“Is it possible that all my friends and I fell out of love with our husbands in the same year?”
This was a quote from a client that I recently saw and I realized that this idea resonated completely with what my own friends were talking about. There seemed to be a sudden and seemingly resolute down-shifting of feelings after 15 years of marriage. All of these couples are around 48 years old and have been married between from 15-18 years. If they have children then the kids are all around middle school ages.
Is it possible that marriages or relationships go through a midlife crisis? Is it contagious or just a coincidence that everyone of a certain age seems to be going through this? The more I talk about this idea the more it seems to be a trend.
What my client was describing in her own marriage were feelings of apathy, boredom and disconnect where there were once passion, appreciation and connection. She describes this feeling coming on slowly over the past few years but realized that it was happening just outside of her consciousness. Then suddenly one morning she woke up and was no longer “in love” with her husband. She still wanted to be married; saw how amazing he was as a father; and felt the value in their union and life together. But mostly, she just felt apathy toward her husband, his body, his sense of humor and his hobbies.
Other friends and clients describe a sudden attraction to someone else that seemed to come out of nowhere. Another symptom is an overwhelming confusion or ignorance about how to connect, flirt or even just talk with their partner. They can clearly remember how easy it was to connect and laugh together but it felt like the link between them was broken. How strange, I mused with my client, to have the bedrock of your life (your unbreakable marriage) suddenly shift into a sandy ground where your footing is unsure.
Now, to be truthful, all of these relationships had issues but there seemed to be a common feeling of purpose or a sense of “team” that unified them – even when times were tough. It seems to be this feeling of “team” that broke. Once I saw this pattern in my clients and friends (and to be truthful, in my own marriage) – I could not help but see it everywhere. Everyone in their mid-40’s seemed to be having a marital midlife crisis. In searching for answers I found a wonderful resource in Dr. Jed Diamond and his book “The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best Is Still to Come.”
In this book from 2016, Dr. Diamond talks about this exact phenomenon and outlines what is happening. He describes the five stages that all marriages go through – he names one stage “disillusionment” which is what I call the midlife crisis stage.
His five stages in order are: Falling in Love, Becoming Partners, Disillusionment, Real Love and Combining Forces to Change the World. He states that all couples go through these stages and that they have to go through the tough ones in order to find the deep love and deeper connection when they are older.
The Falling in Love stage is just what it sounds like – this is the beginning of a relationship when we are filled with love, hormones, perhaps illusions of who we are marrying and, of course, high hopes for the future. It seems as if we have found the perfect partner and can’t imagine a time when we won’t feel this euphoria.
This is closely followed by the “building a life” stage which he calls “Becoming Partners.” It is during this time that we develop our communities, grow our families and build our careers. The primary focus is on the work of life and on growth. The main feelings in our relationship during this stage are partnership and security. For many couples this stage can feel boring but there is usually a common goal that unites couples.
After a few years (or a decade) the day-in and day-out of life compounds and wears away the illusions that we had about marriage. We begin to see the reality of the person we married. Dr. Diamond calls this stage “Disillusionment” and that feels like a perfect description. This is truly how my clients and friends describe feeling – disillusioned with marriage, their spouses and the life they built. It is as if the curtain has been drawn aside and ugly truths are visible – a reality of marriage that is unappealing, unexciting and not particularly passionate.
It is during this time that most couples separate, have affairs or divorce. It feels inconceivable that anything can be salvaged. However, after all his research, Dr. Diamond did find that there is a way through this stage. He is very clear that there is hope. The path, however, does not take you back to the illusion-filled “Falling in Love” stage but rather asks you to move beyond illusions toward a connection with the good-enough spouse that you have.
Dr. Diamond states very clearly that all marriages hit this space – and he even suggests that they have go through this stage in order to get to a deeper love. Disillusionment is a requirement for the next stage.
If couples can hold on and work through this very difficult time they move into “Real Love.” Dr. Diamond’s idea is that this stage comes about when individuals are able to see the links between their family of origin and their own expectations of marriage. There is an acceptance of yourself that unfolds and with that an acceptance of your spouse and your marriage. You discover a new way to be together that is deeper and more satisfying.
The final stage of marriage is entitled “Combining Forces to Take on the World.” Dr. Diamond describes couples in this stage as shifting their focus from themselves to the outside world. They work together to enact change or create a community.
I brought this book and these ideas to my client and to my friends and the overwhelming response was relief. Relief not only that they are not unusual but also relief that there is hope. Feeling disillusioned does not mean that I have to leave my marriage – it just means I have to hold on and find a new way to connect.
So what do you do if you find yourself in Stage 3. What are the tools, skills or actions that will move you quickly and painlessly into “Real Love?” I think that the number one thing is to take a deep breath and realize you are not alone. All couples hit this stage. My hope in saying this is that it will allow you and your partner to talk about the disconnect and disinterest in a new way. You might be surprised by how much shifts when you can discuss something as difficult as this – and truly name it – without reacting or exploding.
By seeing that marriages have specific steps it also allows you to begin to envision what your next stage might look like. There is a tremendous amount of power in visioning – talking about future plans and dreams. Sometimes the only connection you have is the hope (or maybe knowledge) that what you wish to happen will come to pass.
If you are currently in a marital midlife crisis this is an important time to work on yourself. Take time for your body (yoga, exercise, meditation, floss), for your career, your friends and for your mental health. Explore ways to grow and ground yourself in your own needs and dreams. Part of this exploration and caretaking might lead you to changing your relationship with your parents or family. It is a normal part of our late 40’s and 50’s to reevaluate our relationship with our extended family and reorient ourselves in regards to their expectations of us. This is usually accompanied with a release of old roles that don’t fit us anymore. Find the support that you need as you move though this important work.
I believe strongly that you can work on your marriage even when you feel disconnected or no longer “in love.” You can lean on family and cultural traditions during this time to give shape to your days, weeks or years. You can also work on the the physical structures that support you both – your house, yard or bedroom. This might be repainting your bedroom, rearranging your living space or bringing flowers or plants into your house.
You can also focus on the small things that once zippered you together. Reenact the small and seemingly nonsense inside jokes that used to make you giggle. Consciously enact these – turn on that song, do that silly dance, make the old rhyme. If you can’t remember your inside jokes then ask your spouse and work on remembering together. It may seem silly but these small connections deepen the more you lean on them.
Being in the middle of a marital midlife crisis feels unbearable and hopeless. It is important that you find the support that you need as you work your way through this stage. My client is still struggling with connecting with her spouse. She has found relief in knowing the stages and seeing where they are but this knowledge does not pop her directly into a “Real Love” marriage. Please know that there is knowledge, support and a path if you ask – sometimes just asking that is the catalyst needed. Please reach out if you have any questions about your own marital midlife crisis or if you would like more information about how counseling (both individual or couples) can support you as you move though this stage.
Ashley Seeger, LCSW is a couples counselor in Boulder, Colorado. She has over 17 years of experience working with couples as they struggle with intimacy, communication and transitions. Learn more about couples counseling.