The Coupledom Through The Life Cycle: Tools are needed throughout relationships to deal with “change”. In the beginning of the committed relationship couples believe that they share goals, values and styles. The notion that personalities remain static is unrealistic. Development proceeds throughout the life cycle. Just as children shift and morph who they are, so do adults. The early pictures of “growing together as a couple” need to be reviewed and updated.
Hormonal changes are only one of the many variables that impact the “maturing Coupledom”: parenting changes: careers change; in-law needs change; locations change; health and economics change; cultural messages change. All these variables criss-cross the body of the relationship in unexpected ways, leaving a pattern of trails and tracks that cover over the traces of the younger Coupledom, making it difficult to recall what was once there. The more these variables are identified and discussed along the way, the better the prognosis for the Coupledom.
Aging Isn’t Easy Under Any Circumstances: Whether It Is the Journey To Adulthood, Or the Journey Through Adulthood: We are all conversant with the concepts of the terrible two’s or the adolescent years, times associated with growth and challenge. But what needs to enter every day parlance is the concept of A Lifetime of Changes and Challenges for the Maturing Coupledom. Adjustments to aging are not gender specific. They are universal. Men who saw themselves as the young hot shot at work are now the older not so hot shot. Women who had powerful roles as mothers or professionals witness a loss of significance and momentum. Mirrors know longer seem like portraits of the present but frightening warnings of the future. Erection challenges, pretty new neighbors, a friend’s much richer husband or a child’s success or failure all converge to destabilize self-esteem, self-image and relationship security.
Same Sex Couples: Midlife challenges are not limited to heterosexual couples. Same sex couples experience all the same variables. Whether there is more empathy because of shared gender is an intriguing question for which I have no answer; but certainly individual sensitivities, visions and goals need careful exploration and consideration. Visions will change, and all the pressures of facing a future together demand the same careful attention and communication as with heterosexual couples.
The ToolKit of Strategies: The Art of The Mature Conversation.
The All Important Basic Rules of Decency (BROD): Before you embark on sensitive topics such as menopause, andropause, dreams and goals, rules of decency have to be established. Intimacy can breed contempt but all couples have to fight that tendency. Whether it be the annoyance of listening to snoring night after night, bathroom behaviors, or disgust at the sloppiness of one and the compulsive neatness of the other, insults, words of contempt, superiority and ridicule are foul play. To approach sensitive conversations, rules of decency are required. Below are some rules to follow.
Differences in the Details: Making light of your partner’s concerns is taboo. Whether it is a defense or lack of imagination, poo pooing a spouse’s focus on a 4 pound weight gain, a few less hairs, or wounded feelings, is destructive and hurtful. Instead try to understand. Walk around in your partner’s “moccasins” for a bit. After all, this is how we parent. As parents we try to imagine how it feels to be a two-year old when she tries to master a new skill but can’t get it at first, or a teenager who has just been rejected by a boyfriend or lost a soccer game or received a rejection from the college of his choice. We need to use that same imagination with our partners. What might seem trivial is in fact representative of much larger issues.
Imagination and Empathy are Tools of Love: These strategies build bridges and weave threads of connection between people. Do not be dismissive or mocking, no matter what thoughts leap to mind or tickle your funny bone. These very thoughts might really be the defense of humor triggered more by fear or embarrassment than pleasure. Details or minutiae have larger themes, representing something far more significant for your partner than you may at first recognize. They are telling you something. Restrain Yourself. And be smart.
How Vulnerable And Open Can I Be?: Can I, as the husband, really share with my wife some embarrassing worries about my virility and attractiveness, or that I failed to become the man I envisioned ? My disappointing earning power: my fear that whatever I earn, she will spend on others. I don’t want her to see me as a wimp or make fun of me. Can I as the wife share how helpless and ashamed I feel with all these mood swings, forgetfulness and muddled thoughts. I don’t want to be the butt of his macho jokes. Once the rules are agreed upon, fears can be shared safely. Tread lightly on soft surfaces.
The Conversation: First step is to ask yourself what do I want my partner to understand about what I am going through? Once you identify the essential issues, then establish the Basic Rules of Decency with your partner. Should those rules be broken, agree to suspend the conversation for the moment, and reschedule it. Don’t over react and make the “conversation” the problem. Just regroup and begin again.
The Language of Conversation: It is always best to speak in the first person “I” when talking about feelings. “I feel” works a lot better than “You make me feel”. “I would like you to understand” works better than “You don’t understand what I am going through”.
As the listener, if you cannot take it all in, or feel overwhelmed or stymied as to how to respond, ask for time to think over what you just heard. “I may need some time to understand all that you have shared”. Set that up as an option in advance. Time is a friend. Use it.
Problem Solve as A Team Even With The Most Intimate Concerns: Concerns regarding sexual comfort and performance can be brainstormed together. And if no answer seems available in the moment, again take the time to seek out an expert, or go online, and make sure to continue the conversation together with shared information and suggestions. If your concerns are about fitness and attractiveness, formulate a mutually satisfying schedule to work out, together, or by taking turns with each covering for the other. Agree on dietary changes or take up a new outdoor hobby. Become good friends again. Help each other out.
Shared Visions Conversation: Do We Share a Similar Vision of Our Future?: Always Be Curious, Never Assume you know your partner’s mind. Ask! Describe what you would like as a future together. Offer your idea as one option, not “the” option. Have this conversation in the beginning of the relationship and often over the years. If time is a pressure and decisions for the future have to be made, but the visions clash, always look for that “third option”.
There is Always a Third Option: Someone wants a sports car, and the other to redo the bathrooms. OK. Take some time to look at options. Visit some car showrooms and tile stores. Someone is dreaming of retirement in Florida and the other wants to stay close to family. Take out a map, check distances, climates and costs. Perhaps the dream of a Porsche is postponed for a steam shower in the new bathroom. Or a sports car is expanded to include a trip through the Napa Valley together with the top down. Something that both can enjoy. Stay open, playful, imaginative and do not let any one conversation be the final one….until you are both comfortable with its outcome.
Surely It is Worth It: During any conversation where the stakes are high, reactivity may soar. Buttons get pressed, but remember this is just the beginning of a series of exchanges over the shared lifetime. Crank down the “threat level”, listen and learn. No quick decisions, just process, reflection and empathy. For one moment, ask yourself, “what is it like to be her, to be him?”. For just a moment. Take Your Time.
Surely It Is Worth It.
Epilogue: That Couple mentioned in Part 1 did listen, and came up with a mutual vision, a “third option” to their life view, that healed enough of the hurt, deepened the bond and allowed them to move forward with their shared life. Each one took responsibility for their role in the “perfect storm”. No one bad guy. No one bad gal. Just two people who forgot to trust for a moment in the process of sharing what was hurting the most. Temporary solutions were sort outside the marriage, for both of them, and nearly cost them the marriage. It Ain’t Worth It.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010