What to do if your marriage hits a midlife tricky patch?
Together you’ve survived what life has thrown at you – bereavement, babies, building careers. So why has your relationship suddenly hit such a tricky patch? Anna Maxted reports
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 toiletroll 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. Though 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 explains 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.’
Though 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, though: 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 had one too. A sharpening sense of mortality clarifies what really matters. That impacts us, and, consequently, the person we’re spending our life with. So it’s no surprise that in 2016 the number of divorces was highest among both men and women aged 45 to 49, according to the Office for National Statistics.
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 in midlife.’
As my friend Lucy*, 48, confided in me, ‘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 brother-and-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 explains.
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.
‘The Rough Patch’ by Daphne de Marneffe (Harvill Secker, £16.99) is out now. To order a copy for £14.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
‘You look around at who’s to blame, and see the nearest person, your husband’
Above left Anna Maxted and her husband Phil on their wedding day in 1997. Right The couple today, with Buster the cat
Above Anna and Phil on holiday in Cornwall, 1996