How to overcome your marriage midlife crisis

  • August 28, 2016

Can taking a break from your spouse prevent a “silver split”? With the number of late-life divorces soaring, the author explains how to survive the 21-year itch.

n the last day of 2016, I found myself stomping around my mother’s kitchen, convinced my husband of 21 years was going to leave me for a Kenyan climbing guide.

“He does love those mountains,” Mam agreed. “But he’s a decent man. He might only leave you for a short while.”

A thought struck her. “Isn’t it like that book you’ve just written? It’s nearly like you made this happen.” With reluctant admiration she added: “Fair play to you.”

True. I was finishing a novel, The Break, about a man who asks his wife for six months off “for good behaviour” to do all the things he’s missed out on by being married. Was life imitating art?

I admit it, I’m a sap. My ideal world would be one where anyone who wanted to be coupled up would be. Not necessarily married — although I robustly approve of weddings. It’s touching that people are willing to stand up before their peers and make wildly ridiculous promises.

But I’m also 54 and sick of people asking: “How do I know if she’s The One?” And: “I love him, but there’s this man at work who gives me butterflies and does it mean I don’t love my husband?” And: “I thought he was my soulmate, but the sound of him eating an apple makes me want to bury an axe in his head.”

I love Himself a huge amount. Even so, I feel that a romantic relationship is just like any other: one with a sibling, a long-term friend or a colleague (except for the sex bit and we’ll get to that). Sometimes you’ll be in perfect harmony, loving the same stuff, never running out of things to talk about, laughing like drains. And then — yes — the sound of them eating an apple will make you want to bury an axe in their head.

Sometimes you’ll be in perfect harmony. And then the sound of them eating an apple will make you want to bury an axe in their head

The younger me would be appalled by my current pragmatism. I spent my entire twenties looking to be “completed”, hoping for a man to appear out of nowhere and Polyfilla all the holes in my soul. I thought love was jealous misunderstandings, shouty departures, slammed doors, dramatic reunions and finally, a perfect life in which I’d never again have to face loneliness, insecurity, infidelity, abandonment, fear or boredom.

A glittering lacquer called Love would overlay this union, delivering a steady feed of those similar-to-cocaine chemicals that happen at the start of a relationship. This lacquer would take care of itself, requiring no input from me or Polyfilla Man.

When I was 30 I met The Man. The One. The Best Man in the World. (Saying this fills me with terror of being struck down by the God of Smugness.) There were far fewer of the histrionics I thought were compulsory. We were friends first. He was quiet and kind — qualities that weren’t on the list for my ideal man, which had such delights as: “Artistic. Preferably tormented. Prone to sudden, destructive rages. Liable to disappear for four days without explanation.”

At the wedding, a couple of well-meaning old-timers had the temerity (as I saw it) to take me aside and issue solemn warnings that marriage “takes work”. I was polite, but secretly scornful — clearly, they had married the wrong person. Unlike me, who had taken the precaution of marrying Mr Perfect.

In addition, I had no idea what this “work” actually entailed. I had vague notions about never going to bed on an argument, keeping the magic alive, blah-dee-blah. The old-timers should have given me specifics. But not to worry. All in the fullness of time.

When we got married, my husband was the one with the good job. Less than a year later, I got a book deal and became our household’s breadwinner. Himself gave up his job to work as my assistant, a temporary arrangement that became permanent and, once again, people ponied up unwelcome advice.

According to some naysayers, the implosion of my marriage was inevitable because we were spending too much time together. Others warned that by bringing home the bacon, I was emasculating my husband and it was only a matter of time before he remasculated himself by having an affair. Which would have been catastrophic because I operated a zero-tolerance policy on infidelity: an instant and fatal dealbreaker.

As far back as my teenage years, my girlfriends and I were super-sneery about famous women who forgave their cheating partners, decreeing they had no self-respect. We were adamant we’d scratch the cheater’s car, microwave his vinyl and never, ever forgive.

There are forces more powerful than love

Despite everyone telling me I was doing marriage wrong, my husband (to the best of my knowledge) didn’t have an affair. Neither (to the best of my knowledge) did I. We didn’t implode. In fact we were happy. He was my favourite person by miles, but I kept that to myself because it’s considered bad form to say you love your person. Instead we’re expected to mock them: “He couldn’t find his arse in the dark,” and “Fifteen years? If I’d killed someone I’d be free now.”

Despite the fact that he could find his arse in the dark, we hit some bumps in the road. We wanted children and couldn’t have them. My shiny new career generated friction. I worked like a dog, saying yes to everything, afraid that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be asked again. Conflict arose because Himself wanted me to do less and I couldn’t slow down.

As well as the external stuff, it came as an unpleasant surprise that my old internal demons were as lively as ever. (They’re nothing special, most people have some variant: fear of failure; small, sharp shards of shame; dread of abandonment; horror that that bitch from school is happier and more successful than us.)

I had genuinely expected that the love of a good man would magic them away. But as the years passed, I understood that no one, no matter how much they love us, can erase the uncomfortable emotions that go with being human. It’s not their job.

Inching into my forties, I still loved Himself very much, but from watching the relationships around me, it was clear that even the best connections can unravel. Everything is lose-able and nothing comes with a guarantee.

Because people change. We’re all changing, sometimes quickly and sometimes all at once. If you’re lucky, you both change in roughly the same direction at the same speed.

Meanwhile, both Himself and myself were hurtling towards midlife-crisis years and I no longer thought our special union had immunity.

There are forces more powerful than love, such as our wretched lizard brain. It’s going along, keeping a low profile, then notices that we’ve lived over half of our expected lifespan, realises time is a finite thing and says: “Hold on a minute, I’ve got living to do!”

This “living” might mean buying an impractical car or running a marathon. But we’ve been conditioned to expect that most of our happiness will come from our relationship, so feelings of dissatisfaction tend to be blamed on that. A new person will make us happy again, right?

To stave off an attack by a midlife crisis, I’d now and again “make an effort”. This involved asking Himself questions and behaving like I was listening to his answers. Sometimes I’d even turn away from the telly and make eye contact. I also issued regular instructions: “You’re not to have a midlife crisis.”

But the person who had the midlife crisis was me. Well, I had a crisis and I was 46. But instead of wanting to live more fully, I wanted to die. I spent a couple of grim years in the wasteland of depression. Meanwhile, Himself got his own midlife crisis under way: he started climbing mountains.

I hate any kind of incline, so his mountaineering is done without me. Now and again I worried about him meeting a new lady friend on a snow-covered peak in Russia or France, a person who shared his passion. So whenever he went off, I inquired, in a high-pitched tone, if there were any women in the group.

The thing is, he’s a decent, loyal person and we’re very close. He insists he can be trusted and I believe he means it — but I also believe that most people are strangers to themselves, that we’re only in contact with a small part of our consciousness. Stacked inside us are millions of experiences and longings, most of which never surface. But now and again something gets triggered that propels us onto a different life path.

A 34-year-old friend abruptly left her husband for a 19-year-old colleague because (she realised much later) he reminded her of her first love. Another friend lived a tidy, sensible life until the age of 41, when suddenly she went wild, drinking, drugging and having unusual sex. It took a while to make the connection that her mother had died aged 41 — until she’d got past that age, she’d needed to keep herself safe but once the deadline had passed, her subconscious “decided” she was free to live fully.

A few years ago, I read about a new version of the midlife crisis, which has developed as a result of the increase in our life expectancy. These people love their partner and ultimately want to stay with them. But if they’re aged, say, 45 and are looking down the barrel of perhaps another half-century before they peg it, they’re starting to want “a break”.

Unlike silver splitters, these people want a marriage sabbatical, not a divorce. Some breaks involve something sexually benign, like going travelling. Other people want a time-limited period to behave as if they’re single again.

This is a different spin on the traditional midlife crisis, which features covert infidelity; this is above-board, sanctioned cheating. “Conscious”, if you will.

I thought: “Oh great! A new thing to worry about!” So, oddball that I am, I decided to write about it. The Break is about Hugh and Amy, a couple in their mid-forties, who have been together for 18 years. Hugh’s father dies and he suddenly knows, on a cellular level, that one day he’s going to die too. The seconds and hours of his life are pouring like sand through his hands and he’s panicking that he’ll never again feel the freedom of his youth.

After soul-searching, he tells Amy he wants to be temporarily single. He’ll get all that corrosive yearning out of his system and then he’ll come back and be fine …

In order to write the book, I had to put myself in Amy’s shoes and experience her fury, humiliation and, most painful of all, her sorrow. I found it difficult because I love Himself an awful lot. Last September my father-in-law died, then in October a close friend of ours died. At the end of December, just as I was finishing writing this book, my husband went on a 12-day climb of Mount Kenya. He’d be out of coverage for most of that time.

When he’d met the rest of his group, he called from a crackly satellite phone to say his goodbyes. I asked how many people were on the climb. (The more the better, I always reasoned, less chance of intimacy.)

“Two,” he replied. “Plus the guide.”

Horrors! Only two! Quickly I asked if there were any women.

A pause. A crackle. “Yes,” he said. “The guide.”

Christ! Bizarrely, my next question was “What nationality is she?” (In my head I carry a Sexy Nations League.)

“Kenyan,” he replied. Then the line went dead.

Instantly I surrendered to my worst fears. I could see it all: him and this fit, fearless Kenyan woman roped together at high altitude, utterly dependant on each other for their very lives.

My mother provided some wisdom: “Maybe the other man will get off with the girl.”

But my imagination had given the other man altitude sickness, so he’d had to abandon the climb, leaving the two of them up there.

“Himself is very trustworthy,” Mam said. “You couldn’t meet a better man.”

“But his dad has died, he’s come face-to-face with his mortality, and there’s every chance he’ll never come back. He’ll set up a small company in Nairobi,” I said. “Him and this woman. Offering guided mountain climbs to adrenaline junkies.”

Mam looked stricken. “Living his best life.”

“And he’ll be really nice to me about it,” I said. “That’s the way he is.”

“Like your book.”

The rational me knew I was being ridiculous, but the part of me that’s skilled at catastrophising had the upper hand. Some people refuse to worry about things that might never happen, but I’ve always thought it’s better to prepare for disaster, no matter how unlikely.

During the days of radio silence, I contemplated my attitude to fidelity. What if Himself did run off, but soon changed his mind and came back? Would I be able to live with that?

I didn’t know, but the cut-and-dried zero-tolerance attitude of my younger years no longer felt relevant. Rigid relationship templates don’t work because life is lived in nuance.

And I realised something else: as a society, we’re far too quick to pass judgment on the decisions of others. Every relationship is a mystery, revealed only to the people who are living it; unless it’s abusive, it can have whatever setup they choose.

As it happened, Himself came back from Kenya — and revealed that the “other man” had also been a woman …

Now about sex: have it, don’t have it, it’s up to you, and never mind what you think goes on in your neighbour’s house. All that matters is that you and your partner have the odd chat, to make sure you’re on the same page. (Also, if you’re doing it twice a day, please have the kindness to not brag to the rest of us.)