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    Midlife Challenges and Relationships

    Excerpted from
    The Marriage Benefit: The Surprising Rewards of Staying Together
    By Mark O'Connell, Ph.D.

    This is a book about marriage, but it's not the kind of "how to make your marriage better" book that we have come to expect. This is a book about how stretching the boundaries of what we imagine to be possible can turn our intimate relationships into remarkable opportunities for growth and change. This is a book about how our relationships can me us better.

    And this is also a book that offers a radical and contemporary answer to an ago-old question. Why stay married? Because our long-term relationships can, at their best, help us to navigate the maddeningly relentless passage of time. They can teach us how to find purpose and meaning even in the face of life's most immovable limits, making growing older an expanding, rather than a diminishing, experience.

    We Are Growing older. But Are We Growing Up?

    A generation of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) has reached midlife. Most of us have made the life-defining choices-jobs, spouses, and even, on a deeper level, outlooks and philosophies-that have become the stuff of our lives. If We have worked hard, been wise in our decisions, and, perhaps more than we would like to admit, been blessed with a bit of plain old good luck, our lives hold many rewards and satisfactions.

    We have also, however, become acutely aware of the paths we have not taken, of the costs that accompany even our most rewarding choices. What once felt like life-expanding opportunities now feel, more often that we would like, like life-narrowing obligations. Where previously we thought in terms of what could be, now we are faced with daily reminders of what will probably not be. And where before we imagined un unlimited future, now we ask the questions that come with the awareness that time is finite: What must we concede as being unattainable? What will we look back on as having really mattered? And what will be the most rewarding and meaningful way to spend the precious, and hopefully not insignificant, time that remains?

    Over the next twenty to thirty years, we baby boomers will need to answer those questions. They are, however, questions that our generation is uniquely ill-equipped to address. Products of a "we can have it all and if we don't somebody is to blame" culture, we hold tight to our already overextended adolescences. We imagine that all gratifications are possible, that all loses are avoidable, and that all constraints are negotiable. As a result, we experience life's hardships and complexities as unnecessary inconveniences rather than defining, meaning-making aspects of being human.

    The result? Perhaps more than any previous generation, we struggle with the inevitable reckoning with reality that comes with middle and older age. Bluntly speaking, we risk becoming the first generation to die before it actually grows up.

    Fortunately, there is help. Powerful help. In the pages that follow, I will argue that our long-term intimate relationships can help us to grow up, or, to put in another way, they can help us to live fully and creatively even as our private hopes and expectations meet the immutable realities that come with our advancing years. Even better, they can help us with core midlife challenges while brining us joy, allowing us moments of unexpected laughter and lightness and helping us to become our best selves.

    Of course, things that are this good are rarely easy or free. There is also a hard truth lurking in all this good news. For starters, our mutual relationships, like our individual selves, face a litany of midlife problems:

    • We are dealing with the loss and disruption of our kids leaving home.

    • We are embarking on the sometimes oppressive task of tallying our losses and disappointments; in life, in work, and, of course, in marriage.

    • We are trying, often unsuccessfully, to avoid the seduction of infidelity, a seduction that beckons us not only as an alternative to boredom and disappointment, but also as a balm for our growing sense of diminishment.

    • We are struggling to reengage with each other after years of focusing on work and children.

    • We are negotiating the often excruciating hardships of increasing medical and health problems.

    • We are combating the legion of habits and addictions that we have used to mitigate our anxiety, depression, and boredom.

    • And we are looking to find each other sexually even as our libido is lowered for both biological and psychological reasons.

    And if all this weren't daunting enough, we have to meet these challenges within a society that encourages us to think that our wildest wishes and expectations should be seamlessly transformed into our daily realities. A society that tells us that someone or something is to blame when life delivers us anything short of lasting romance, a stunningly attractive partner, exceptional kids, impeccable health, and easily resolvable disagreements, We have to come to terms with things as they really are, even as we are increasingly inclined to believe that we should be given a "cheat code" whenever the game of life doesn't go our way.

    If we baby boomers are poorly equipped to age well, we are even more poorly equipped to age well together.

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