Long-term committed relationships in midlife are subjected to a variety of strains and stresses. In addition to the complexity of how couples interact with each other, not to mention how their dynamics evolve with the addition of children, are the individual changes that partners experience over time. The media’s attempts to capture the subtleties of long-term relationships in adulthood are often well-intentioned, but misguided. They exaggerate the plight of midlife couples, over-emphasize the myth of the midlife crisis, and represent the male- but not the female- point of view.
A new television series, USA Network’s Satisfaction, premiering on July 17, 2014, manages to portray midlife relationships in a serious, though often comic, way that captures many of the subtleties that adult relationship researchers observe in the laboratory. The premise of the series is that both husband and wife, married for 18 years, each struggling with their own personal desires for long-term fulfillment are not finding it quite yet. Without giving away the plot line, essentially, the series promises to show us how both partners wrestle with their midlife issues in ways that challenge their personal identity, role as parents, and search for meaning in life.
On the surface, the show is about sex, but this is only a small part of the picture from a psychological standpoint. This is another positive feature of the series. We’ve seen far too many movies and television shows that equate the search with identity in midlife with the search for sexual expression. Usually this search involves the exploitation of partners, typically women, much younger than the male characters as in the classic midlife crisis movie, American Beauty. True, the 1978s classic, An Unmarried Woman, portrays a woman in a sexually-oriented midlife crisis but again, the focus on sex for the sake of sex fails to touch the deeper themes of identity and the search for meaning.
With the many complex lines of development in midlife, the ties that bind long-term relationships can also unbind them. Individuals develop within the context of their relationship, but they also develop in ways that involve their own inner demons.. In Satisfaction, the demons involve each partner’s desire for career fulfillment, the wish to get back in touch with the values and ideals that shaped their early lives, and the hopes that they can transmit these values to their teenage daughter. These are the themes of psychosocial development we see in Erik Erikson’s psychosocial developemental stages: identity, generativity, and ego integrity. Though clearly the couple are wealthy, thanks in large part to the husband’s demanding but monetarily rewarding job, they are finding the search for fulfillment to involve more than the search for financial security.
The search for intimacy is, of course, also at the heart of this show as, indeed it is in so much of what Hollywood produces. However, by weaving this theme into the themes of personal development and fulfillment, we see a much more realistic (though of course exaggerated) portrayal of what each adult in a long-term relationship experiences every day.
These themes of how individual and couples develop over time came under the scrutiny of the psychological research lab in a 2014 article by University of Houston psychologist Benjamin Hadden and his colleagues C. Veronica Smith and Gregory Webster. They used the now well-established framework of adult attachment theory to develop a model that would explain how relationships would either ravel or unravel with time.
According to adult attachment theory, we develop our sense of self in relationships as a function of our bonding with caregivers when we were infants. In the majority of cases, the child develops a secure attachment style of being able to bond with others but not be overly clingy. However, if the child is made to feel that the caregiver is unreliable and neglecting, the chances are high that the child will develop an anxious or avoidant attachment style.
Much of the research adult intimacy focuses on the connection between attachment style and relationship satisfaction at one point in time and typically involves college student or young adult samples. The findings typically show that people who are securely attached have higher relationship quality than those who are anxious or avoidant. Hadden and his colleagues built a long-term relationship model that they called “TARA” (Temporal Adult Romantic Attachment) out of the findings from 57 studies involving over 14,000 people in relationships that had lasted between 1 and slightly over 12 years.
After whittling down the many contributors to relationship satisfaction, Hadden and team concluded that the longer the relationship, the more heavily attachment style became weighted in determining satisfaction. The early phases of love may be enough to overshadow the relationship baggage that an insecure attachment style will bring. Over time, however, the anxious or avoidant partner becomes more and more difficult to live with and this is when things start to unravel.
Individual developmental pathways, then, can interact in important ways with the changing dynamics over time of a long-term relationship. As the avoidant individual moves through the years of early and middle adulthood, the inability to share at a deep interpersonal level becomes more and more problematic, particularly when this person is partnered with a securely attached individual who is seeking deeper and deeper levels of intimacy and relationship fulfillment.
Similarly, the anxiously attached partner’s tendency to want to be together all the time can create strife when the securely attached partner is seeking (as our characters in Satisfaction) deeper levels of personal fulfillment. When both partners are insecurely attached, the situation becomes even more dire over time. The anxiously attached is doomed not to find support from an avoidant partner and the avoidant partner becomes even more distant. Ultimately, such pairings are almost certain to end in divorce.
The TARA model is based on cross-sectional research, meaning that couples weren’t literally followed over time, and this is definitely a limitation of the Hadden study (which they acknowledge). Moreover, the study obviously doesn’t include people who split up or divorced. If those exes were included in the sample, the findings would probably be even more powerful.
The good news from the TARA model is that securely attached individuals, which do constitute the majority of adults, are able to weather the storms of their individual developmental trajectories over time. Their strong bond allows them to explore, individually and as a couple, the midlife themes of development that will help them find true fulfillment.
Parodies of midlife adults, mocking their search for eternal youth, intense yearning for sports cars, and self-expression in the bedroom, can be funny but bear little relationship to reality of what most people are actually seeking. Fortunately, the network that usually brings us buddy shows has managed to avoid these midlife stereotypes.
Research on attachment style shows how these individual midlife strains can either promote or hinder long-term relationship satisfaction. Even if your relationship isn’t where you want it to be at the moment you may be able to get to that point by pursuing your drive for personal fulfillment and allowing your partner to do the same.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Hadden, B. W., Smith, C., & Webster, G. D. (2014). Relationship duration moderates associations between attachment and relationship quality: Meta-analytic support for the temporal adult romantic attachment model. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(1), 42-58. doi:10.1177/1088868313501885