Marriage: Midlife Crisis or Opportunity?

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.

Your book begins by exploring marriage in the middle as a kind of mid-life crisis. Are there things we can do to avoid that, or does every marriage go through mid-life crisis?

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.

Married life sounds hard! But beyond simply surviving crisis, you also explore the opportunities of marriage in the middle years of life. What are some of the unique opportunities?

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?

When I write about telos, what I mean is a guiding purpose. A goal, but also how we move toward that goal. By paying attention to our abilities and passions as a couple, we can create a telos where our strengths will overlap with the world’s needs.

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.

Discerning a unique call as a couple is a beautiful vision for marriage, Dorothy. One last question, what do you hope for your readers?

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.

This is the final paragraph from the intro to Marriage in the Middle:

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.

Marriage in the Middle is available from InterVarsity, Amazon, and your favourite online or local bookstore.

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13 thoughts on “Marriage: Midlife Crisis or Opportunity?

  1. Thanks for making me aware of this book, April. I will forward your post to our daughters, two of whom have just reached that mid-life mark. I remember discovering our pillowcases which we received as wedding gifts getting threadbare at about 7 years after we were married, and thinking that our marriage was getting that way too. We survived, mostly I think by being honest and open about our feelings, and then dealing with them. Thanks be to God!

    1. Thanks be to God, Elfrieda! And thank you for forwarding this post to your daughters. I hope they’ll be encouraged by it, and yes, Dorothy, here’s to moms continuing to be wonderful examples and encouragers to their adult children!

  2. I skimmed though your overview of Greco’s book on marriage in the Middle Years and found it very inspiring even though our marriage is long past; but I learned from it and hopefully can be helpful to various of my friends.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment, Sue. I appreciate the way Marriage in the Middle addresses the 40-65 age frame, but it is also broader than that. Dealing with disappointment, trauma, and other crises can happen at any stage of married life, and what the book says about couples finding their unique call applies to married couples of any age too. I pray Marriage in the Middle will be an inspiration and encouragement to many! Thanks for writing and for being a guest on my blog, Dorothy. Hosting you is my privilege and pleasure!

  3. Received from a reader via email:
    Thank you for the great interview! I was able to send it via messenger (along with a short paragraph from me) to several people. It was an easy way to let some others know about Dorothy’s book, and I was encouraged that some people shared back right away that they plan to purchase a copy to read.

  4. April, you have hosted someone I have just recently discovered in the world of blog posts. However, I didn’t know about either of Dorothy’s books, but I do now and will track them down. My husband and I are past the 40s, 50, and 60s as well as his being past 70s and me in the middle of the 70s. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that one or both books will help us through the next stage–downsizing and leaving our home we love so much. Not an easy decision to make and carry out. Thanks to both of you for sharing your gifts and talents.

    1. You’re welcome, Sherrey. Both of Dorothy’s books are so encouraging and helpful, really at any stage of married life. I wish you well in downsizing and leaving one home to make a new one–those are major challenges, and I pray you’ll have the support and grace you need to navigate them well.

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