The best way to Save Your Midlife Marriage: Disillusionment is Not the Downside, However the Doorway to Actual Lasting Love

“I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore.” I hear this over and over from couples who come to me for help because their relationship is about to go under. It is rare that they are both equally concerned. Usually, one person is desperately trying to hold on, while the other person has one foot out the door. Does this sound like you? It was me, with two marriages and divorces causing me deep shame, until I learned about the 5 Stages of Love. 

I have been a marriage and family counselor for more than fifty years, and part of my shame over the two divorces was because I thought I should know better. I mean, if you’re a trained counselor helping others and writing books about men and their relationships, you should be able to be a good role model and have your own relationship life in order, right?

Well, the truth is when it comes to love and marriage, counselors can be as blind as the average person. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re the counselor who became disillusioned and had two marriages end badly.

I decided I needed some serious help, which I reached out for and received. Even therapists, maybe especially therapists, can benefit from swallowing their pride, admitting they are lost and need help finding their way home. I can tell you that I have now been married to my wife, Carlin, for 41 wonderful years. 

Marriages can fall apart at any age, but they are particularly prone to fail at midlife, just when the couple could be enjoying their relationship the most. Here are the things we have learned that I think would be most helpful to you.

Midlife is a Real Downer

When I say midlife is a real downer, I mean that worldwide people are happier at a younger age and at an older age, but hit bottom at midlife. Dr. David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, conducted a monumental research study with data from 500,000 individuals in 132 countries. In each case, he found that “people’s happiness rose and fell in a U-shaped curve, and that it hit a low around the ages of 47 and 49.”

Earning a living and supporting a family can be stressful at any time of life, but it is most stressful at midlife. It’s not surprising that so many marriages fall apart at midlife, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step is understanding that the problem may not be our partner, but how we see ourselves and the world.

Men Are the Key to Having a Great Marriage

Like most men I know, I grew up feeling that my job was to go out and make a living to support my family; being the breadwinner was the male role. Taking care of the family was my wife’s job. Even though my wife worked full-time, I still felt that women have special skills for keeping relationships alive and well. I mistakenly thought if I were a good provider, that would be good enough to keep love alive and well. I was wrong.

The truth is that, on average, women initiate divorce more often than men. Numerous studies have shown this. In fact, nearly 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women. This is according to a 2015 research study conducted by the American Sociological Association, which suggests two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. Among college-educated women, this number jumps up to 90%.

Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University and author of the ASA study, stated,

“I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality. Husbands still expect their wives to do the bulk of the housework and the bulk of the childcare.”

Just as men are learning that they can become competent at-home care and childcare, they can learn to become good at caring for their relationships. When they do so, everyone wins.

Falling in Love is Nature’s Way of Getting Men and Women to Come Together Not to Live Happily Ever After

Many men and women long for the time when they first fell in love and feel a great loss when love seems to recede after the initial honeymoon phase. As Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt describe it in their book, Making Marriage Simple: 10 Relationship-Saving Truths,

“One minute you’re involved in your life as you know it when suddenly you meet the one. Your eyes meet, your heart palpitations start. And the fairy tale of romance begins.”

We forget we are living a fairy tale version of love and imagine that we will now live happily ever after. But most of us have experienced what comes next. “Love sticks around long enough to bind two people together,” say Hendrix and Hunt, “then it rides off into the sunset. And seemingly overnight, your dream marriage can turn into your biggest nightmare.”

They go on to describe what so many couples I work with experience. “When rudely awakened from the dazzling dram of compatibility, people can get very grumpy,” say Hendrix and Hunt. “Desperate to end the pain and disappointment Romantic Love leaves behind, many couples get divorced.” Men often become irritable and angry, as I discuss in my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome. 

It can be even worse for those who never felt the excitement of “falling in love” in the first place, but slid into a marriage because they seemed to have met the right partner at the right time. 

Welcome to stage 3, disillusionment. 

Disillusionment is Not the Beginning of the End,
But the Entrée to Real Lasting Love

To understand how we can heal our relationships and prevent needless divorces, we have to understand the 5 stages of love and why too many marriages go off the rails at Stage 3:  

  • Stage 1: Falling In Love
  • Stage 2: Becoming a Couple and Building a Life Together
  • Stage 3: Disillusionment
  • Stage 4: Creating Real Lasting Love
  • Stage 5: Using the Power of Two to Change the World.

Disillusionment is not a signal that we’ve chosen the wrong partner and need to leave and find someone else to fall in love with. The purpose is to invite us to deal with the illusions we brought to the relationship. We all project our hopes and dreams on to our partner. We imagine they will love in ways our parents never did or could. Now we’re forced to get real with ourselves and our partner.

We have to recognize that they are wonderful, but flawed human beings, just like we are. We long to be loved for who we really are, not the person we pretend to be. Stage 3 is the testing ground to separate those who want to get real, from those who want to live superficially and remain in the illusion of love.

Getting Real Means Accepting the Reality That 90%
of Our Problems Come From the Past

The good news and the bad news about Stage 3 is that 90% of the problems you are having with your partner and they are having with you are not the result of anything you or your partner is doing wrong. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in order to get to Stage 4 and have real lasting love in your life, you have to heal the wounds from your childhood.

I had to confront the fact that I had a mother who was smart, sexy, but emotionally cold and distant. I found I was drawn to smart, sexy, women who turned out to be emotionally cold and distant. My two previous wives came from families where they had lost their fathers. My first wife’s father died when she was nine years old. My second wife lost her father when she became sexually mature and he completely withdrew from her. 

We never recognized our constant fights and subsequent disillusionment we had in our marriage had roots that went back to our unhealed childhoods. With Carlin, we were able to recognize our past wounding, learn to heal it, and to move into Stage 4, Real Lasting Love. 

Real Lasting Love is What We All Want and is
Even Better Than We Imagine

Most couples never experience Stage 4. They bale out too soon or they give up on finding real lasting love and settle for a relationship that is good, but not great. Even worse, they remain in a marriage of convenience and never take the risk to go deeper. I tell my clients, that going for a marriage that takes you through all five stages is not for the faint of heart. It takes great courage to deal with the pain and hard healing work that is required in Stage 3. I call it the graduate program of life, and like all graduate programs, not everything has the stamina, the guts, and grit to see it through to the end. 

One of the reasons people drop out too soon is they long for the passion, pleasure, and crazy magic we experience when we are in love. But here’s some unexpected, good news. Those who get through to Stage 4 not only find they fall in love again with their partner, but the love is even better than before because it’s real. 

If you’d like more information about the 5 Stages of Love, drop me an email and put “Tell me more about the 5 Stages” in the subject line. If you’d like to read more articles like these, come visit me at https://menalive.com/the-blog/. 

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