Relationships are tricky. Everyone says so. They can be even trickier in midlife since rather than two 20-something blank slates coming together to build a life, middle-agers typically have full lives with deep and anchoring roots in the form of exes, kids, homes, careers, debt, and maybe even family court orders, which limit flexibility and makes the merging of lives challenging.
Midlife relationships are also tricky because many of us have a lot of emotional baggage from 50-something years of living. We may be carrying around negative experiences, skewed perceptions, and emotional triggers from past relationships, including long marriages that ended badly. Although emotional baggage can be turned into new self-knowledge and serve as the foundation for life wisdom and increased empathy, unresolved baggage can steal our hopes and dreams creating seemingly insurmountable challenges in new relationships.
So why bother? If relationships are so difficult in midlife, why not just throw in the proverbial towel, join some book clubs, buy a few cats, and call it a day? Because we’re living longer lives, because many people want a second swipe at the love lottery, because there are now a ton of recent studies that point to all the health benefits of love, romance and passion. And if the billion dollar relationship self-help industry is any indication of the collective will of mid-lifers to find lasting love, then it seems abundantly clear that despite the various constraints that can accompany middle-aged dating, most singles in midlife would like to find a loving partner with whom to share their lives.
Even if we don’t get derailed by the exes, kids, homes, careers, debt, and legal woes, we might by the emotional baggage we drag along in tow. Many midlifers have been deeply hurt in past relationships – through neglect, infidelity, maybe even abuse. And for some, these painful experiences may be made worse by family court orders that feel unjust and personally negating. On an interpersonal level, many midlifers have fallen into unhealthy communication patterns, which may have served them well in dysfunctional relationships, but they won’t fly in healthy ones.
Generalizing negative experiences to the entire female or male population is tempting as we attempt to deal with pain we hope to never feel again. We may be walking self-fulfilling prophecies looking for proof that life is unfair, particularly to us. And while all of these feelings and reactions are understandable, they are not conducive to sustaining a healthy relationship. Thus at some point, people in midlife who are serious about finding love again, must make a choice: hold onto their anger, fear and victim status, or let go, move on unencumbered, and find love.
Letting go and moving on isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it. This journey requires us to take the time to first have a relationship with ourselves – one filled with new self-discoveries and increased confidence – the natural by-product of taking responsibility for patching our own heart-holes, and filling up our empty souls. Once we own our pasts, embrace healing, and clear off the rubble that has accumulated over the years, obscuring our true and unique selves, we will become more fulfilled, happy and whole people, and then we will naturally draw likeminded people toward us because the wholehearted always seem to be drawn toward each other.
When I first decided to get serious about losing my own accumulated rubble and finding a healthy romantic partner, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I was emotionally guarded, rather defensive, and used an array of masks to cope with my unwanted and misunderstood vulnerability. I not only had baggage from past relationships, I had baggage from my childhood as well. Yes, my emotional baggage was heavy, but I didn’t believe I could do without it, because in my mind, it was my protection, warning me of potential dangers ahead. But at some point I realized that it was either the baggage or love, and I chose the latter. So I owned my baggage, unpacked it, put it in it’s rightful place and moved on, with free hands and an exposed heart.
So let’s say that you’ve done the same. You’ve pulled yourself together and are one of the lucky ones, drawing healthy partners toward you, and now find yourself in a loving and potentially lasting relationship. What now? It’s one thing to develop new thinking and behavioral patterns within ourselves, but putting them into action and incorporating them into the daily life of a new relationship requires a much different bag-o-tricks.
Here are seven reminders I use to help me navigate the sometimes murky waters of my relationship, keeping my expectations realistic and my priorities straight. Perhaps they can help you as well:
Always be honest and always be yourself.
It’s tempting to lead with the good stuff, and save the bad parts for later, but if we do that, we risk introducing a false dynamic into the relationship. When a partner tells you that he or she is crazy about you, you want to be confident that he or she is crazy about the real you. If you’re holding something back, then you won’t believe your partner’s words of affirmation, and you’ll probably act accordingly. There is only one you. Let that “you” shine (even if it’s scary!).
Don’t “over” anything.
Don’t over-function, don’t over-please, don’t over-accommodate, don’t over-analyze.
Remember that new behaviors take time and practice to truly integrate into our lives, and all-or-nothing approaches to any new endeavor will most likely set us up for failure.
If you’ve been a relatively poor communicator in the past, or have been somewhat emotionally guarded, it’s going to take a bit of time to develop more open and direct patterns. All-or-nothing approaches and rigid expectations of success (and failure) are almost always change killers. Be kind and patient with yourself.
Let the relationship flow.
Don’t push. Let the relationship evolve naturally. Relationships are like rivers. They have their own flow and rhythm. Sure we have some control – we can choose who we want to swim with and to a certain extent we can control our general direction (maybe), but in the end relationships are the most successful (and enjoyable) when we let them take their own course.
Be kind and patient with your new partner.
Because he or she is likely going through many of the same things you are – trying to be healthier, trying to leave the past in the past and explore new and positive ways of relating, so it’s important to be as patient with your partner as you are with yourself. Try not to over-personalize your new partner’s behavior. A missed phone call? A seemingly dismissive response that reminded you of your ex? Let it go and give your new partner the benefit of the doubt by using a fresh lens to interpret his or her behavior. Don’t be naive, but try to assume the best of intentions whenever possible.
Be as flexible as life constraints allow.
Most mid-lifers comes with a packed agenda, and balancing everything is challenging, particularly if younger kids are involved. Sometimes being a good partner requires nothing more than expressing understanding when something doesn’t go as planned, and letting your partner off the hook rather than getting angry.
A healthy partner should always bring more joy than angst. Be protective of your good times, and laugh as often as possible. Love might throw challenges your way, but if you’re chronically unhappy, then it’s not love.