Three years ago I read and reviewed Dorothy Littell Greco’s Making Marriage Beautiful: Lifelong Love, Joy, and Intimacy Start With You, so I was curious to read her follow-up book, Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys (InterVarsity Press, 2020).
How would she address the unique challenges and opportunities of marriage in the middle years of life? What new insights would she have to share?
As in her first book, Greco shares frankly about her marriage with Christopher, and includes interviews with a diverse group of couples. Topics include dealing with disappointment, the challenge of caregiving and aging, sexual intimacy, maintaining healthy friendships, meeting trauma and loss, and much more.
I really appreciate the way Marriage in the Middle resists formulas and instead recognizes and supports the uniqueness of each couple. It’s visionary in the way it encourages couples to dream about their future together, yet practically grounded in the real world of life together.
Thank you, Dorothy, for writing another beautiful book on marriage, and for being my guest today.
My goal was to help readers understand that midlife is a time of crisis and opportunity. When we hit our 40s and 50s, we begin to realize that there are more years behind us than ahead of us. That’s sobering, and it naturally compels us to reckon with our past (what do we regret?) and ponder the future (what kind of legacy will we leave?).
These are big questions, and if we haven’t done our spiritual work, we might feel crushed by our failures or ashamed because we haven’t measured up to our ideals.
Some crises may be directly connected to our choices and actions. For example, if we have addictions that we’ve not dealt with or if we haven’t forgiven our spouse for the everyday hurts. Any stubbornness or pride will prevent us from being resilient and malleable—qualities that we need to face the challenges and surprises of midlife.
However, other crises are totally beyond our control. We don’t know if our parents will pass away in their sleep or need long-term care. We don’t know if the stock market will crash causing 20 years worth of savings to disappear. The global pandemic has shown all of us that life is far more fragile than we ever imagined. We really can’t avoid crises connected to these circumstances, but we can face them with faith and grace.
Crises provide us with numerous opportunities to grow and become better versions of ourselves. They reveal our weak spots. When we have enough humility and self-awareness to acknowledge our limitations and failures, we can then dig in and do the work that midlife requires of us.
The ways we might endeavor to change could be relational. For example, seeing where we’re impatient or selfish and then choosing to work on addressing these habits. Change could also be connected to how we spend our days.
In the book, I talked a bit about the season when my husband and I decided we needed to leave the church that we loved and had been part of for 15 years. This was a crisis. We lost our community, my husband lost his job, and I lost my context to minister alongside of him. But it was during that time that I decided to start writing. I doubt either of my books would exist if we had stayed at that church.
I’ve read quite a few stories recounting how people have gotten fired from jobs that they may not have loved who then pivot and decide they are willing to earn less so that they can experience more meaning or joy. While I don’t necessarily believe the cliché “every cloud has a silver lining,” I do think that all pain and loss can lead to growth.
I was struck by this part of your book:
If someone I barely know asks me how I’m doing, it’s not wise for me to divulge the blowup that Christopher and I had the night before. However, if we’re having dinner with long-time friends and I respond to that question with “We’re good!” that’s a problem.
Is that really a problem for every married couple?
There are two components here. One is personal and the other is universal to all believers.
Christopher and I feel that the Lord has invited us to vulnerably share our lives with others. Not everyone has this call. We don’t always enjoy it, and it’s not always easy to be trail blazers, especially in a new community. But after more than 25 years of leading groups and doing pastoral care, we know that when we choose to be vulnerable and honest, it makes a way for others to go there too.
If we want to grow and find healing for our wounds and addictions, we have to be honest with ourselves and others. That includes making proactive confession a regular part of our lives. I don’t think anyone gets a bye on that. Too often, we can present one curated version of ourselves online or in church on Sunday mornings, but live a very different reality. Confession helps us to be integrated and known by others. It’s very powerful when others know our sins and limitations and still love us.
I love the way the last chapter of your book comes full circle back to the idea of crisis or opportunity, and the way you encourage married couples to “dream big” about their life together. What does it mean for each couple to have “a unique marriage telos,” and how do we find it?
My sense is that every individual and every couple has both a common and unique call. The former includes the first and last commandments. The late theologian Eugene Peterson wrote that if we take care of the first and last commandments, all of the others will fall into place. So we’re all supposed to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as ourselves. No exceptions. This is the common call for all believers.
It takes a bit more work and intentionality to discern our unique call as a couple. To find or create this, it’s helpful to think about how God has used you in the past and where the two of you feel most enlivened today. That could be serving in the local food pantry, leading a couples’ group, or having dinner parties where you serve and love on friends. The options are endless, and we shouldn’t feel pressure to fit into some preconceived religious mold. It’s just as godly to baby-sit for new parents as it is to lead a Bible study.
When we intentionally discern and then pursue our telos, it can bring deep satisfaction and joy. This becomes very meaningful as we age and are no longer so enamored with fame and fortune.
I want readers to know that they aren’t the only ones who might be struggling. I want them to finish reading the final page and think, “Wow! There are so many possibilities for us as a couple!” and to feel both hope and encouragement because of God’s nearness and provision. I truly believe that Christian couples should have some of the best marriages on the planet, and I want to help my readers get there.
Midlife can leave us feeling like we’re out in the middle of the sea in a tiny boat with a single sail. Though we have little power over the frequency or intensity of the storms that rage around us, we do have tremendous agency in how we respond. My prayer is that Marriage in the Middle will inspire and motivate you do to whatever it takes so that you will be able to sail resolutely and joyfully into the final chapter of life.
Thank you, Dorothy! Peace and blessings to you and Christopher in your own relationship and unique marriage telos. May your book speak powerfully to married couples in the middle years of life.
Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful (David C Cook, 2017) and Marriage in the Middle (InterVarsity Press, 2020). She and her husband, Christopher have been married for 29 years, and together they have been leading pre-marital, marriage, and long-term healing programs for more than two decades. They have three sons and two amazing daughters-in-law.
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