In the midst of my own midlife marriage crisis, I began trying to peel back the layers of misunderstanding and pain to examine what went wrong. I realised that working through midlife marriage was like eating an artichoke.

I thought about the last time I had eaten an artichoke and remembered scraping away the bitter, stringy mess so I could get to the best part — the heart. If I had been the first one ever to eat an artichoke, I’m sure I would have given up by the time I got to the hairy stuff at the base of the leaves. But someone way back persisted and discovered the delights that artichoke lovers now appreciate.

I wondered whether the same thing might be true of my marriage. If my husband and I persevered through the profound disappointments that had descended upon us, perhaps we might find that our love was still there, buried beneath the conflict that had gradually overtaken us. We had begun our marriage deeply in love. How had we come to such a bitter place?

Bitter Mess

For us, we faced the hairy mess of midlife changes on our marriage just as the empty nest loomed before us. Although we thought we had successfully navigated through parenthood and financial crisis, our road to the “promised land” became burdened with the same problems we had when we first got married.

While I came from a family that expressed opinions openly and sometimes too frankly, my husband came from a family mind-set where conflict was avoided whenever possible. Arguments between us were settled without resolution, and mild irritations became serious issues. Unresolved differences were swept under the rug, ignored and unseen, but not gone. The bitter, hairy mess was all we could see. At midlife, we separated.

When couples hit a devastating point in marriage, it is hard to imagine that anything of value still remains. Happily, however, instead of tossing everything out, my husband and I eventually scraped the bitter, stringy mess away to reveal our deeper relationship beneath.

Midlife became a time for us to step back and take a long, hard, fresh look at our differences. Had we begun merely to regard one another as functional domestic partners working together in the joint ventures of parenting, doing laundry, earning a living, maintaining a house and making day-to-day decisions?

From the beginning, my husband and I had referred to each other as “halves.” But we realised we regarded the other not as a separate person with deep reservoirs within, but as a kind of appendage. We presumed the other thought like we did, responded emotionally the same and shared particular concerns. One of the initial jolts of our midlife marriage was discovering this wasn’t true.

Peeling Away the Leaves

After our three-year separation, I began to realise my husband’s people-pleasing personality had gone into rebellion. He no longer wanted to be the pabulum that was easy to swallow. He forced me to chew on our differences, and I learned to accept and appreciate the person he was. I needed to grasp the full intensity of what made him hopeful or discouraged, inspired or hostile, satisfied or irritated. He needed to do the same for me. He learned to weather my emotional times without getting defensive. As a result, we both grew more patient with each other.

We learned that friction in marriage sometimes signals the need for more honesty — a need to lay things on the table and grapple with the hard issues until each mate can honestly accept the other — differences and all. Sometimes in midlife what seemed so clear at an earlier time becomes blurred and confused. Things may not have turned out as expected, and spouses may blame each other for unattained dreams.

Midlife is a time for forgiveness, for letting go of past resentments and humbly admitting mistakes. It is a time to reassess priorities, set new goals and envision the new form an old marriage can take.

Finding the Heart

Somehow in the midst of all of this we must learn to laugh at ourselves. Did we really expect things to turn out perfectly? At a theme park restaurant, my husband and I once sat down to dinner in a mock kitchenette in front of an old TV, and lo and behold there was an episode of Happy Days. Is that who we thought we were — the ideal couple, with the ideal family, living the ideal life?

We must relate to each other as real people in a real world. Who of us, in the real world, doesn’t need a little forgiveness for our imperfections?

Midlife has been a time for my husband and me to refocus and take a realistic look at ourselves. We have learned that a marriage must often go through growing pains in order for us to embrace and celebrate one another’s individuality.

Yes, just as that first artichoke eater needed persistence to discover the heart of the artichoke, those of us in midlife marriage must work through disappointments, boredom, irritations, bitter conflict or even a crisis or two. When we hit the bitter, stringy stuff, it is not time to throw the relationship away. It is the time to persevere and go deeper. Only as we meet the challenge and plunge ahead to dig through the mess can we successfully find that forgiving, redemptive love which unites two souls into oneness.

Linda W. Rooks

Linda W. Rooks and her husband live in Maitland, Florida, and have two married daughters and two grandsons.

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