“It’s very confusing,” Connie began, “I’ve been married to Larry for over 20 years and I don’t know what is reasonable to expect of him. At the same time I feel bad because he expects me to still be the woman he married, and I’m not.” As she brought me up to date on her life, it was clear that much had changed for Connie. She excitedly told me about the growth and success of her new consulting company, getting the twins off to college, and the enjoyment of a regular yoga class. Then her mood shifted as she spoke of her marriage. Confidence and joy just weren’t there. “I think I feel guilty for no longer wanting the things I wanted when we first married. I enjoy my independence more and I think that’s hard on Larry. Not only that, but for the first time, I’m making more money than he is and I wonder if he feels threatened.”
As 50+ women, our mid-life experience is not that of preceding generations. We navigate the same major adjustments, such as caring for aging parents or grieving over their deaths, the end of daily mothering roles, and the changes in our bodies. But, in these times we approach adjustments differently: there’s more emotional wisdom, practical knowledge, and support to guide us through this middle point, not as the beginning of decline, but as a point of transformation, a time to re-create ourselves. At this stage in our lives, we hit our stride and feel more capable, confident, alive and fulfilled.
Listening to Connie, I thought of two concepts from feminist psychology that are immensely supportive of the inevitable mid-life changes and our enjoyment of relationships. First, we recognize that we don’t have to choose between the opposing pulls of dependence and independence in relationship. We have emotionally grown out of the teeter-totter feelings of “I don’t need you” and “I can’t live without you.” No longer confined to identity based on our roles, we recognize that the more autonomous, centered, and complete we are individually, the more we feel safe to fully love and get close to our partner. Connie is typical of many women in mid-life who have made incredible strides toward self-fulfillment and then discover that their personal changes necessitate adjustments in their relationships. Larry needed time to trust that Connie’s increasing emotional strength and self-sufficiency didn’t diminish their connection. When Connie told me of her concern for the marriage, she renewed her commitment to the growth of her marriage as well as herself.
Second, we have discovered that although there are certain “givens,” existing situations, and systems within which we live, we have choices about how to respond to these conditions. Boundaries are empowering points of choice. Additionally, boundaries are essential for deepening intimacy. We feel most secure when we know what is reasonable to expect of ourselves and of others, when we know what sustains us personally and in our relationships, and when we enlist values that support the freedom to love fully and be who we really are. These basic guidelines will help you discern where you can create your own experience and what to leave to your partner:
Each partner is responsible for her or his own:
Thoughts and FeelingsValues and Attitudes
Decisions and Choices
Limits and Preferences
Behaviors and Impulses
Self Expressions and Talents
Fulfillment and Satisfaction
Desires and Goals
Development and Maturation
“I have so much empathy for Larry,” Connie continued “I remember when he started traveling for work and how uncomfortable that was for me, but we talked about our goals then. I wanted to support his growth and knew that my insecurities were my responsibility. Now, I can help him adjust and I’ll deal with my discomfort about how my changes have highlighted some differences between us. That’s just my old tendency to think that defining my own life means giving up closeness. I want both!”
In the second half of life, when other relational goals have been met (such as raising children, establishing a household, and a sense of belonging in community) we are increasingly free to envision love as mutual support for becoming all we are meant to be. In this regard, clear boundaries serve relationships by allowing us the freedom to be our “best selves” and by reducing the barriers to love.