A Fresh Look at Relationships
If this whole book was a travel guide, this chapter would be the Alps. The landscape of relationships can be beautiful, and deadly: you keep switching rapidly from heights to depths, one false step can take you off a cliff, paths are hard to follow, and the weather can change from sunshine to freezing fog in a moment. You don’t venture up here without good guides and equipment.
If you don’t fancy the mountains on your holiday, you can skip them. Whereas relationships are central to a happy life: especially for men, who may both wish it’s not so, and even pretend it doesn’t matter. This chapter is a guide to basic skills for this terrain, with pointers to the more intensive training and support you may need. As with the Alps, the feeling when you reach the top of the relationship mountain is wonderful. And in the maturing years, when kids and work are less big in your life, and health worries may grow, a good partnership matters even more.
I feel well able to guide you in these mountains, having explored them intensely for years. This includes lots of peak experiences, and most of the mistakes available. I’ve been lost, frostbitten, wiped out by avalanches, I’ve walked off precipices and slipped halfway down a cliff on small pebbles. I’ve had ecstasy and despair, sometimes on the same day, often with the same parter.
The major sections in this chapter are:
- Intimacy 101: basic skills and values to make any relationship work, new or old.
- Renewing the long-term partnership.
- The Danger Zone – Affairs.
- Handling a big breakup.
- Dating Skills for Maturing Men.
- Relationship pitfalls: codependency, flying boys and more.
Relationships can be tough at any age, but there are good reasons why they get harder beyond fifty. Here’s a few of them:
Divergence:: If a couple have been together for some time, this life stage may bring you to divergent needs or values. When one partner gets keen on meditation and health food, while the other (male or female!) prefers boozing with the boys, something will have to give. At minimum, divergence means you both need to give each other more space and tolerance.
Gail Sheehy’s book (see Resources Chapter 1) describes typical divergences in the fifties between many men and women. Males may be wanting to slow down, receive and give more nurturing. Women may want to become more expansive, assertive, and get deeper into the world of work.
Affairs: the fifties and now sixties are a classic time for affairs, which can arise for a range of reasons for men: such as avoiding deeper intimacy with a long-term partner, or an ego boost to offset a sense of failing potency in work or elsewhere. Affairs can be destructive, transforming, illuminating, fun or all of these together. They may arise from other pressures listed here, like the next two.
Younger girl: There is an archetype of older men falling for younger women – sometimes leaving their same-age partner for good, sometimes having affairs. At an age when men’s self-worth is getting hammered, it’s very juicy to find a younger woman attracted to you. And it can offer escape from tough questions like how to renew an old, tired partnership.
Second adolescence: A lot of men had dull frustrating teenage years, so the chance to make up for this much later is really seductive. There can be something quite healing about finally doing things you merely fantasised about before, or saw in the movies, but it doesn’t fit easily with a longterm relationship.
Health: A health crisis for either partner can transform a relationship, or kill it. A man may find great sweetness in caring for his partner. A woman may walk away because the alternative feels like sacrificing herself. Health issues often force a couple to question habits, and face questions they have ignored for years.
Existential angst: Somewhere beyond fifty, it’s very fitting for a man to question the purpose of his life, the universe, and – everything. But if your partner is not in questioning mode, and wants you the way you’ve always been, you may need to be out of relationship to find the space to ponder.
Dying parents: The way men react to a parent dying varies hugely. It can be a catalyst for fierce questioning of everything about your current way of life – including your relationship. It can lead to depression, or a wild sense of freedom. This kind of challenge can break over you both like a tsunami, even If your partner has supported you through the bereavement.
Kids growing up: In your thirties and forties, it’s easy to lose the sparkle of your relationship in a focus on the family, and what the kids need. As the kids finish school, need you less, leave home, you either need to re-invent the relationship or go your separate ways. My wife and I saw this need when our daughters were 13 and 15, we spent several years trying to rebuild the marriage, but ultimately failed.
Reviving a long-term relationship
My marriage lasted 27 years, but I still feel some envy at couples who are together after 30- or even 40- plus years. The joys of all that shared time together, the richness of the family network, the many corners you knocked off each other: there’s a lot to value in a really long-term relationship. I know several couples in their 60s, 70s and 80s with the sweetness of fully matured wine. And I also see couples who seem dead, bitter and grumpy. There’s no one right answer: what is pretty certain is that your relationship will have to face the same process of shipwreck and reinvention as you do.
If things are sticky, you could use a method called benchmarking in the business world. This means finding and understanding examples of the good qualities you want. Through the long happy times of my marriage, we were friends with two couples who were about ten years older than us, and we learned a lot from their successes and problems. Doing relationship workshops with other couples is another great way to gather more knowhow. Having a deep enough friendship with another couple to enable the four of you to share about your relationship journey can be hugely helpful.
Don’t jump the red light
Basic advice, if you realise your relationship is in trouble, is slow down, face it, explore the issues together. This is often hard to do. Maybe your problems on other fronts feel overwhelming, maybe you doubt your skills to handle this, maybe you’re high with love and adrenaline from a new amour, maybe you and your partner are already sulking in silence at opposite ends of the house. Whether you eventually continue or split, your current partner deserves care and respect. Even if she is behaving outrageously, in hindsight you’ll feel better if you do the right thing. Which typically means a cease-fire, a period when both of you stop behaviour which could kill the relationship, like an affair, and when you seek some outside help.
Whilst it may be hard amid such intensity, a relationship crisis is a great time to deepen your self-understanding. You will certainly have masses of data, and scope for major choices, so try to take some time out for reflection. Use the Inner Voices method from Chapter Two to clarify what’s really going on for you, which parts of you are driving your car. Even if your relationship is not in crisis, it’s likely that after all these years, any long-term relationship needs some maintenance and overhaul. Look at the section below on pitfalls such as codependency to understand the habits and patterns you may need to change. Deeper intimacy skills will almost certainly be crucial to achieve this: use the section above, and Resources at the end of the chapter.
One of the commonest problems in renewing a long-term relationship is where one partner is ready for change, and the other is resisting strenuously. Start with patience and gentle persuasion, but you may have to give an ultimatum. Ask for the changes you want, constructively and without blame, and set a deadline. Be patient if she starts to change but not as you expected. Suggest processes that could help you both, such as couples counselling, but be clear about your bottom line. It’s actually fair to you and your partner to say, for example, that if she is unwilling to explore change over the next six months, you would consider separation and divorce.
Space in your togetherness
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness”
Kahlil Gibran, the Prophet
Renewing a long-term partnership will pretty surely mean both partners having more space, more time and freedom as individuals, and the scope to develop new interests and friendships separately from their partner. This is especially vital for men in the maturing years, who have often felt confined by obligations of work, family, and breadwinning. You may need time alone, and a chance for adventures. The partner needs to gather enough self-confidence and trust to support this spaciousness, and the man needs to honour the groundrules as he explores his freedom. Both are going to need intimacy skills to adjust to the other one changing.
Alongside more separation and freedom, renewing couples need to find a fresh togetherness: new activities which they both really enjoy, and which can deepen the relationship. This could be a new sport, a creative hobby, or volunteering together: giving something back to people who need it. The Harville Hendrix book listed in Resources includes an excellent 10-step process which is the best I know for helping couples to recover and deepen intimacy, and strengthen the love and understanding between them. This process would typically take ten weeks: some of the exercises are quite difficult, and it may be worth having professional support while you do it.
Mike and Lou are now in their mid-sixties, and have been married for over forty years. I’ve known them for nearly twenty years, and have admired their togetherness as a couple. I’ve also noticed that in recent years, they seem less together, but still very happy. I asked Mike how it has worked for them.
Mike: I got quite depressed several years ago when I was made redundant, and it did stress the relationship. I felt Lou was bossing me about, and we started arguing : we saw we’d got too close, our lives were too shared. Lou had to stop depending on me so much, and find her own strength. I had to stop worrying about her approval.
I started doing things on my own and with men friends, and Lou amazed me by starting a small business. If we have a secret to success, it’s tolerating each other, and being civil, and being friends.