I was three months shy of my 19th birthday when I met the boy that would one day become my husband. I was a college sophomore, living in a dorm, pledging a sorority, and wearing my permed hair up with a scrunchie when I had to be awake before the unspeakable hour of 10 AM. My life revolved around parties, classes and when I would see that boy next. I mean literally – that’s what my life revolved around.
Today I am three months shy of my 50th birthday, married to that boy-who-became-a-man for 23 years.
My life looks very different than it did 30 years ago. We own a little house in a cute little town and have our very own college sophomore and senior in high school. 10 AM is practically lunch time for me now. A life of parties, classes and romantic visits has been replaced by school functions, college visits and the jobs we need to pay all of that college tuition.
It really is a beautiful life that I am grateful for every day. But some days, I look at my husband and wonder what happened to that young kid who I would spend all night on the phone talking to from the hallway of my dorm. Some days I feel like each day is the same as the last and I want him to make something different. And then I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window and remind myself that I am far from that 19 year old he fell in love with either.
The truth is that between my 19th birthday and today there has been the birth of kids and the loss of parents, the start of careers and the loss of jobs, a cancer diagnosis, a sick child, a trip cross country and countless tears and laughter.
The truth is that none of us could possibly be the same person we were when we met our spouse. Each experience changes us in big and small ways until one day we wake up staring at a completely different version of the person we once were. The question is how to stay in love with someone who is not who you married. Or maybe the question is, how do you fall in love with the person you are married to today?
Have Fun Together
Whether you met your long term partner when you were 19 or 39, it’s probably a safe bet that your memories of those early days did not involve mortgage payments and laundry. Was anybody even doing laundry? And groceries? Take-out probably sustained you for months. The point is that even though everyone’s memories of falling in love might look a little different, none of it involved chores. The kind of falling in love that is filled with anticipation and butterflies always involves fun.
There is no checklist to follow on how to bring back a spark of fun to your relationship because everyone’s definition of what they enjoy is different. And maybe the person you used to be wouldn’t enjoy the same things as the person you are now. Just remember that passion and worry cannot exist in the same room. So put away your to-do lists. Do not bring up the conversation about your son you’ve been needing to have. Don’t discuss the best time to sealcoat the driveway. Pick something you used to love to do or pick something brand new that you’ve never done. Just spend time together away from the mundane worries that clog both of your minds.
Have Fun WIthout Each Other
Although it may sound counter intuitive to spend time apart when you are trying to come back together, this is a non-negotiable item on the path to rekindling your love affair in midlife. Oxytocin, that feel good hormone that makes us feel all warm and snuggly and safe when we are close to our partner, is also the world’s biggest passion killer. Excitement, infatuation and lust are not born out of predictability and safety. They are born out of mystery and the unknown.
Find something that interests you, whether it’s a new hobby, a new business venture, making new friends. Whatever you choose, the operative word is “new.” And don’t bring your spouse along. This is not so that you can build a secret life without your partner, it is so you can bring your new life to your partner. And he will do the same for you. The separate life you build will be the stories you share with each other. The way your new experiences change you will be the mystery you bring to each other. Separate is not the death of a midlife marriage, it is the glue.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help
Marital counseling gets a bad wrap at the office water cooler. Too often it’s mistaken for the death knell of a marriage. Nobody announces that they are in marital counseling for fear of the knowing glances. But anybody that is over 50 and has been with the same person for a while knows that every relationship needs help from time to time and when you’re in the trenches of a rough patch, a neutral party may be the only thing standing between you and a divorce lawyer.
One of the hardest things about marital counseling is discovering that the therapist isn’t there to tell you that you’re right. He is actually there to help you and your partner communicate. Remember, if you and your partner are no longer the same people who got married decades ago, you are probably not communicating like you did back then either. A therapist can help you learn how to communicate as the people you are now.
Don’t Give Up
Esther Perel, author and world-renowned expert on the impact of monogamy on marriage, once said “Most people are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in their adult life. Some of us will have them with the same person.” The reality is that there will be multiple times in your life when you will wake up next to a completely different person than the one you married. And there will be days when they look in your eyes and wonder where you have gone. The big story here is not that couples change. The big story is how exciting (and exhausting and draining and terrifying) it can be to watch them fall in love with the new people they’ve become.