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Wilburn: Make effort to rekindle flame in midlife marriage
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The middle years of marriage are difficult to pinpoint.

The time frame we're talking about, especially for couples without children, is difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the middle years of marriage are receiving more attention due to longer life expectancy and couples spending more years together after children leave home.

Research has found marital satisfaction begins to decrease during the early years of marriage and reaches a low point during the middle years.

This change is often related to more stress during this time - there's increased work demands, you're parenting adolescents or empty nesting, possibly even caring for aging parents - never mind retirement issues.

For most couples, it is a challenge to learn how to manage all the change and let their relationship continue to grow.

But keep in mind there are also benefits for the relationship in the middle years of marriage.

Because most of today's midlifers enjoy relatively good health and their children are more independent, it's an opportunity for couples to pursue their own interests and to spend more time together.

Because marriage is a constantly evolving process, couples need to learn new skills as well as sharpen existing ones to navigate the changes.

Strengthening strategies

A vital and satisfying marriage requires marital maintenance. Here are a few ways to maintain that marriage potential.

Spending time together: It is ideal for a couple to spend time together when they are at their best (e.g., well rested, alert, calm).

Scheduling time with your spouse may reduce the chance of it being "leftover time." Make this time together fun by enjoying simple things like a walk, a sunset or a cup of cappuccino.

Common goals and teamwork: It is essential to support each other in the achievement of individual and marital goals. Revisit and revise your goals periodically to adapt to changes, and use these to set priorities and make decisions as a team. This encourages cooperation rather than competition.

Communication and expectations: Communication is vital. Listen attentively, avoid blame and sarcasm and validate your spouse's feelings.

Rather than assuming, ask questions to clarify each other's position on issues before decisions are made. Plus, each partner has an obligation to verbalize his or her expectations to avoid misunderstandings.

Appreciation and affection: Sometimes partners who have been married a long time may unknowingly take each other for granted.

Simple expressions of appreciation can be forgotten, and showing them are powerful methods of strengthening a marriage. Love must be shown in words and actions.

Sexual fulfillment: Sexual responsiveness can also contribute to a good marriage. Sexual difficulties at midlife are most often the result of normal physical and emotional changes that reduce desire, but there are many ways to compensate and adjust.

For example, exercise and good eating habits can enhance sexuality. It is important to communicate with your spouse about how you feel and what you desire.

Agreement on gender roles: Even if a couple has worked out their gender roles (e.g., who does what) for the early years of marriage, midlife may be a time when partners want to revise their role assignments.

Reduced work schedules, new tasks, retirement or caring for aging parents, for example, may require renegotiating roles and responsibilities.

Commitment to growth: Examine your commitment to each other and make a commitment to grow together for the second half of your marriage. Let go of disappointments and instead look forward to the second half of married life, making it the best it can be!

Most couples have a great deal of unrealized potential in their relationship, but it takes a lifetime of sharing and caring to achieve it.

The goal of marital maintenance is to develop, through a process of growth and behavior change, the potential for a mutually satisfying and creative relationship.

The potential for a stronger relationship is realized as spouses develop a realistic appreciation of their partner as a person and value each other's contributions to the marriage.

Through communication and mutual sharing, couples are well on their way to enriching and strengthening their marriages.

Source: Ohio State University Extension

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Her Family Ties column runs in Sunday Life on the first Sunday of each month. Contact: 770-535-8290.

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