Chapter 1. The Expanding Horizons of the Mid-Years

Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Couples
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 1. The Expanding Horizons of the Mid-Years

Men and women now in middle age can choose to make the next years matter. For this generation, a new time of life is possible . . clearly compelling as it emerges sharp and crisp, from the mists of confusing change. No other generation has had the options it presents.... At this precise moment in time the pattern can be made . . the new time of life generates an explorer's excitement. (Simon, The New Years, pp. 282-83)

-- Anne Simon

From a perspective halfway through the years from forty to sixty-five, I can say that the mid-years to date have been the most fulfilling and productive period of my life. They also have been a time of painful problems and accelerating losses. In our marriage these mid-years have brought the most satisfying companionship and the most stormy changes. The deeper companionship has been possible, in large part, because of the changes.

For most of the mid-years people I know, this period has brought new pressures and problems but also exciting new possibilities. As you may have discovered, the best way to cope constructively with the problems posed by this (or any) new life stage is to concentrate on developing the fresh potentials the new stage brings.

For many people, the mid-years are truly the "prime of life."( Studies by Bernice Neugarten of the University of Chicago show that both middle-class men and women tend to see middle age as a time of rewards and prime activity, whereas working-class men and women tend to see these as years of decline. Science Digest, October 1958, p. 21.) People in the mid-years are savoring life and contributing in satisfying ways to their families, their communities, their churches, and their jobs. For many couples, these are years which bring the rich fulfillment of time-tested relationship, rejuvenated intimacy, and lusty, reawakened sex.

But for many others, the rich possibilities of the mid-years are undiscovered and undeveloped. The good news is that insights and methods are now available by which such persons can renew their inner lives and enliven their marriages.

The new mid-years are a gift to humankind. The dramatic increase in life expectancy in this century in the so-called developed countries has created a new life stage for the majority of people there. Never before have so many human beings lived long enough or been healthy enough to enjoy a rich, active life through the mid-years and beyond. Our times offer unprecedented resources and opportunities for using these new years well. The horizons of the mid-years are expanding. The pages that follow offer guidelines for responding to the challenge of these new years, suggestions for making your mid-years one of the most fulfilling periods of your life.

Understanding the Mid-Years

To enrich mid-years marriages it is important to understand the nature and dynamics of this life period. The years between forty and sixty-five actually include two distinct life stages. Mid-years I, roughly the first half of these years, is the time when adolescents are still in the home. Mid-years II, the pre-retirement, empty nest period, confronts a couple with different problems, needs, and possibilities. Families with more than one child have a transition stage between mid-years I and II, as young adults exit, one by one, from their parental home.

The changes and losses which accompany the movement from one life stage to another force us to learn new ways to satisfy our basic needs for self-esteem, meaning, identity, and nurturing relationships. The process of letting go of one stage and learning ways of satisfying basic heart hungers in a new stage normally brings feelings of grief, pressure, and anxiety.

For some persons the entrance into mid-years I and mid-years II produces obvious crises with acute anxiety and floundering behavior. For those at the other extreme, the transition is relatively smooth. They do not experience a "mid-years crisis." But for many between these extremes, the movement into mid-years I and mid-years II produces a quiet crisis which is painful though not devastating.

Let us look at one mid-years couple, the Morgans (not their real name), to get inside their experience:

Karen and Roger Morgan, forty-seven and forty-eight respectively, have been married for twenty-six years. Their daughter Judy, twenty-two, has been away at college for three years. Recently she informed her parents, to their great relief, of her plans to marry the young man with whom she has been living. Peter, nineteen, is attending the local community college and is the "achiever" among the children. Robert, seventeen, is a junior in high school. His poor marks, rejection of religion, and dabbling in drugs cause feelings of failure and anger in his parents.

Roger is preoccupied with the heavy pressures of his job in middle management in a large company. He feels he has "plateaued out." Often he works evenings and weekends to "catch up" and to try to stay ahead of several bright younger associates whom he fears will be promoted over him. The increasing financial stresses of inflation, college expenses, and nursing home care for his aging mother, put a chronic load on Roger's mind. He is drinking more, especially on weekends, to deaden the dull ache of feeling trapped on the job treadmill.

Karen, like many middle-class wives, is experiencing the mid-years in ways that are very different from her husband. Her life and satisfactions have been centered in children and home. The emptying nest confronts her with the threat, as she put it in a moment of self-awareness, of soon being "half unemployed." The beginning of her menopause brings mixed feelings of relief from the worry about unwanted pregnancy together with the grief of lost youth and vitality. She is still feeling the painful loss of her father who died two years ago. As she thinks about the future, her options seem limited and bleak. She has toyed with the possibility of looking for a part-time job outside the home. But she knows that her B.A. in liberal arts and her lack of job experience would limit severely her employment options, even if it were not for Roger's resistance to her working outside the home.

Roger and Karen have had a conventional "good marriage" through the years. But his preoccupation with his job and her preoccupation with the children have left little time for their relationship. Except for worried conversations about their children, there has been little communicating on the level of either person's real pain or hopes. Sex was good in the early years but of late it has become increasingly infrequent, hurried, and less satisfying, especially for Karen. Their marriage has become dull. It lacks the moments of playfulness and joy which it had during the first ten years. Karen and Roger feel caught in a four-way squeeze between the demands of their still-dependent children and of their aging parents, and the pressures of Roger's job and Karen's awareness of a future devoid of challenge.

Both Karen and Roger are aware of the gulf that's growing between them. Both sense that there is much more to life and to marriage than they are finding. Because she is more dependent on their relationship, and lacks the satisfactions Roger gets from his job, Karen feels the marital vacuum more acutely. As she put it during one of their frequent, futile arguments, "At times I feel like we're living alone in the same house -- like you care more about your damn job than about me or our marriage!"

Both Roger and Karen want to stay married to each other. Behind their loneliness, hurt, and anger, there is still a mutual caring. Yet they are feeling painfully unfulfilled in their relationship. Unless they can deepen their communication, their creeping alienation probably will worsen as their nest empties.

Karen and Roger are each experiencing a personal mid-years crisis. Both feel the grief of their losses and the pressure of a contracting future. Both are in a personal crisis of identity, self-esteem, and meaning. Each person's inner crisis is enhanced by the other's pain and by the crisis in their relationship. Thus they are caught in a negative cycle of mutual distress. For them to interrupt this cycle will require personal renewal for each and the revitalization of their marriage.

It was the pain of their mid-years crisis that brought the Morgans to a weekend marriage enrichment retreat sponsored by their church. Roger came reluctantly, pressured by Karen. Both came with uneasiness about what would happen, but also with a faint hope that it somehow might help lessen the pain and restore some of the sparkle in their marriage.

At the enrichment retreat, the Morgans were encouraged, during a communication session, to tell each other what things caused them grief and pain, and what caused feelings of joy and esteem. In this session they discovered, to their surprise, that they had many of the same feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt, and grief. They also became aware of positive feelings. In spite of their problems, both agreed that in some ways "we've never had it so good." They agreed that they have fewer money worries and more security than ever before. They realized that both are in generally good health. In spite of their problems and emotional distance, they realized that they still value their marriage. They have been through a lot of ups and downs together, and they have come to value much in their life together. They realize that they could now have more time together than they have had at any time since their courting days. The awareness of these assets -- both actual and potential -- awakened hope for further positive change.

At the retreat they decided to set aside time each day to communicate. During these times, they talk about their inner feelings and about the practical decisions they can make to help reduce the pressure of Roger's job and allow Karen to use her energies and abilities as the children leave. Discovering as the weeks passed that they still can communicate, and at a more satisfying level, about what really matters to them, is the greatest hope-awakener of all. After one such discussion Karen decided, with Roger's concurrence, to enroll in a nearby university for a master's degree in accounting. This is a field to which she had always been attracted. The degree will open the door to work outside the home if she chooses. Together, with the encouragement of their support group of four other couples (which grew out of the retreat), the Morgans are creating a new future for themselves and their marriage. They are discovering the exciting possibilities which the mid-years can hold for them.

Three Keys to Mid-Years Creativity

Personal and marital renewal in the mid-years depend on implementing three working principles in one's individual life and in one's relationships: growth, intentionality, and generativity. As the Morgans are beginning to discover, these are the keys to a more creative mid-years lifestyle.


To handle the mid-years constructively requires continuing growth, i.e., potentializing. A recent psychological study concluded: "The evolution of a personality continues through the fifth decade of life. A person does not possess the full range of his uniqueness after merely passing through adolescence...The process of formation continues." (Roger Gould, "Adult Life Stages: Growth toward Self-Tolerance," Psychology Today February 1975, p. 74 ) Potentializing, on an individual level, means the actualization of more and more of one's unused strengths, including the unique assets of one's particular life stage. A potentializing marriage is one in which each person simultaneously is growing and encouraging the other to grow.


This means choosing goals for one's life, choosing goals together for the marriage, and then working toward them. Intentionality involves claiming and using one's power to create a better future, rather than merely drifting or blaming circumstances and each other. A perceptive student of the mid-years declares: "The essence of whether one experiences 'a Renaissance or the Dark Ages' in middle life seems to me to depend a great deal on the degree to which one can use change effectively rather than deny its existence." (LeShan, Crisis of Middle Age, p. 236) Intentionality means becoming more the pilot and less the prisoner of the inevitable changes mid-life brings. This attitude liberates persons to reach out actively from their own inner centers, to choose and act on the best of their options, however limited or abundant these may be.

A friend of mine who has a demanding, and often frustrating job, has a poster on her wall which reads: "If life gives you a lemon, make lemonade!" By the middle years, most of us have a sizable collection of lemons. Some of these can be turned into positive resources. Intentionality frees one to use the precious time that is left in one's life, however long or limited that may be. Intentionality allows one to choose one's attitudes toward the unchangeable and tragic in one's life. Responding actively to both the tragic and the joyful aspects of life frees one from drifting and permits one to swim in the direction one chooses, in spite of the turbulence and the current. In a phrase from Gestalt therapy, it lets one "take back one's power!"


A third key to mid-years creativity involves self-fulfillment through self-investment, or, to paraphrase a biblical insight, finding one's life by investing it in others. Erik Erikson (who coined the term generativity) sees the development of generativity as the central life task and challenge in these years: "In this stage, a man and a woman must have defined for themselves what and whom they come to care for, what they can do well, and how they plan to take care of what they have started and created."( Erik Erikson, Gandhi's Truth (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 395) Generativity involves generating and nurturing life by caring for children (one's own or others), the earth, people-serving institutions, culture, art, or those in need. In short, it means caring about and for the future, by investing something of yourself in nurturing those persons, causes, and values which will live after you and will help in some small way to make the planet a better place for the children of the human family. For us who are in the mid-years, the alternatives are clear -- generate or stagnate. The truth, I suppose, is that most of us do some of both.

A Unified Creative Lifestyle

These three working concepts are simply different facets of a unified creative lifestyle in the mid-years. The path to personal renewal and marriage enrichment is the same path. It consists of becoming more growing, intentional, and generative persons. Translating these principles into one's daily life and relationship opens up the future. The pages that follow will suggest methods of doing this.

The pain resulting from unlived life and wasted potential becomes more and more oppressive during the mid-years. Three common ways of deadening this pain are frantic activity (work addiction), excessive drinking and pill popping, and desperate "last fling" sexual affairs. These escapes usually prove to be pseudosolutions. They take the edge off harsh reality temporarily, but in the long run make one's reality even harsher. The prevention or healing of these person-hurting escapes from mid-years pain involves becoming more growing, intentional, and generative persons, and thus discovering the zest and the lift which the Gospel of John calls "life in all its fullness" (John 10:10, NEB).

The Importance of Mid-Years Programs

At the present time, over one-fifth of all Americans are between the ages of forty and sixty-five. Many of these people have significant social influence as well as personal resources and potential. They hold the handles of power in most institutions. The wholeness of their lives and relationships have an enormous influence on the welfare of society. Enrichment of their lives and marriages will benefit themselves, their adolescent children, and all the social institutions, including the churches, in which they have a prominent part.

By the year 2000, it is estimated that the population's center of gravity will have shifted from youth to the early mid-years. The number of adults between thirty-five and forty-nine will have increased by seventy-five percent, and those between fifty and sixty-four, by twenty-seven percent (in contrast to only five percent increase among children and youth).( Alvin R. Voelkner, "Challenge for Church: A Middle-Aged Majority," Our Sunday Visitor, 23 February 1975, p. 10.)

This emerging new mid-years majority challenges all our people-serving institutions to develop more imaginative, effective programs of enrichment and education to help mid-years adults use more of their assets and potentialities. Churches have an unrivaled opportunity in this area, because so many mid-years persons are and will be among their members. To be lifelong human development centers churches must develop more innovative, dynamic approaches that can meet the unique growth needs of mid-years individuals and couples.

The greatest danger of the so-called dangerous years is that so many will not experience the flowering of potential that is possible in this mid-life period. Innovative life enrichment and marriage renewal programs in our churches, schools, and social agencies can help mid-years persons confront the challenge and the choices, the pain and the possibilities, and from this confrontation begins the adventure of new growth. Mid-years persons and couples can discover and exercise a new usefulness to the community, not possible before these years.