This blogpost is a continuation of last week’s story. If you haven’t read part one yet, we encourage you to catch up first before you read this week’s article. Find part one here.
When Alex and Allie showed up at Dr. McMann’s office, they didn’t know what to expect, but they were hopeful she could help them make things better. It hadn’t been easy to find someone, but eventually Allie selected someone a couple of her friends recommended. After the typical paperwork and intake procedure, they got down to business when Dr. McMann asked about their families of origin, their work, their current family, why they had come and how they hoped to benefit from therapy. Both described the current state of affairs from their perspective while she listened attentively and asked more questions. Before the end of their first session, she made several observations that fit with what we know about mid-life.
Alex and Allie’s Mid-Life Marriage
First, Dr. McMann noted, Alex and Allie were at precisely the right age and stage of marriage for a “mid-life transition.” They were both in their mid-forties.
Second, both Alex and Allie were aware of their parents’ aging. One of their four parents had died in the last three years. Two of the remaining three were battling serious health concerns. Once strong and independent, they now needed more attention and assistance from their adult children. This added emotional, mental and time stress to both their lives.
Third, one of the couple’s children was already living away from home in college and the other two were not far behind. In just two years, Alex and Allie would be facing an empty nest. Their schedules, once so busy with sports and other child-related activities, would soon be much less active.
Fourth, while Alex and Allie were both very productive and successful at work, their intense focus on career had taken its toll. Enjoyable times with each other took a backseat to their children’s schedules, work-related projects and must-do chores at home. Neither could remember the last time they simply laughed, talked and enjoyed each other’s company.
Finally, for the first time, both were beginning to consider their own mortality. As they observed the concerns of their aging parents, they were even more aware of their own aging. Alex, especially, thought about all the fun activities he once enjoyed that had taken a backseat to his career and kids. As he observed his soon-to-be-adult children enjoying time with friends and the freedom to pursue their own passions, he thought about himself at that age and wondered how that fun person he once was had disappeared. Now his days seemed filled every early morning and late night with work, duty and responsibility.
Alex began questioning the purpose of his life and work and wondered if there was something more for him than the current situation. At the same time, he felt trapped. With one kid in college and two soon to follow, the family needed his income. Work was more intense than ever, which meant he had little leisure time to relieve his stress. When he did get home, it seemed to him that Allie always wanted something more from him and was never really happy with what he did. Sex was a rarity, and the only fun the couple had together involved their children’s activities. When Alex saw his son, Owen, with Emma, his girlfriend, he wondered how long it had been since he and Allie felt that way about each other.
What the Doctor Said
Though not a medical doctor, Dr. McMann’s training included learning about and helping the whole person. As she listened to Alex and Allie describe their current situation, she made a mental note of the following concerns:
Sleep – Neither Alex or Allie was getting sufficient sleep. While they might have survived on five or six hours a night when they were younger, this was no longer adequate or possible for good mental health. In his book about burnout (also a common feature of mid-life), speaker, podcaster and author Carey Nieuwhof emphasizes the importance of good sleep to one’s mental health after exhausting himself for years and reaching the place where he couldn’t continue. He writes, “You are at your kindest when you’re most rested. So rest.”
Healthy lifestyle – It goes without saying that diet and exercise are also essential to maintaining health and vitality well into later life, but this doesn’t mean hitting the gym every day. In the book Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for Living Longer, educator, public speaker and cyclist Dan Buettner identifies exercise as “making movement a natural part of your day.” This means things like walking the dog, taking an evening walk with your partner, or taking the stairs more often than the elevator. When Alex thought about it, he had to admit he sat more than he moved. He thought he didn’t have time to join a gym, but he figured he could manage to walk the dog in the morning and spend another 15-30 minutes walking most evenings, catching up with Allie or one of the kids as he did.
Time for relationships – Alex and Allie were surprised to learn that people who lived the longest, healthiest lives were those who made time to connect with their community and put their family relationships first, including their marriage. Not only did the Blue Zones book emphasize this, but it was also a key finding in “The Study of Adult Development” from Harvard. It found that relationships are critical for our physical well-being. They not only impact our mental health, helping us be happier, but they help us age better and live longer.
Time for exploration (curiosity) and adventure – Finally, Dr. McMann told Alex and Allie that it was time to try new things, re-visit some old hobbies and investigate some new ones. Your children no longer require child care, so have a date night at least once a week. Take cooking lessons. Try hiking. Consider a new hobby. Whatever you do, interject some time for fun and friendship while trying out new activities.
Alex and Allie agreed to some follow-up visits with Dr. McMann, but they left her office feeling hopeful. She said medication could help if these changes didn’t work, but in many cases it was not necessary. The important thing was to recognize this phase of life as a normal transition and see it as a wake-up call to evaluate their current goals and values. This would allow them to create the kind of life they wanted to have for the next 30+ years and beyond. Mid-life might just be a doorway to their best life ever.
If you see yourself in our story about Alex and Allie, don’t panic. We encourage you to get in contact with Good Dads Counseling to schedule an appointment. We have services for individuals, couples and family therapy. Learn more here or give us a call at 417-501-8867.
Dr. Jennifer L. Baker is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She can be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.