A 50-something couple sits at a table for two in a nice restaurant. Even the most casual observer can tell they aren't communicating with one another. Oh, she may ask him to pass the salt. Or, without looking up, he'll inquire, "How's your steak?" But there's no real conversation going on, no eye contact and no sign of the spark that once animated their marriage.
Watching this couple is sad. Becoming this couple is tragic. How did their relationship devolve to a point of coexistence rather than co-partnering? Is their monosyllabic interaction a sign they no longer love each other?
More likely, they've simply neglected the regular "checkups" necessary to keep their marriage running optimally in "all weather" conditions.
Marriage experts identify certain transition points in the life of even the healthiest marriage — transitions that, if ignored, can leave couples out-of-sync and emotionally disconnected from one another.
Typical transition points are the birth of a child, when children leave home and the retirement of one or both partners. If those life transitions aren't consciously noted and addressed (Who are we now that we're no longer devoted to parenting and our careers?), it can result in couples who gradually drift apart and take up separate lives, barely noticing that they've become total strangers.
"We have concluded that first-half strategies practiced in the second half of life are a sure formula for failure," says Terry Taylor, who, with his wife Carol, founded Second Half Ministries in 1998. The Taylors encourage couples to take a deliberate approach to finishing well in all aspects of life, but especially in their marriages.
So, where do you begin? A review of expert advice and conversations with some who have been happily, productively married for 30 years or more reveals practical steps you can take to make sure you and your spouse don't wind up silently idling your engines. So check under the hood — it may be time to:
- Review your past objectively. Forgive yourself and your spouse for past mistakes — then resolve to learn from them. One couple said an ancient disagreement they'd had years before over how to raise their son reared its ugly head again when the wife observed her husband repeating the same behavior with their grandson. "It was a negative sort of déjà vu," said the wife. By talking things out, these grandparents freed themselves, and their marriage, from the invisible wedge of unresolved conflicts.
- Take a personal inventory. Midlife couples should take the time to assess each others' evolving interests, strengths and differences. What are your personal values, skills and spiritual gifts, and how do they complement your spouse's? How can you support your spouse in his or her personal development?
- Find new activities you both enjoy. For instance, those who never enjoyed camping before may find it's a great way to get away for some quality time together. "Never say never," said a couple married for 34 years who acquired a canoe, an RV and a shiatsu massager after the last of their kids moved out. Take language courses or volunteer at a museum — just do it together.
- Look outward. Pray about what calling God may have for you, both individually and as a couple. Ask how you can support each other in your callings. Are there causes you both passionately support? Explore ways to get more involved in a hands-on way, and "work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for man" (Colossians 3:23).
- Fight fair. It's too idealistic to believe that even the most well-planned, intentional, purposefully lived midlife marriage can proceed without conflict. Be prompt, open and direct in communicating your feelings. Make it your goal to heal the differences that come between you, not punish the other person or inflict guilt trips. Get to the root of the issue! "I let my newly retired husband micromanage the kitchen for awhile until I couldn't take it anymore," said one frustrated wife. "He was an engineer and actually put everything in the pantry in alphabetical order. Finally I just asked him to stop — and he did!"
- Have fun. As the experts and other happily married "second-halfers" will tell you — lighten up! Life is difficult and full of times when you have to be serious and somber. Enjoy leisure activities together. Go to funny movies, save up jokes to tell one another, get silly with the grandkids — whatever it takes to put smiles on your faces!
- Dare to dream. If you've been blessed with good health, a reasonable amount of financial stability and a sense of adventure, maybe this is the time of life to travel to places you never thought you'd see — or to start the ministry you've both always dreamed of launching. Discover your passions and follow them. For all you know, your whole life could have been lived "for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14).
All in all, the key to not winding up like the mechanical couple in the restaurant is to realize that your life together is God's gift to you. Like all His gifts, it's meant to be nurtured and cherished each and every day.
Remember when you were dating and you could be together all evening, then talk on the phone until the wee hours of the morning because there was so much more to say? With a little effort, a similar sort of excitement can be a part of your revitalized marriage. May you close down every restaurant you visit.
Thank you to all of the donors who make the work of Focus on the Family possible.