Chapter 2. Twelve Strategies for Making the Most of the Mid-Years

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

Chapter 2. Twelve Strategies for Making the Most of the Mid-Years

This is the wonder of the crisis of middle age; its challenges are the greatest opportunity one has ever had to become more truly alive and oneself.

-- Edna J. LeShan

The mid-years offer opportunities for a fresh flowering of one's life and one's intimate relationships. There are certain strategies which have proved to be helpful in developing these possibilities.

Listing the Strategies

Twelve such strategies are mentioned here as practical methods for renewing one's inner wellsprings and helping a marriage become a more fulfilling bond of mutual growth. I will list them as I might in a growth counseling session or a marriage enrichment group. I believe you'll find them useful both for do-it-yourself enrichment and for helping others maximize these years. Those strategies which are explored in later chapters, will be mentioned only briefly in this overview.

Strategy 1. Identify the Real Assets and New Possibilities of the Mid-Years.

Personally, I find it easier to be aware of my liabilities and problems than of my assets and strengths. But focusing on assets and strengths helps to awaken hopes and motivation for continuing growth in any of us. Such a positive focus also provides the best context for coping constructively with the real losses and liabilities of these years.

In your growth log or journal list all the strengths, assets, and new possibilities you can think of in your present life stage. List everything that is or could be a positive resource. Don't forget such basic assets as your accrued experience and the fragments of wisdom you have acquired through the years, or the fact that you are probably not as old, physically or psychologically, as were people your age a generation ago.( Hunt and Hunt, Prime Time, p. 20)/ [A solidus (/) means put the book aside while you complete the task.] On another page of your growth log, list all the assets, strengths and potentialities of your spouse as you see him or her./ On another page, list the assets, strengths, and new possibilities which you see in your marriage./

Now, share your three lists with your spouse./ If you are in a couples enrichment group, give each other the "gift" of stating what each of you sees as the strengths of the other individual and of your marriage./ In your growth log, add the assets of which you have become aware as a result of the affirmation of your spouse (and perhaps your group)./

Now, having looked at the positive side of the mid-years, list the losses, problems, and liabilities of your life stage./ Compare your list with that of your spouse and discuss how you feel about your liabilities when seen in the context of your assets./

Strategy 2. Use Your Assets Intentionally by Choosing to Do Those Things That Will Help Create a Better Future for Yourself and Your Marriage.

The purpose of this exercise is to respond to your live options intentionally, using more of the strengths and assets you have identified. In your growth journal, list all the things you really would like to do in order to use your assets to make your life and your marriage more fulfilling./ Now choose two of these goals and write out a plan for moving toward them, including a timetable for doing so. Be concrete and specific in your planning./

Now share your list of goals and your action plans with your spouse. Invite your spouse (and perhaps your sharing group) to add things they would like for you to do to use more of your potentialities. Give each other feedback in this way./ Now, with your spouse, develop a joint action plan for improving your marriage, drawing on the assets each of you has identified./

I hope that these experiences of reflection and sharing have made you more aware of having an open future with a variety of challenges and options. Choosing specific goals and implementing plans for achieving them increases the intentionality in your lives and in your marriage. Such active intentionality may not be easy at first, particularly if it is a new way of functioning. But, as you practice and master this approach to the mid-years, it can open the door to a better future.

Strategy 3. Befriend and Enrich Your "Inner Companion."

In the mid-years it is important to take time to become better friends with the only person you are really with from birth to death. See to it that "when one is alone one still has a very good companion -- oneself." (Hunt and Hunt, Prime Time, p. 20) It is easy to become so rushed and outer-directed in the mid-years that one's inner friend is treated as a stranger, if not an enemy. When this happens, all of one's close relationships suffer. To have a mutually-enlivening relationship, a couple needs to be in touch and in tune with themselves as individuals.

So, slow down and get reacquainted with yourself. Cherish closeness with your spouse, but don't try to make even that precious relationship a substitute for developing your inner life. Inner enrichment and relationship enrichment are two essential and complementary sides of the same coin.

Befriending yourself begins with accepting who and where you are. This is the starting point of all personal growth. Inner enrichment probably involves expanding your consciousness and your intellectual horizons. It includes nourishing and enjoying your spiritual life.

For many of us, the mid-years precipitate a crisis in our spiritual life. Creative coping with this spiritual crisis requires enlivening one's functional faith, increasing one's moments of transcendence, renewing the sense of meaning in one's life, and increasing the awareness of one's loving connectedness with the Spirit of the universe. Spiritual enrichment in a marriage relationship involves increased sharing of a couple's meanings, working faith, and moments of transcendence.

Strategy 4. Update Your Values and Priorities.

The mid-years confront many of us with the need to reexamine our priorities and values, and to do a mid-course correction of these inner guidelines. Am I investing my limited time, energy, and resources in the things that matter most to me and to the world I will someday leave to our children? I find that some things I gave a great deal of myself to in the earlier years -- acquiring things and getting ahead -- no longer satisfy deeply. The revising of skewed priorities is essential to a more fulfilling lifestyle.

Joint value clarification, as a couple, often is valuable in these years. Can we affirm and even learn to enjoy the differences as well as the similarities in our values?

Strategy 5. Enrich and Strengthen Your Community of Caring -- Your Network of Nurturing Relationships.

The mid-years are a time when poverty in one's relationships becomes increasingly costly. Every person needs several persons with whom he or she can experience acceptance, love, and caring. Many of us are surfeited by superficial contacts with many people, but impoverished by a lack of depth relationships.

In strengthening one's marriage, it is important not to neglect investing oneself in the supportive circle of friends and/or relatives who make up one's extended family. This wider circle of caring people gives stability and strength to a marriage, particularly during crises. The heavy time pressures of the mid-years make it easy to neglect the mutual nurture which alone keeps relationships healthy and growing.

Continuing nurture of your caring community allows you to enjoy it more. Communicating regularly with those who matter to you can bring satisfying rewards. For example, a simple thing such as taking ten minutes each day to write a note of sincere affirmation and appreciation to some friend, relative, or colleague can nourish them, enrich your relationship, and bring remarkably satisfying feedback.

Strategy 6. Rethink Your Vocational and Avocational Lives Together (in Light of Your Revised Priorities) and Do What Is Necessary to Make Each of These More Challenging and Fulfilling.

At an enrichment workshop one mid-years engineer declared during a session on life-investment planning, "I'm in work I no longer find challenging -- trapped by economic necessity and by career decisions I made twenty-five years ago when I was a mere kid." He eventually decided that, although a career change was not feasible, he could develop a much more fulfilling avocational life -- for example, by pursuing a long-latent interest in learning to throw pots.

Mid-life career changes are increasingly common and accepted in our society for both women and men. For women whose career has been raising children it is essential that they develop realistic plans which will allow them to use their energies and talents in satisfying ways as the children leave. Such plans often involve new careers for pay or, in other cases, pursuing fulfilling volunteer and avocational interests.

In our case Charlotte's mid-course career change involved her return to graduate school to receive training as a psychotherapist. Her moving into a second career changed the dynamics of our relationship. These changes threatened me for a time but proved to be the beginning of a new phase in our marriage with more equality, sharing, and companionship. Having a career of her own for pay has helped Charlotte develop a new and more positive identity as an autonomous person. Becoming a two-career couple brought new pressures and problems, but also new possibilities in our marriage. Couples who share both child rearing and outside-the-home work more equally than we did probably have a less radical adjustment when the mid-years come. There is much to commend this equalitarian approach to marriage, as many younger couples are discovering.

Strategy 7. Discover and Commit Yourself to a Cause that Excites You.

Find your challenge and then give yourself to it with enthusiasm. A compelling life investment becomes more and more important after the age of forty, because it gives life purpose and zest. Such a dynamic commitment is the very center of generative lifestyle, enabling you to invest yourself in those persons, institutions, and causes whose constructive influence will live on after you have made your final exit. This kind of self-investment is an essential, deeply satisfying element in personal renewal.

It helps enliven mid-years marriages for couples to find an exciting shared challenge which is much bigger than their relationship. We know a mid-years couple who are pouring themselves with passionate enthusiasm into working to help solve the interrelated problems of world hunger, overpopulation, and environmental pollution. By working through organizations which are dedicated to finding creative solutions to these problems they are making a small but significant contribution to a more growth-producing world. They are discovering enrichment and enjoyment in working together as volunteers for causes that excite them both.

In the mid-years, each of us needs to find satisfying answers to this basic question: "What am I doing to help make my community a better place because of my having lived here?"

Strategy 8. Let Go of Your Energy-Wasting Load of Anger, Guilt, and Grief.

By mid-life everyone has experienced an abundance of mistakes, failures, missed opportunities, and disappointments. Much mid-years depression results from a deadening load of these accumulated feelings. Personal creativity and the ability to live zestfully in the here-and-now are diminished by this energy-wasting burden. Unresolved guilt, remorse, anger, and grief form a vicious cycle of intertwined, mutually reinforcing pain. Learning how to gain release regularly from this load is difficult but essential to creative mid-years living.

Much of the anger experienced in the mid-years is a natural response to the losses of these years. A youth-valuing culture tends to reduce self-esteem and increases anger in most people as they grow older. Anger turned inward on oneself produces depression. Chronic, low level depression causes or complicates many mid-years marriage problems, including problems of sexual nonresponsiveness.

Since the mid-years usually bring accelerating losses, grief is a large component in the crisis. This makes it crucial to learn to do one's "grief work" -- the work of experiencing the pain and talking out the feeling with an understanding, accepting person, so that the wounds in one's spirit can heal fully. Unresolved guilt and resentment frequently infects the grief wounds, preventing them from healing.

While I was revising this manuscript, my father died. Although he was eighty-six and had had a good life, I was confronted with powerful feelings of loss, remorse, and anger that I could not have anticipated. For the first time I understood in my heart the words of a friend spoken four years earlier when her mother died: "Somehow I feel I am next in line!" The death of parents makes the awareness of one's own eventual death unavoidable. Studies using the Rorschach inkblot test have revealed that subconscious preoccupation with death is very common among those over fifty.( Herman Feifel reports these studies, cited in Margaretta K. Bowers et al., Counseling the Dying (New York: Nelson and Sons, 1964), p. 2.)

Guilt and remorse are very prevalent creativity-robbers in the mid-years. As Nena and George O'Neill observe: "You can't change the past . . . but you can change the future. To spend time and energy lamenting the past is to waste the present and the future."( O'Neill and O'Neill, Shifting Gears, p.74) In the mid-years, the present and future become increasingly precious. It behooves us to move from the alienation of guilt to the reconciliation of forgiveness.

Here are some practical steps for letting go of the excess baggage of accumulated negative feelings:

First, face your feelings and bring them out into the light of a trust-full relationship. To ignore painful feelings is to leave them festering in the cellar of your psyche. It may help you to face and resolve your feelings if you do a systemic inventory, using your growth log. Begin by listing all the burdensome feelings of which you become aware when you take time to go inside yourself. List the hurts, resentments, guilt feelings, and griefs that weigh on your mind. Do this with your spouse or a trusted friend present for support. If you have buried your feelings for a long time, it may be difficult or impossible to become aware of them now. But if depression or ineffectiveness in living makes you suspect that burdensome feelings are there, by all means have some sessions with a well-trained pastoral counselor or psychotherapist to help you surface and resolve the feelings.

Second, take several sessions to talk out your painful feelings with your partner. Let the feelings flow. Expressing them openly in a relationship of trust usually helps reduce the burden of such feelings. If talking alone does not lighten the load, try expressing your feelings in nondestructive physical ways. For example, I find that striking a bed violently and repeatedly with my fist, while I yell unrestrainedly, helps drain off pent-up anger and lift depression.

It often strengthens a marriage to share the things that give each partner pain. However, it is important not to confess things that may damage the relationship. If such things are burdening your mind, get the help of a trained counselor. If talking together about your feelings does not improve things, or even makes them worse, it is essential to seek professional help. A series of sessions with a skilled counselor can be one of the best investments in the future that you will ever make. The goal is the fullest possible liberation of your energies and your creativity.

Third, do whatever you must to make amends, repair damaged relationships, and release your emotional load. Taking reparative action is an essential step in the unburdening process. But before you take action, check out your plan with your spouse, or some other objective person, to make sure it is constructive.

Fourth, in those things which you cannot change, restore, or improve try to make peace with the past. Accept yourself as having done all that you can and then accept God's forgiveness. Affirm the present and the future by investing yourself in constructive living now.

Guilt, disappointment, and resentment accumulate within a close relationship, as they do within an individual. By mid-marriage such feelings often have built up like a wall between the partners, diminishing or shutting off satisfying communication. As a couple lowers this wall, loving, tender feelings usually flow spontaneously between them.

Strategy 9. Let Yourself Really Live in the Now.

List in your growth log the things that make you feel most alive (in contrast to merely existing)./ What are the things that you have always wanted to do but never taken the time? Now list these dreams in your growth log./

As marriage partners, share your lists with each other./ Plan ways of increasing the "alive" times in your individual lives and in your marriage./

Now plan ways of helping each other turn more of your individual and shared dreams into reality. For example, if you have always wanted to write poetry, sit down in a quiet place and begin right now. Or, if you both have dreamed of acquiring a waterbed, devise a way to do this within the next month./ Do not put off the satisfaction of living fully in the now. Lots of mid-life people are realizing long-postponed dreams. They are "turning on" to life by developing creative and satisfying interests.

Strategy 10. Increase the Variety and Frequency of Your Play, In- cluding Playful Sex.

I find that life gets to be a drag unless I experience regularly the renewal of pleasuring. As a workaholic, I tend to shortchange myself and our marriage in this vital area. Reserving regular pleasure-and-play (P and P) times in our datebooks helps protect these times from the pressure of overcrowded schedules. You're lucky, of course, if your lifestyle gives you adequate play spontaneously, without planning ahead.

Recreation and the satisfying playful aspects of work help to recharge the inner batteries that give lift to your life and your marriage. So, raise the pleasure quotient of your lives by enjoying a warm whirlpool bath, a show, an evening on the town, a stroll along the lake, a relaxing book, an uplifting worship experience, a leisurely roll in the hay -- whatever you both find pleasurable. Take turns choosing what you will do during these pleasuring times. Surprise each other. In the language of Transactional Analysis, let your "Child" sides romp together.( Transactional Analysis is a system which is remarkably useful in understanding and improving interpersonal relationships. If you're not familiar with the T.A. concept of the inner Parent, Adult, and Child, see Eric Berne, Games People Play (New York: Grove Press, 1964), chapter 1 for a succinct overview. When Parent, Adult, and Child -- and Adolescent -- are capitalized in this book, they refer to these four parts within a person.) Enjoy yourself, it's earlier than you think!

Strategy 11. Treat Your Minuses as Potential Pluses.

The fact that tragedy, pain, and loss are part of the fabric from which our lives are woven becomes increasingly inescapable in the mid-years. Nearly everyone's life has a tragic, messy side. After the worst of a crisis has passed, it may be possible to see redeeming aspects in the experience. Through this awareness, a total minus can be transformed into at least a partial plus.

Can you recall a traumatic crisis that actually brought you closer to each other? If so, discuss why it did so./ Painful experiences, much as we dislike them, can strengthen our spiritual muscles for coping with future crises. Our pain can enable us to reach out with more empathy and help to others going through similar dark valleys.

Early in my mid-years I developed diabetes. This was a severe shock to my grandiose self-image. It was and is a frustrating nuisance to which I sometimes still respond with anger. But as I have made partial peace with the reality of my handicap, unexpected fringe benefits have emerged. My experience has strengthened the empathetic bond I feel with others who have handicaps and with persons who have gone through any kind of major loss. Life feels much more like a precious gift than it did before. When I stop to reflect on this, I am aware that my life is literally a gift -- a gift from the two Canadian physicians who discovered insulin. It is a gift that I accept and affirm to the extent that I live life as fully, joyfully, and productively as I can.

Strategy 12. Be Kind to Your Body; Give It Care and Respect.

Mid-years stress and fatigue diminish unnecessarily the full enjoyment of these good years for many of us. To make the most of all dimensions of mid-life, cut down your calories and get adequate rest and regular exercise to keep your body in good tone. Your self-esteem probably will rise, your mental acuity increase, and your sex life get sexier if your physical organism is treated with care. The aim is simply to do the commonsense things which will allow you to enjoy and use your body efficiently -- rather than letting your body use you. I find, for example, that if I allow myself to get so rushed that I neglect adequate rest or jogging, my mind gets sluggish and I "spin my wheels" when I try to do creative things.

Implementing the Strategies

I hope that these twelve suggested strategies have stimulated you to think of other ways to make the most of your mid-years. Jot down these ideas now in your growth journal. /

Now, let your mind reflect on all the strategies, including the ones you may have added. Which ones raise your energy level? Which seem most important in your life and your marriage? / Discuss your response with your spouse, and devise plans for implementing the strategies which you decide will help you make the mid-years fulfilling for you and your marriage.

If you work in church or community with mid-years persons, reflect on how you can use these twelve strategies in this work. Decide on ways to incorporate them in your mid-years counseling and enrichment programs.