Relationships in Middle Adulthood

By middle age, more than 90 percent of adults have married at least once. Married people often describe their marital satisfaction 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 in the later years after finances have stabilized and parenting responsibilities have ended. Couples who stay together until after the last child leaves home will probably remain married for at least another 20 years as long as their intent was not to wait until the last child leaves the home to divorce.

Divorce

Middle adults do not exhibit an immunity to problems in relationships. About 50 percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, with the median duration of these marriages being about 7 years. And of those that do last, marital bliss is not always a prominent feature. Why do so many marriages dissolve, and can spouses do anything to ensure that things work out?

Relationships dissolve for as many reasons as there are numbers of relationships. 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. Long‐term relationships rarely end because of difficulties with just one of the partners. Conflicts, problems, growing out of love, and “empty nest” (feeling a lack of purpose in life or emotional stress in response to all the children leaving home) issues inevitably involve both parties.

The course of love changes over time, and these changes may become evident by middle adulthood. The ideal form of love in adulthood involves the three components of passion, intimacy, and commitment—called consummate love, or complete love. This type of love is unselfish, devoted, and most often associated with romantic relationships. Unfortunately, achieving consummate love, as Sternberg noted, is similar to losing weight. Getting started is easy; sticking to it is much harder.

For many middle‐age 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 love need not be this way, nor do such changes necessitate the end of a long‐term relationship. In contrast, 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 wonderful.

For others, the end of passion signals the end of the relationship. Passion enamors some people to such a degree that they do not approach their loving relationships realistically. This observation especially holds true for those who base their relationships on infatuation or the assumption that “true love” takes care of all conflicts and problems. When the flames of passion die out (which is inevitable in many cases) or the going gets rough, these spouses decide to move on to a new relationship. Divorce and extramarital relationships are but two consequences 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 effectively with their spouse or how to work through conflicts are more likely to become separated or divorced. Most couples quarrel and argue, but few know how to work at resolving conflicts equitably.

Relationships that last

What characteristics predict if a loving relationship will thrive or die? 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; and both considering each other as a best friend.

Essential to preserving a quality relationship is the couple's deciding to practice effective communication. Communication establishes and nurtures intimacy within a relationship, helping partners to better relate to and understand each other. Intimacy helps them feel close, connected, and loved, and creates an atmosphere of mutual cooperation for active decision‐making and problem solving. Communicating realistically leads to a satisfying and healthy relationship, regardless of the relationship's level of development.

Friends

In all age groups, friends provide a healthy alternative to family and acquaintances. They offer support, direction, guidance, and a change of pace from usual routines. Although many young adults manage to maintain at least some friendships, family, school, and work can become greater concerns for middle adults. Life responsibilities reach an all‐time high, so time for socializing is often at an exceptional premium. For this reason, middle adults generally maintain fewer close friendships than their newlywed and retired counterparts, although this is not always the case. Yet where quantity is lacking, quality predominates. People often nourish some of the closest ties between friends during middle adulthood.

Children

As adults wait later to marry and start families, more and more middle adults find themselves raising small children. This is not the typical pattern, however. By the time most parents reach middle age, their children are at least of adolescent age.

Ironically, middle adults and their adolescent children often both experience emotional crises. For adolescents the crisis involves the search for their own identities as separate from their family members; for middle adults, the search is for generativity, or fulfillment through such activities as raising children, working, or creating. These two crises are not always compatible, as parents try to deal with their own issues as well as those of their adolescents (for example, discovering identity).

Some middle adults begin to “live out” their own youthful fantasies through their children. They may try to make their teenage children into improved versions of themselves.

Witnessing their children on the verge of becoming adults can trigger a midlife crisis. The adolescent journey into young adulthood reminds middle‐age parents of their own aging processes and the inescapable settling into middle and later adulthood. As a result, parents may experience depression or seek to recapture their youth through age‐inappropriate behavior and sexual adventures.

Some teenagers ignite so much tension at home that their departure to college or into a career acts as a relief to parents. Other parents experience the empty nest syndrome after all of their children leave home. Without the children as a focal point for their lives, they have trouble reconnecting to each other and rediscovering their own individuality separate from parenthood.

In recent decades, Americans have witnessed the phenomenon of grown children staying or returning home to live with their parents. Whether they choose to stay at home for financial or emotional reasons, adult children who live with their parents can cause difficulty for all parties. Parents may delay their own “getting reacquainted” stage while managing a “not‐so‐empty nest,” and their adult children may have to adjust to social isolation and problems establishing intimacy with significant others of their own age. Adult children living at home may also shirk necessary adult responsibilities. This “adult‐child‐living‐with‐the‐parents” arrangement tends to work best when both parties agree upon it as a temporary situation, and when the child is less than 25.

Middle‐age parents typically maintain close relationships with their grown children who have left home. However, many parents report feeling as if they continue to give more than they receive from their relationships with their children. This can be all the more the case for “sandwich” generation middle‐agers who must also tend to the needs of their own aging parents.

Parents

Most middle adults characterize the relationship with their parents as affectionate. Indeed a strong bond often exists between related middle and older adults. Although the majority of middle adults do not live with their parents, they usually maintain frequent and positive contact. And, perhaps for the first time, middle adults see their parents as fallible human beings.

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. Relationships with older adult parents vary a great deal. Some parents remain completely independent of their adult children's support; others partially depend upon their children; and still others completely depend upon them. Daughters and daughters‐in‐law most commonly take care of aging parents and in‐laws.

Support groups and counseling exist for adults caring for their older parents. These typically provide information, teach caregiver skills, and offer emotional support. Other programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, ease the financial burdens of older adults and their caregivers.

Middle adults normally react with intensity and pain to the death of one or both parents. (Of course, this holds true for individuals at all stages of the lifespan.) The death of one's parents ends a life‐long relationship and offers a “wake‐up call” to live life to its fullest and mend broken relationships while the people involved still live. Finally, the death serves as a reminder of one's own mortality.

Even though the death of a parent is never welcome, some long‐term adult caretakers express certain ambivalent feelings about the event.