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

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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

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