Whether you’re entering a new relationship or hoping to resurrect your existing — but flagging — relationship, the upheavals and changes of midlife can make anyone pretty apprehensive about what lies ahead. That’s particularly true for many of the 78 million baby boomers who face a long stretch of middle years with greater health, new desires for personal growth, but no so much certainty about what keeps a love relationship alive for the long run.
I think what helps support a long-term, positive relationship through midlife is not so much finding the right techniques – for good communication, compromise, and so forth. We know how many of those are available in all the self-help books crowding bookstore shelves. Instead, it’s building your relationship’s spiritual core. By that I mean your sense of purpose and life goals as a couple; and dealing with how your values and ideals change and evolve over the years. The challenge is whether these and other spiritual dimensions remain in synch over your years together.
In this post I describe a path that can help build (or resuscitate) your relationship’s spiritual connection.It’s learning to “forget yourself” within your relationship. I’ve described this seeming-paradox more generally in a previous post, but it think it’s especially helpful for bringing fresh energy into a midlife relationship, to keep it alive and growing. By “forgetting yourself,” I’m referring to a conscious choice to behave in ways that serve and support your partner rather than just yourself. That is, acting in ways that strengthen the relationship between the two of you. Think of your relationship as a third entity, with a life of its own. A woman in a 20-year marriage illustrated that difference when she said to her husband during a couples therapy session in my office, “I still love you, but I hate our relationship.”
In fact, learning to “forget yourself” in your relationship is linked with long-term positive emotions — essential for long-term psychological health through your middle years. Research shows that positive emotions are a powerful antidote to stress, pain and illness throughout life. And they’re associated with proactive attitudes and behavior in general — all elements of psychological health.
Moreover, learning to “forget yourself” is crucial for reasons that relate to our evolutionary heritage, and the ways we’re socially conditioned into our relationship behavior. Here’s what I mean: First, research into the evolutionary basis of intimate relationships indicates that humans (and some other primates, such as the bonobos) are highly sexual and social creatures. Evolution may have created intertwined needs for sexual and social connections with more than one partner at the same time. In other words, such research indicates that monogamy may not be “hard-wired.”
At the same time, our psychological and social conditioning also creates challenges for enduring, positive relationships. We learn to relate to intimate partners as commodities and engage in transactional, mercantile terms: I give in order to get. I “invest” in the relationship to receive a “return.” Relationships have become another part of a commercialized, consumer-orientation approach to life in which someone wins and someone loses.
This orientation is part of what I’ve called our “adolescent model of love.” It includes learning to hide yourself; self-serving goals of gaining power and control over the other; and in many cases repeating the dysfunctional relationships that you had growing up in your family, like feeling loved only when performing or behaving in ways desired by parents, and subsequently by the larger society.
Learning To “Forget Yourself” In Your Relationship
The many changes and transitions of midlife — kids growing up, career and retirement uncertainties, physical changes, desires for new growth — can accentuate the impact of both our evolutionary heritage and our socially conditioned attitudes upon your relationship. However, long-term connection and commitment to one partner can also be your conscious desire and choice. That capacity is also part of your potential for continued evolution and growth.
That is, there’s also evidence that consciousness enables you to evolve, psychologically, toward attitudes, emotions and behaviors that you want to strengthen or build. Those can include an enriched spiritual connection and deeper intimacy with your partner.
In fact, the 21st century — with its unpredictable, unstable, economic and political conditions and an increasingly diverse, highly interconnected and networked world — makes such conscious evolution both more necessary and possible. The events of 9/11 and the economic decline of the last few years really turned our old way of life on its head — in love, in work and in our sense of life purpose. That upheaval has opened the door to new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving — ones that serve larger, common goals, beyond just self-centered ones.
Overall, I think we’re in the midst of a large-scale shift toward behavior and values that reflect more awareness of interconnection and interdependency throughout the planet. People are becoming more awake to the fact that actions everywhere and anywhere affect everyone, everywhere. That well-being throughout life depends upon actions that sustain and build something of value for the larger good. That’s different from seeking to control and extract from the other what you want just for oneself.
The broader perspectives and the life experience that can accrue by midlife enable you to apply these new realities to your relationship, consciously. Ask yourself how you feel when you do something or give something to someone who really enjoys and appreciates, what you give — whether it’s emotional or material. You probably recognize that it just feels good, period. That’s a form of “forgetting yourself,” and is a model for bringing positive energy in your relationship. That is, such action comes from the heart, for the sake of giving, without regard for getting something back.
Studies of couples who are able to maintain a highly positive, energized connection for the long term indicate that they “forget” themselves and engage in serving the relationship itself. Interestingly, brain scans of couples in long-term love find similarities between them and couples who had just fallen madly in love. Their energy stays healthy and alive.
Here are two practices in common to midlife couples who maintain long-term connection:
Two-way communication and openness. This is the opposite of the CFO who, when informed that his subordinates complained about a lack of two-way communication, said cluelessly, “But I do provide two-way communication: I send e-mails and I tell them in person!” No, this refers to being open in the sense of receptivity to what your partner is experiencing and communicating to you; and being open in the active sense — revealing your own thoughts, concerns, fears and so on. Two-way openness is the antidote to conventional, relationship-killing vying for power over the other. It supports building positive emotions within yourself and toward your partner. And, as new research shows, positive emotions and attitudes can protect against poor health later in life.
Collaboration toward joint, common goals. That’s visible in the most successful, contemporary workplaces. For relationships, the common goal isn’t a new killer app or a new service but rather a high-energy, engaged connection between equals — emotionally, spiritually and behaviorally. In fact, research shows that shared decision making between equal partners actually leads to better decisions. Similarly, brain scans of couples who’ve maintained long-term, positive marriages show activation in areas of the brain that indicate strong connections and engagement. Overall, positive connection around the common goal of the relationship itself is associated with long-term vitality and energy.
In short, a living, growing relationship is an ongoing, flowing energy exchange, emotionally, behaviorally and sexually. Deepak Chopra provides a good description of this in Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, writing that “…the difference between healthy and unhealthy energy can be summarized as follows: Healthy energy is flowing, flexible, dynamic, balanced, soft, associated with positive feelings. Unhealthy energy is stuck, frozen, rigid, brittle, hard, out of balance, associated with negative emotions.”
At midlife, especially, you have the capacity to shift an unhealthy energy state into a healthy one. And that’s a good description of resuscitating a declining relationship and giving it new life.