Burdened by conflicting demands, 40-something couples can often turn against each other, says Helen O’Callaghan.
IT WAS different before the children. Her husband was number-one. When work was done, she had space for herself and she could give her best to him.
“We nurtured each other. The sex was good. We’d plan small surprises we knew the other would enjoy,” says Anna, a professional Cork woman in her late 40s.
Now, after a day at work, she’s exhausted.
“I come home to the weary slog of getting the kids through the routines. I try to adopt a bright, cheery tone, just to coax them through the rituals of homework, dinner, bath, bed.
“By the time they’re finally tucked-up and I’m alone with my other half, it’s like there’s no need for the effort anymore.
"I can let show I really feel hang out — and that’s tired and irritable — and I snap at him.”
It’s not how she expected her marriage to be, after a dozen years. But it’s true of many 40-something marrieds.
Relationships Ireland counsellor, Bernadette Ryan, says mid-life couples are at a stressful stage, when they’re being asked to look after so much other than themselves.
“They may have teen kids acting-out — and aged parents. They’re squeezed from both ends.
"Maybe they have different parenting styles, so they’re in conflict with the teens, in conflict with each other. There’s an air of conflict around the home.”
Add to that the struggle to maintain careers and to pay off mortgage debt and it’s not hard to see why a couple’s sex life often nosedives.
Sex can die off, says Dr Lisa Brinkmann, a psychotherapist specialising in sexual concerns.
“Emotional closeness is a prerequisite for sexual intimacy. You need to be tuned-in, know what’s going on in each other’s life.”
But it takes work to get your relationship back on track and many 40-somethings, ground down by the drudgery and the demands, just don’t have it in them.
In Judd Apatow’s comic movie, This Is 40, Debbie is horrified when husband, Pete, takes Viagra to have sex with her on her birthday.
The scene may have been exaggerated for comic effect, but there’s nothing funny about a marriage tested to its limits.
Rachel Fehily, family law mediator and author of Split: True Stories of Relationship Breakdown in Ireland, identifies breaking points when a marriage might falter, when partners disengage from each other.
“It can strain relationships when couples start having kids and the focus changes from each other to the children. When children grow up, couples can feel they don’t want to stay with each other.
"If a woman, after having three kids, decides to give up her career and stay home full-time, it’s a big, life-changing event. So is going back to the work-force.
"At such times, when people are re-evaluating their lives, they may also start re-evaluating their marriage.”
Ryan says the 40s are a landmark time, when many start questioning their life-path.
“The projections fall away — ‘she’s actually not the most extraordinary princess in the world’, ‘I haven’t married a knight in shining armour’. There can be a sense of ‘is this all there is’?”
Lisa, a 40-something mum-of-three, has no illusions about her husband’s willingness to share household chores.
“I tell him I’m going to buy paint — I’m sick of waiting for him to do it. He replies ‘just take your time doing it to get it right’, when, really, I was hinting for him to do it.
“He has blinkers on, when it comes to house repairs. I see a job to be done and just do it. He doesn’t see the job and feels nagged if asked to do anything about it. It goes on the long-finger.
"When he eventually gets around to it, a tiny task becomes a mammoth operation. It’s just easier to do it [myself] — less hassle, time, and complication involved.”
Of course, we come to marriage with all our ‘stuff’. This is normal.
“Marriage and intimate relationships are where we come with everything — our expectations, hopes, dreams, and baggage.
"A lot of the baggage that raises its ugly head belongs to the individual’s past,” says Ryan.
Sarah, a 46-year-old who has been married for a decade, says: “After a period of stress or a stupid argument, we’ve often said to each other ‘how the hell did we get here?’
"Meaning: how did we get to the point where it was OK to take things out on each other? When did the need to be ‘right’ become more important than the love we have for each other?”
Sarah recognises that the answer lies in the baggage they still carry, mostly from childhood — past hurts when they weren’t heard or validated.
“I think, when you’re older and married for a while, you’ve developed a shorthand and trust with each other and you get opportunities to become whole — to fix wrongs from your past. But it’s not easy. Jim and I can trigger each other like no-one else.”
According to Ryan, couples in long-term, happy relationships say 65% of their problems never get resolved.
“The difference between these and unhappy couples is they’ve learned how to manage their problems. They don’t argue about everything.
"They’ve learned how to give and take.”
But if your communication mostly consists of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, your marriage is headed for the rocks.
So says American marriage researcher, John Gottman, who calls these negative communication patterns the ‘four horsemen of the Apocalypse’, because they are lethal to a relationship.
These predict with 90% accuracy that the couple will split if the behaviour isn’t changed.
And, of the four, contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship failure.
In 2014, in Ireland, 2,724 divorces were granted.
Women were more likely to look for divorce or judicial separation (what we had before divorce, and often a simpler route for couples to call time on a marriage).
In 2014, 56% of divorce applications were made by wives and 44% by husbands.
The gender divide was even more pronounced for applications for judicial separation: 75% female, 25% male.
“Women tend to be the caretakers of the relationship and to initiate counselling and/or separation.
"They’re in tune with the tone of the relationship, whereas a man can think everything is fine,” says Ryan.
Mary Johnston, specialist in counselling with Accord, confirms communication is the most highly-rated presenting problem for couples.
“Typically, an individual might say ‘we can’t talk to each other anymore’, ‘we’ve become very distant from one another’, ‘we fight all the time — we don’t see eye to eye on anything’, ‘he doesn’t care about me anymore’, ‘she has changed so much I feel I don’t know her anymore’,” Johnston says.
Beyond the lack of communication often lies a core need to connect with another.
Canadian psychologist, Dr Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, developed emotionally focused therapy (EFT) to help couples resolve relationship distress.
EFT is based in attachment theory, in the belief we’re hardwired for strong emotional bonds with others.
Psychotherapist James Parrin specialises in couples therapy and founded EFT in Ireland.
“We all seek intimacy and connection. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in relationships,” he says.
As soon as that intimacy and connection are threatened, we go into distress.
“This causes couples to get caught in negative cycles of interaction.
"They get into conversations that cause them to miss each other rather than connect: ‘Oh, here we go again! Let me guess — once again, it’s my fault’.
"They get angry. They withdraw. Over the years, it becomes ingrained.”
The result, says Parrin, is that the partners are no longer a resource for the other.
“When we can’t connect, we seek refuge elsewhere. We’re trying to regulate and comfort ourselves.
"It’s a physiological thing; our bodies need it. And if we don’t get it from our partner, we go elsewhere, maybe to alcohol or to an affair.”
Working with couples in his consulting room, he looks at how they are still connected.
“I recognise they are still coming towards each other — they’re sitting on the couch at the same time. They’re still with each other.
"I help them identify this. I tell them ‘I see the tears in your eyes. You’re trying to tell him/her you love them, but you don’t know how to find them’.
"I help them see the other person is not the enemy. It may feel like that. But the enemy is the interaction that has kept them apart.”
EFT, says Parrin, works on the bonded side, on our need for connection and attachment.
“I help couples see the 50/50 dance they’re caught in is isolating them further.”
He first slows things down: asking ‘how do you feel?’ The reply might be ‘really angry’.
"So he asks: ‘before you feel angry, what are you feeling?’
"The response might be: ‘I feel he doesn’t really care. I can feel really sad with him, but I won’t show that — I’ll show the anger and act out of that.”
Parrin says EFT helps couples see what’s really happening, helps them to move to the vulnerable places, to identify their defences and really hear each other in a loving way.
“It’s about changing the conversation. I help them build positive cycles of interaction.
"The dialogue becomes: ‘I didn’t realise you felt that way — now that I see it, I really want to support you’. By now, they’ve secured the bond.
"Occasionally, they fall into a negative cycle, but they laugh and say ‘we’re in it, let’s get out of it’. It’s about helping them neurologically rewire their habits.”
Brinkmann says that you have to make your relationship a priority.
“Don’t let it be the thing that falls off the list and only gets time when everything else is served.”
She recommends 30 minutes each evening when you strip away distractions, reach out, and listen to each other.
“It will open up that space to be more emotionally connected.”
Be physical with your partner, Brinkmann urges. Make Monday evening massage time, even for 10 minutes. Light candles. Pay attention. Make it a gift to your partner.
Next week, it can be your turn.
“It’s not about sex, but it might open the door to that longing to take it there some other night,” says Brinkmann.
In the movie, This Is 40, Debbie exasperatedly asks Pete: ‘Can we just keep this small shred of mystery in our relationship?’
In truth, our marriages may harbour more mystery than we realise.
Enhance your love maps. Be very familiar with your partner’s world – know the details about what’s important to them: from favourite books and earliest childhood memories to what’s stressing them out or making them feel proud right now.
Nourish fondness and admiration for each other – two of the most important ingredients in a long-term relationship, according to Gottman.
If you have mutual respect and a positive perspective on your partner, the signs are good for your relationship.
Turn towards each other instead of away. Romance flourishes in everyday gestures of affection.
Let your partner know she/he is valued in the effort of daily life – e.g. leave an encouraging voicemail when you know they’re facing a tough day at work.
Let your partner influence you. Consider their view-point and feelings. Make decisions together – seek the ground you have in common.
Solve your solvable problems.
Gottman distinguishes between marital conflicts that can be resolved and perpetual problems that can’t. He says you’ll know the solvable problems because they’re less painful and gut-wrenching.
It’s important to start the conversation without criticism; to be receptive to any statement that lowers tension; to soothe yourself and your partner (take a break,breathe calmly), to compromise and to be tolerant of each other’s faults.
Overcome gridlock – this arises when your life dreams aren’t being addressed or respected by your spouse. The aim is to move from a roadblock to dialogue.
Gottman says happy couples know it’s important to help each other realise dreams.
Create shared meaning. Marriage isn’t just about rearing children, dividing the chores and having sex.
“It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together – a culture rich with rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you,” says Gottman.
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