As in young adulthood, the two primary long‐term relationships characteristic of middle adulthood are cohabitation and marriage. Cohabitors—unmarried people living together in a sexual relationship—often state their reason for cohabiting as either a trial for marriage or an alternative to marriage. The notion that cohabitation increases eventual marital satisfaction is without clear supporting evidence. Even so, middle adults often approach cohabitation from a more mature, experienced perspective than their younger counterparts. They may, for example, be divorced and not interested in remarriage.
By middle age, more than 90 percent of adults will have married at least once. Marital satisfaction is often described in terms of a U‐curve: People generally affirm that their marriages are happiest during the early years, but not as happy during the middle years. Marital satisfaction then increases again in the later years, once finances have stabilized and parenting responsibilities have ended. Couples who stay together until after the last child has left home will probably remain married for at least another 20 years.
Middle adults are not immune to problems in relationships. About 50 percent of all marriages in United States end in divorce, with the median duration of these marriages being about 7 years. Those marriages that do last are not always happy ones, however. Unfortunately, some marriages ultimately dissolve, even when the spouses try to ensure that things work out.
The reasons for dissolving a relationship are many and varied, just as relationships themselves differ in their make‐up and dynamics. In some cases, the couple cannot handle an extended crisis. In other cases, the spouses change and grow in different directions. In still others, the spouses are completely incompatible from the very start. However, long‐term relationships rarely end because of difficulties with just one of the partners. Both parties are usually responsible for the factors that may lead to a relationship's end, such as conflicts, problems, growing out of love, or empty‐nest issues that arise after the last child leaves his or her parent's home.
Love changes over time, and such changes may become evident by middle adulthood. The ideal form of love in adulthood involves three components: passion, intimacy, and commitment—termed consummate love, or complete love. This variety of love is unselfish, devoted, and is most often associated with romantic relationships. Unfortunately, as Robert Sternberg has noted, achieving consummate love is similar to losing weight. Getting started is easy; sticking to it is much harder.
For many middle‐aged couples, passion fades as intimacy and commitment build. In other words, many middle adults find themselves in a marriage typified by companionate love, which is both committed and intimate, but not passionate. Yet a relationship that has lost its sexual nature need not remain this way, nor do such changes necessitate the end of a long‐term relationship. In fact, many middle adult couples find effective ways of improving their ability to communicate, increasing emotional intimacy, rekindling the fires of passion, and growing together. The understanding that evolves between two people over time can be striking.
For others, the end of passion signals the end of the relationship. Some people are so enamored with passion that they do not approach their loving relationships realistically. This is especially true for those whose relationship was based on infatuation or the assumption that so‐called true love takes care of all conflicts and problems. When the flames of passion subside (which is inevitable in many cases) or times get rough, these spouses decide to move on to new relationships. Extramarital relationships are one consequence of marital unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Interpersonal disagreements may increase as the couple becomes better acquainted and intimate. People who never learned how to communicate their concerns and needs with their spouse or how to work through conflicts are more likely to become separated or divorced. Most couples quarrel and argue, but fewer know how to work at resolving conflicts equitably. Troubled couples, however, can learn to communicate effectively through counseling or education, thus avoiding breakups and divorce.
Relationships that last
What is a sure predictor of a loving relationship's potential for growing or wilting? Long‐term relationships share several factors, including both partners regarding the relationship as a long‐term commitment; both verbally and physically expressing appreciation, admiration, and love; both offering emotional support to each other; and both considering the other as a best friend.
Essential to preserving a quality relationship is the couple's decision to practice effective communication. Communication is the means by which intimacy is established and nurtured within a relationship; it helps partners better relate to and understand each other. Communication helps them feel close, connected, and loved. And it creates an atmosphere of mutual cooperation for active decision making and problem solving. To communicate realistically is to have a satisfying and healthy relationship, regardless of the relationship's level of development.
In all age groups, friends are a healthy alternative to family and acquaintances. Friends offer support, direction, guidance, and a change of pace from usual routines. Many young adults manage to maintain at least some friendships in spite of the time constraints caused by family, school, and work; however, finding time to maintain friendships becomes more difficult for middle adults. During this period, life responsibilities are at an all‐time high, so having extra time for socializing is usually rare. For this reason, middle adults may have less friends than their newlywed and retired counterparts. Yet where quantity of friendships may be lacking, quality predominates. Some of the closest ties between friends are formed and nourished during middle adulthood.
As adults wait later to marry and start families, more and more middle adults find themselves rearing small children. This trend differs from the traditional American pattern of the last 100 years in which couples started their families in late adolescence or early adulthood. Despite the rising number of later marriages and older first‐time parents, this traditional model of early marriage and parenthood still predominates, meaning that by the time most parents reach middle age, their children are at least of adolescent age.
Ironically, middle adults and their adolescent children are both prone to emotional crises, which may occur at the same time. For adolescents, the crisis involves the search for identity; for middle adults, the search is for generativity. These two crises are not always compatible, as parents try to deal with their own issues as well as those of their adolescents.
Parents respond to their children's adolescence in different ways. Some middle adults attempt to live out their own youthful fantasies—sexual and otherwise—through their children. They may try to make their teenage children into improved versions of themselves. For example, some parents may force their teenagers to take music lessons or make them join a sports team, while other parents may insist that their children attend a certain college or enter the family business.
Witnessing their children on the verge of becoming adults can also trigger a midlife crisis for some middle adults. The adolescent journey into young adulthood is a reminder to middle‐aged parents of their own aging processes and inescapable settling into middle and later adulthood. Finally, for some families, teenagers may ignite so much tension at home that their departure to college or into a career can be a relief to parents. Other parents experience the empty‐nest syndrome, or sense of aloneness, once all their children leave home.
In recent decades, some cultures have witnessed the phenomenon of grown children staying or returning home to live with their parents. Regardless of whether adult children choose to live with their parents for financial or emotional reasons, the experience can be difficult for all parties. Parents may be forced to delay getting reacquainted with each other as they manage a not‐so‐empty nest, and their adult children may have to adjust to social isolation and problems establishing intimate relationships. Adult children living at home also may be less likely to assume adult responsibilities, such as washing their own clothes or paying rent. This type of living arrangement tends to work best when the situation is mutually agreeable, is temporary, and when the children are less than 25 years old.
Middle‐aged parents typically maintain close relationships with their grown children who have left home. Many parents report feeling as if they continue to give more than receive from relationships with their children, including helping with their finances or watching their pets when they are out of town. Still, most middle adults and their grown children tend to value their time together, even as their respective roles continue to change.
Most middle adults characterize the relationship with their parents as affectionate. Indeed, a strong bond is often present between related middle and older adults. Although the majority of middle adults do not live with their parents, contacts are usually frequent and positive. And perhaps for the first time, middle adults are able to see their parents as the fallible human beings that they are.
One issue facing middle adults is that of caring for their aging parents. In some cases, adults, who expected to spend their middle‐age years traveling and enjoying their own children and grandchildren, instead find themselves taking care of their ailing parents. Some parents are completely independent of their adult children's support, while others are partially independent of their children; and still others are completely dependent. Children of dependent parents may assist them financially (paying their bills), physically (bringing them into their homes and caring for them), and emotionally (as a source of human contact as the parents' social circle diminishes). Daughters and daughters‐in‐law are the most common caretakers of aging parents and in‐laws.
Support groups and counseling resources are available for adults caring for their older parents. These forms of assistance typically provide information, teach caregiver skills, and offer emotional support. Other programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, are designed to ease the financial burdens of older adults and their caregivers.
The middle adult's reaction to the death of one or both parents is normally intense and painful, as it is for individuals of all stages of the life span. For the middle adult, the death of a parent ends a lifelong relationship. Additionally, it may be wake‐up call to live life to its fullest and to mend broken relationships while loved ones are still alive. Finally, a parent's death is a reminder of one's own mortality.
Even though the death of a parent is never welcome, some long‐term adult caretakers express ambivalent feelings about the event. The grown children of parents dying of a lingering illness, for example, usually do not want to see their loved ones suffer—even if alleviation means death. These children may find themselves hoping simultaneously for a cure and for a peaceful release from the pain that their parent is experiencing.