I was three months shy of my 19th birthday when I met the boy who 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 lunchtime 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 A life of parties, classes, and romantic visits has been replaced by school functions, college visits, and the jobs we need to pay all of that college tuition.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 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 whom I would spend all night on the phone talking to from my dorm hallway. Some days, each day is the same as the last, and I want him to make something different. Then I saw myself in a store window and reminded myself that I was far from that 19-year-old he fell in love with.

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 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 not you married. Or 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 likely 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. Falling in love that is filled with anticipation and butterflies always requires fun.

There is no checklist to follow for bringing back a spark of fun to your relationship because everyone’s definition of what they enjoy differs. And maybe the person you used to be wouldn’t want the same things as 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 needed. Don’t discuss the best time to seal coat the driveway. Pick something you used to love to do or 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 counterintuitive to spend time apart when trying to come back together, this is a non-negotiable item for rekindling your love affair in midlife. Oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that makes us feel warm, snuggly, and safe when close to our partner, is also the world’s biggest passion killer. Excitement, infatuation, and lust are not born from predictability and safety. They are born out of mystery and the unknown. 

Find something that interests you, whether it’s a new hobby, business venture, or 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, but so you can get your new life to your partner. And he will do the same for you. The separate lives you build will be the stories you share. How 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 they are in marital counseling for fear of the knowing glances. But anybody who is over 50 and has been with the same person for a while knows that every relationship needs help from time to time. A neutral party may be the only thing between you and a divorce lawyer when you’re in a rough patch.

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 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 probably do not sound 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.