There can come a startling realization at mid-life: that our spouse is no longer our everything. This realization is so hard to take that I think many people avoid it all together (‘let’s just continue on as we have…’).
But for those who do allow this idea, feeling, or awareness to sit inside their minds, it can be very disturbing. Even thinking it, we might feel guilty, ashamed, frightened, sad. Modern relationships are complex, and this is one of the most difficult things we can be confronted with at mid-life.
Esther Perel (a great relationship therapist) talks about how modern marital relationships have a lot more responsibility put on them than in the past. Today, spouses must be best friends, confidantes, and lovers. In Western culture, we are trained to expect that the long-term relationship will meet ALL of our needs. This person will be our everything.
And so we expect it.
And then we, understandably, get concerned when it appears that our partner might…no longer…be all those things to us.
I have certainly felt this way. Most notably during the Sex Surge, when I was sure my partner could not meet all my sexual needs. It was a feeling so deep in my bones. With the awareness of his inability to meet my needs I was scared, angry, and sad.
I was scared that this would mean the end of our marriage. I was angry at myself, at the hormone surge, and at this change in my view of him. And I was sad because this felt like just another way in which he wasn’t meeting my needs and I felt like a bitch for wanting more.
Feeling this shift towards ‘less than’ leaves us reeling on many levels. But let’s look at what this feeling really means and how we can deal with it.
What To Do When This Feeling Arises
1. Gently Check Yo’self.
Make sure you are open to the possibility that whatever is missing or lacking might be able to return or be re-grown. (There are cases when re-growth is nigh on impossible- we’ll talk about those later on.)
Sometimes the realization that your spouse is not your everything is a feeling. It may be a feeling based in facts, but it is a feeling- and feelings can change.
Be open to the idea that with new information, perspective, practice, or acceptance, what your spouse means to you can be changed. Perhaps re-established or improved. Be open to the possibility.
2. Get Clear on Priorities
Take a look at what is really missing in the relationship. Name the problem- clearly. And then ask yourself: How important is this to me? Why is this important to me?
One of the things about our spouse losing the status of ‘everything’ person in our life, is that it is seen as a failure of the relationship, and/or that the relationship will eventually fail all together.
This simply isn’t true.
When our spouse is seen as lacking in something, we need to take a moment, throw out social standards, and decide for ourselves – to what degree is this important to me?
Whether you find that the missing ingredient isn’t actually a priority, or that it’s a deal-breaker, or somewhere in between, you need to know where you stand.
Asking ‘why’ is also important because we may be asking our spouse for something that we need to do for ourself. Or our feeling of ‘lack’ may come from an old wound that is not our partner’s to heal. In my case, I realized it wasn’t my husband’s job to totally and completely sexually satisfy me. I could take responsibility for giving myself some of what I wanted.
3. Talk To Your Spouse
This one is the trickiest, but also the most important. If you’ve ever gotten fired from a job without knowing why – or have been told one thing, but knew another was true – then you know why this is important.
If we ‘fire’ our spouse – or start walking down that road in our head – it’s totally unfair to them and doesn’t promote the communication, intimacy, and fairness we are seeking.
In my own and my clients’ experience- often the spouse does not know that the missing ingredient is missing. They need reminding. (And maybe encouraging.)
There are other cases where the spouse does know, does not care, and would rather use this issue to create hurt. That’s pretty shitty, but also helpful to know.
Situations Where It Is Nearly Impossible To Heal
There are three spaces within a marriage that make it very hard to be the everything again – or even to be compatible again. These are: indifference, lack of respect, and lack of support/shared values.
Most people will tell you that a lack of passion is impossible to live without. But passion can be re-grown in many cases. As can intimacy, trust, and friendship. It is much harder to re-grow a connection after deep rifts – like indifference and lack of respect- have formed.
If you have grown indifferent towards your spouse (or them to you)- that’s really hard to come back from. Indifference is a slow-growing weed, and- once recognized- it has often choked the marriage to death.
Indifference is borne of resentment. Resentment is borne of unmet expectations. Beware of both unmet expectations and resentment because they are fed by silence. What makes it so hard to come back from indifference is that the habits of not caring has taken root. Yes, people can overcome this- but it takes a lot of energy and dedication.
The second marital difficulty is lack of respect (which is different than disrespect). This may actually be worse than indifference. When we cannot respect our spouse, it takes great feats of both trust and vulnerability to redevelop that respect. Trust and vulnerability are hard to grow in a place of no respect.
Similar to indifference, unmet expectations and resentment are often at play with a lack of respect. They are silent killers that take great work to come back from. Lack of respect may be entangled with indifference, as well- making it that much harder to recover the relationship.
The last item is an unrelenting feeling of lack of support. One of the primary reasons for being married is personal support. This support can be from helping with laundry to listening to deep, personal trials (such as sickness or work difficulties) to many, many things in between. The feeling of aloneness may come from values that have changed over the years- and how those values play out in everyday life.
It’s tough to come back from this difficulty (but, it can be done) because it is fertile ground for all of the above-mentioned problems to sow themselves. Indifference, lack of respect, lack of trust, and lack of safety for vulnerability are all involved in the actions that lead to feeling unsupported.
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Mid-life is one of the toughest and most joyful places in life- for the same two reasons: we know more of who we are and we know more of what we want from life. When the difficulty of mid-life includes our spouse or partner – when the difficulty is them – we need to take a step back from our frustrated thoughts and see what’s really going on- both inside the relationship and inside ourselves. The ability to take a breath, step back, and get curious (all skills only mid-lifers have!) will help us determine the best next step.