We do what gives us joy: cook­ing, sport, see­ing friends, adopt­ing stray cats, watch­ing French cop shows, knock­ing about with our kids.

It’s not a glam­orous list, but it con­nects us. Emma adds that through­out the chal­lenges of midlife, “My re­la­tion­ship is a com­fort — my hus­band is here sup­port­ing me”. I feel the same. The rough patch can ac­tu­ally be a sweet spot.

Anna Maxted and hus­band Phil.

Anna and Phil Maxted on their wed­ding day.

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