If you’ve married, then I think it’s safe to assume that, at some point in your journey, you thought you’d found the perfect partner. I don’t have to be clairvoyant to say that, sooner or later along that same journey, you were disappointed. You might think that this disappointment that comes into every relationship arises only because ‘love is blind,’ as they say. You’ll find, if you examine the phenomenon more closely, that that reasoning winds up being way too simplistic an excuse. Nor can you honestly say that you’ve ‘fallen out of love’ with your partner, nor that your partner has changed and become a stranger to you (short of a personality change caused by an illness or injury).
The origins of whatever disappointment you may be experiencing in your primary relationship most likely begin with you. Here’s a simple experiment that you can make to prove my point. It’s most important that you follow these instructions without looking ahead to the next paragraph. First, list the three people you know of who most inspire you; they can be living or dead, real or fictional. Now, for each of these people, write down a list of words that describe what it is that you most admire in each person. Once you’ve completed that, circle a few of the words that describe the characteristics that, among all of these, you admire the most. When you’ve completed these steps, you may continue to the next paragraph.
When you read the words that you’ve circled, you’re seeing some of your own most important core values. These words have little to do with the people you’ve listed: they’re your characteristics, your words. These core values of yours explain what attracted you to the individuals you chose for your ‘most admired’ list. In the same way, your original attraction to your life partner was based on the person who were rather than on your partner’s qualities. Like every major decision of childhood and adulthood, your choice of a life partner was based on (generally) uncritical acceptance of a set of received values and assumptions. As such, you saw in your (prospective) partner the person whom you wanted to see, rather than the real, live, flesh-and-blood person you’ve since come to know.
Since adulthood represents the time when you’re externally focused on making your career and family relationships ‘work,’ rather than turning a critical eye on the assumptions and presuppositions that you’ve brought to the table, you live in a world of distractions and peripheral concerns, all of which appear to you either as ‘the problem’ or as ‘a solution.’ You delude yourself into believing the ‘if only’ myth: “If only I could fix this, we’d be happy;” “If only I could achieve this, things would be better;” or the deadly, “If only s/he’d change, our life would improve.” Beware: the ‘if only’ syndrome is a sure sign of unresolved childhood issues: you’re seeing yourself as a victim of circumstance and haven’t yet accepted mature responsibility for your life.
This is potent stuff. It’s not for the faint of heart. That’s why, in many instances, people don’t face up to the growing crisis in their relationships until the external distractions get removed. If you’re one of those rare individuals who’s taken the responsibility for your midlife transition onto yourself, then you’ve already discovered that both the issues and the answers of your life’s struggles rest within you (and never really existed outside yourself at all). Otherwise, the midlife transition falls on you like an avalanche when, one by one, all the excuses that you’ve been using to avoid having to ask yourself the toughest questions have been removed. You achieve success in your career, attain a comfortable plateau, or retire. Your children (and the responsibilities and distractions that they bring) move on with their own lives. The message your empty nest telegraphs to you in no uncertain terms sounds like this: “Who, exactly, are the two of you?”
Until you’re willing to address your own personhood, your issues, and your life’s purpose, you’ll never be able adequately to answer that question. You’ll continue projecting your own needs and wants on each other seeing, not the person whom you could love, but only the person you wished s/he could be: a reflection of your own unfulfilled needs and desires. When this happens, it’s not that you’ve ‘fallen out of love’ with one another; the problem you need to be facing stems from the fact that you’ve never actually come to terms with yourself. The disillusionment you feel in your relationship derives from the disillusionment you feel about your own life’s direction.
Here’s the good news: if you can hear the message of the empty nest and pay attention to the lesson that it brings to you; if you can accept the pain you experience as motivation to discover the more authentic you that’s struggling to emerge from the midlife transition; if you’re open to welcoming the emerging personality that’s facing you across the breakfast table and whose warmth comforts you in bed at night; then you both have a precious opportunity to fall in love all over again for the first time. Evidently, not every relationship can stand the stark self-examination and exposure that the midlife transition requires. Yet, those that do will find their commitment to one another transformed by a depth of love that eclipses everything that went before. It’s one of the greatest rewards of a successful midlife transition. May the joy of that experience be yours.
Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown
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