Chapter 3. Enriching Mid-Years Marriages

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

Chapter 3. Enriching Mid-Years Marriages

In self-actualizing people the quality of love satisfactions and sex satisfactions both improve with the age of the relationship. (Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954, p. 239.)

-- Abraham Maslow

Three factors in our society make marriage enrichment in the mid-years vitally important. The first is increased longevity. Creative monogamy can continue for most couples only if they have learned to update their covenant and revitalize their relationship at each changing life stage. By the mid-years marriage covenants that have not been revised are obsolete and unfulfilling in some important aspects.

The rising consciousness and expectations of women is the second factor which makes mid-marriage enrichment so important. Profound changes are occurring in women-men relationships, shaking the very foundation of more and more traditional marriages. Many mid-years couples have built their marriages through the years on traditional, one-up/one-down roles. Now, women increasingly are insisting on full equality. This often threatens their husbands, and conflict escalates between them. Marriage enrichment should be an instrument for liberating such marriages. It should encourage the couples to initiate the basic changes which will enable them to develop a more mutually fulfilling relationship. In an enrichment group couples can experience that blend of caring and confrontation which will help them move through their conflict to a better relationship built on an active commitment to each other's growth. Marriages can flourish fully only if there is such a commitment which produces equal opportunities for both parties to have fulfilling, productive lives.

The third factor making marriage enrichment crucial is the epidemic of loneliness in our urbanized, mobile society -- a loneliness that becomes increasingly oppressive in the mid-years. A loving, growing marriage is one of the best places to have a trust-full, nonexploitative, depth relationship with another human being. Enriching a marriage can help it become a refreshing oasis of belonging. Each of us needs such an oasis to live constructively in our society.

The Values of Mid-Years Marriage Enrichment

A mid-course correction is valuable for any marriage. In a long-term relationship, as in a rocket flight, even a small change of direction at the midpoint can make a major difference in its moving toward the goal. (This image is from The Spouse Gap, by Lee and Casebier) For couples with open communication self-enrichment can be effective, although the mutual encouragement of an enrichment group can make their efforts even more enjoyable and beneficial. Where communication is partially blocked, as in the case of the Morgans, a well-led group is essential. For mid-years couples in severe or chronic marriage crises, competent marriage counseling should precede involvement in enrichment events. After such counseling, marriage enrichment can help a couple continue the growth they began in counseling.

The "living happily ever after" myth is revealed as a patent fallacy in many mid-years marriages. Approximately one-fourth of the over one million couples who divorce each year in the United States have been married fifteen years or more. In the last five years, divorce among couples married twenty years or more has increased fifty percent. (August Gribbins, "An American Fantasy: Scoring in the Mating Game," Los Angeles Times, 30 November 1975.)

Most studies of marriages show a gradual disenchantment and a declining degree of marital satisfactions, especially for women, through the child-rearing years. The emotional distancing which occurs during these years often becomes permanent unless outside help is sought. (Peterson, Married Love in the Middle Years, p. 54, and Judith Long Laws, "A Feminist View of Marital Adjustment," in Gurman and Rice, Couples in Conflict, pp. 92-93.)

Couples who are still friends and lovers after one or more decades of marriage are almost always those who have worked at strengthening and enriching their relationships. A recent survey revealed that many mid-marrieds do still care about each other and their marriage. To the statement, For me marriage has been a good thing, the percentage responding yes declined from age twenty-two to thirty-five; but then it rose gradually until at age fifty-one it was back to the level of age twenty-one respondents! To the question, How important are these people to you overall? The importance of "spouse" rose very gradually with each age category. (Gould, "Adult Life Stages," pp. 76-77)

If you are a mid-years couple who still love each other, but want to freshen up your marriage, marriage enrichment is for you. Statements like this appear frequently on the evaluation sheets of participants at the end of marriage enrichment events: "We haven't communicated like this in years. It feels great!" During one marriage enrichment session, I remarked (in discussing the impact of aging on marriage): "One morning you look across the breakfast table and suddenly it hits you -- I'm married to a grandmother!" At this point a lively mid-years husband interrupted with a twinkle and a gleam in his eye: "Wow, what a grandmother!" Obviously that couple had learned how to maintain the sparkle in their marriage.

Goals of Mid-Years Marriage Enrichment

A good growing marriage in the mid-years is an achievement of which the two partners have a right to be proud. The goal of all marriage enrichment is to "make good marriages better" by helping couples develop more intimate, open relationships with full equality and positive fidelity.( For a fuller discussion of positive fidelity and equality in marriages, see H. Clinebell Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment, pp. 23-25.) In the mid-years, achieving this goal usually involves couples' revitalizing their relationships by increasing their mutual growth, their sense of intentionality, and their active generativity.

Mid-years marriage enrichment aims at both personal and marriage enrichment. It seeks to help couples practice liberating love -- a caring whose central commitment is to liberating the full gifts of both persons. If I love you, I care passionately about what enables you to grow. Liberating love is also synergistic love. This is love that expands the personhood of each individual and makes the relationship more than the sum of what the two bring to it.

Here are some of the things which, as a mid-years couple, you may need to do to revitalize your relationship: (a) Do a careful evaluation of where you are and where you want to go in your marriage. (b) Rethink your guiding values and priorities. (c) Develop a more equalitarian relationship with equal opportunities for both to grow. (d) Renegotiate a more mutually fulfilling marriage covenant. (e) Strengthen your companionship and your nurturing communication. (f) Learn better ways to resolve conflict and interrupt cycles of mutual hurting. (g) Enliven your sex life. (h) Increase your shared outreach. (i) Deepen your spiritual intimacy. (j) Develop better ways to cope collaboratively with teenage children. (k) Deal constructively with the problems of aging parents. (l) Discover the new pleasures and possibilities of the mid-years, including the empty nest.

If you lead marriage enrichment workshops, and do counseling, your approach should help couples accomplish these mid-years tasks.

Tools for Mid-Years Marriage Enrichment

The relationship-building tools for use in marriage enrichment are essentially the same as for any stage of marriage. The same is true of the various methods of setting up and leading marriage enrichment workshops, groups, and retreats. These methods are described in chapters 4 and 5 in my earlier volume in this series.( Ibid., "Relationship-Building Tools," pp. 28-36, and "Enrichment Retreats and Groups," pp. 37 47. See also H. Clinebell, The People Dynamic, chaps. 2, 3 and 4) Here are some additional tools which are useful for couples at any stage, but particularly for mid-years couples. They are presented as they might be by a pastor in an enrichment group or growth counseling session.

A Marriage Checkup

A mid-course correction should begin by your doing a careful evaluation of the course of your marriage -- where you have come together, where you are now, and where you want to go in the future. There are various ways of doing this.

Some couples prefer an unstructured approach in which they simply use four time-segments of approximately twenty minutes each:

Segment 1. Share and compare your thoughts about the most important developments and achievements of your years together.

Segment 2. Share your thoughts about the strengths, assets, problems, and limitations of your present relationship.

Segment 3. Discuss the kind of marriage you would each like to have a year from now and, in the light of this, select concrete goals for your marriage.

Segment 4. Devise a workable plan for taking steps toward these shared goals. In an enrichment group or retreat each couple is then invited to "check out" their plan with a sharing group of three or four other couples.

A variation of this method involves the use of paper and crayons:

Segment 1. In your growth journal draw a sketch of your present relationship, including its strengths and its problems, using colors that best depict your feelings. Do it quickly. Don't plan it. Just let your fingers draw the first thing that comes to you./ When you have both finished, share your drawings with each other./

Segment 2. Now draw a picture of theca relationship you would like to have a year from now./

Segment 3. Share and compare your pictures of your hopes and dreams for the future./ Working together, draw a single picture that incorporates both of your hopes./

Segment 4. Write a joint plan for doing the things that will help you move toward the marriage you both want.

Crayons and a large piece of paper are also needed for the marriage self-evaluation tool called "The Intentional Journey," which uses the symbolism of the marital journey: Each person draw two parallel lines across the paper longways at least 2 1/2 inches apart to represent the road of your marital journey. Let the place where the road begins on the left represent the first time you met. The end of the road on the right represents the completion of your relationship at some point in the future./ Now, beginning at the left, draw a line across the road to mark your wedding, and other lines to represent the passage of each five years since then, including the future./ Using colors which symbolize your feelings, quickly draw a symbol or simple sketch depicting the most significant events or developments in each five-year section of your journey together./ In the future segments, draw what you hope will occur./ Share and compare your drawings; see what you can learn about each other./ Decide what changes you must make in your lives to move toward the goals you discovered you have in common./

Each of these exercises can facilitate deeper understanding of how each person remembers the past and what each hopes for in the future. The use of one of the above communication tools can enhance your awareness of the wealth of shared experiences in the past and your ability to mold the future of your marriage with an increasing degree of intentionality.

Some couples find that the "Marital Intimacy Checkup" and the "Marital Intimacy Action Plan" described in The Intimate Marriage provide helpful structure for a do-it-yourself checkup.( Clinebell and Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage, pp. 37-39, gives the forms and instructions for their use.) These simple instruments encourage reflection, dialogue, and action around twelve types of intimacy -- sexual, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, creative, recreational, work, crisis, conflict, commitment, spiritual, and communication intimacy. The use of these instruments encourages mid-years couples who feel "stuck in a rut" to explore and develop fresh dimensions of their relationship. If you prefer a more comprehensive marital checkup, The Mirages of Marriage by William Lederer and Don Jackson lists forty-five probing questions which focus on key issues in any marriage.( William Lederer and Don Jackson, "How to Check Up Your Own Marriage," in The Mirages of Marriage (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), chap. 50, pp. 363-71.)

 The important thing is not the form your marriage inventory takes but that you take a careful look at the strengths and limitations of your present relationship and, in the light of this, do what is required to improve it in ways of your own choosing. It is crucial that each person's dissatisfactions and unmet needs be examined fully and that your plans for the future provide you both with equal opportunity for fulfilled lives.

Revising Your Covenant

In the process of evaluation just described the need for updating your marriage covenant or contract was implied. But since recontracting is such a crucial skill in both mid-years marriage enrichment and in crisis counseling, an explicit explanation is in order.

All close relationships function according to certain implicit ground rules and tacit agreements. In most marriages this working agreement simply develops haphazardly, in the interaction of the early years, with little conscious awareness of what the ground rules are. When there are basic differences in each person's understanding of the covenant, chronic conflict results. Contracts that were relatively fair and functional, in the early years, usually are partially unfair and out-of-date by mid-marriage. Thus, updating your marriage covenant is essential to mid-years marriage renewal.

Revising your covenant follows logically from evaluating your relationship and rethinking your priorities and values (see chapter 4). Here are the basic steps in recontracting:

1. Begin by each of you writing down your answers to the questions listed below and any other questions that are relevant to your relationship. Putting your understanding of your present working agreement in writing helps to clarify your own thinking. It also helps each spouse to communicate to the other their individual perceptions of their contract.

2. Discuss the similarities and differences in your understanding of your covenant.

3. Mark all the points of disagreement and the points at which either of you feels your present agreement would be improved by revision. Work through these points one by one, taking as much time as you need to negotiate a compromise or decide on changes to make your covenant now, in your present life stage, more fair and mutually fulfilling. If you get stuck in the process of negotiating, ask your pastor, or a couple you trust, to serve as a facilitator/arbitrator. Keep asking, "What is the most fulfilling approach to this issue for both of us?," In areas of conflict either both of you will win, or both of you will lose -- because if only one person wins the relationship suffers.

4. Write out a joint statement of your revised and improved covenant.

5. Celebrate your accomplishment by an informal ritual of recommitment. Do this by yourselves as a couple or in your sharing group. Some couples find it meaningful to speak their revised vows to each other, as a part of an informal love feast, a private celebration of the beginning of a new chapter in their marriage. The symbolism of feeding each other, using the elements of Communion or perhaps the segments of an orange is meaningful to many couples. Here is what one couple wrote for their moments of recommitment; each of them said to the other: "With expectation and joy, I commit myself to you -- to the person you are and are becoming; I commit myself to responsibility for my own growth as a person; I commit myself to us -- to our growing together as 'forever friends.' Let this food which I give to you now, be a symbol of my intention to nurture your spirit, as both of us are surrounded and fed by the Spirit of Love."

In revising and renewing their covenants many couples focus on specific areas of concern: What do I (we) expect of our marriage? What do I expect my spouse to give in our relationship? What do I expect to give? How do we share responsibility for rearing our children? How is the dirty work and the satisfying work divided? What is my understanding about each person's opportunities for developing personal talents (e.g., through further education)? Who makes the money? Who decides about spending it? How do we decide about moving? What is our agreement about friends, sex, religion, recreation, relatives (including in-laws), time to communicate? How often do we agree to reevaluate this covenant? You may wish to add questions or issues which you need to face in revising your covenant. Update your covenant in your own way, but do it whenever either of you feels the need for change.

This process may seem legalistic and mechanical, when one first encounters it. Some people ask, "Isn't just loving each other enough?" Regular recontracting is simply a way of strengthening the only firm foundation on which a loving relationship can be built -- justice and equality.

For years in our marriage Charlotte felt burdened by a disproportionate share of the dirty work; I felt the full load of breadwinning. Our programming about sex roles made this division of labor seem "normal." Not until we challenged our own sex role stereotypes could we revise our contract in these areas to make it fairer to both of us.

The Intentional Marriage Method (The IMM is described in detail in H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment, chap. 2, pp. 1017.) is an excellent, low-threat tool for revising your marriage covenant to make it more mutually need-satisfying. By beginning, with affirmation of what you appreciate in each other you provide a positive context for facing the unmet needs in your relationship.

Setting Up a Mid-Years Marriage Enrichment Program

In marriage enrichment, mixed-age groups are usually more feasible than groups composed exclusively of mid-years couples. It is important, within a mixed group, to offer opportunities for couples to share with other couples in their marital stage insights about handling the problems and possibilities creatively. This can be accomplished by providing opportunities for persons in similar age categories to meet occasionally in sub-groups during a retreat or ongoing group.

Some mid-years couples resist participating in marriage enrichment events because of a misconception expressed by one woman: "That sort of thing is for young people." A mid-years man responded to an invitation to participate by saying, "We're getting by. Why rock the boat?" Highly resistant or anxious couples should not, of course, be pushed. But, a personal invitation can correct misconceptions, allay anxieties, and enable couples to participate in a process which can open exciting new possibilities for them. Effective publicity -- printed or oral -- should affirm the positive potentials in normal marriages and the satisfactions of discovering this treasure.( Ibid. For methods of recruiting see p. 46.) Publicity should emphasize the advantages of enriching relationships regularly throughout all the stages of marriage. Couples with severely troubled marriages should be encouraged, in the publicity, to seek counseling before participating in marriage enrichment.

The best way to involve more mid-years couples in renewal is to encourage couples clubs and classes which include mid-years people to schedule enrichment retreats once or twice a year. Another low-threat approach is to offer enrichment opportunities in the adult education and lay training programs of a church.

Couples who experience a rebirth of their relationship through marriage enrichment often feel a desire to share with other couples that they have discovered. Getting involved in helping to set up and perhaps lead an enrichment program in your church or community is a constructive way of sharing the good things that have happened to you. When you do this you will find that sharing your growth is an important way to keep growing.

If you are mid-years couple with an open, growing relationship, a love for people and an interest in helping make ordinary marriages and good marriages better, why not consider getting trained to lead marriage enrichment experiences? This can be one of the most satisfying forms of lay ministry. The training which is needed has been described elsewhere.( Ibid., pp. 74-76)

Now, Create a Program

If your church needs a more effective approach to meet the enrichment needs of mid-years couples, interrupt your reading now to draw up a tentative plan. If possible, do this as a couple. Even better, work with two or three other couples who share an interest in mid-marriage enrichment. Together, create and implement a plan that will enable the maximum number of mid-years couples in your church and community to learn how to develop more satisfying, generative, and intentional marriages.