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Maintenance for a Thriving Marriage in Midlife

Author Dorothy Greco shares insights from her book on revitalizing marriage.

Dorothy Greco, used with permission
Source: Dorothy Greco, used with permission

The challenges and stresses of midlife can be unrelenting, and maintaining a healthy marriage with our spouses can become less of a priority. This is not a unique issue, and in this interview, Dorothy Greco shares how we can approach our relationships from a new perspective in midlife.

Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer and photographer who lives outside Boston. The author of Making Marriage Beautiful, Dorothy and her husband Christopher lead marriage workshops and retreats, speak at conferences nationwide, and have been helping couples create and sustain healthy marriages for over twenty-five years. Dorothy has written for Christianity Today, Relevant, Missio Alliance, MOPS, Propel Women, Christians for Biblical Equality, The Perennial Gen, and The Mudroom, and is a member of Redbud Writers' Guild and The Pelican Project. Dorothy has also worked as a professional photo-journalist for more than twenty-five years. Her work brings hope and encouragement to those longing for healing, reconciliation, and joy.

Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book, Marriage in the Middle?

Dorothy Greco: A few years ago, my husband and I witnessed three marriages explode. Each of these couples was married for a long time and all of the spouses were serious about their Christian faith. This was both sobering and alarming. As someone who has been doing pastoral care for more than two decades, it caused me to come to a full stop and consider the contributing factors.

The truth is, the challenges and stresses of midlife can be unrelenting. We can find ourselves ambushed by grief, rocked by loss, and mired in discouragement. We can feel so focused on putting out the brush fires that we fail to notice our most intimate relationship is smoldering. No one sets out to neglect their marriage but far too often, that’s exactly what happens during the middle years.

I wanted to name and normalize these realities so that couples would feel less alone. I also wanted to offer some in-depth, psychological and spiritual insights about why we tend to spin out when we’re stressed and overwhelmed so that couples could begin to break free from unproductive patterns.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

DG: Almost every day when I sat down to write this book, I prayed that it would be a conduit of hope. I want couples to understand that the losses, traumas, and crises—though painful—actually provide opportunities for growth and dynamic change.

One of the key lessons of midlife should be coming to terms with our powerlessness. We can’t control how our parents’ lives will end, whether our retirement accounts will be wiped out in an economic downturn, and to some extent, how our bodies age. This can leave us feeling helpless.

However, we’re never totally powerless. We get to decide how we respond in the face of loss, disappointment, and hardship. By taking ownership of our contributions to relational issues, accepting our own and our spouse’s limitations (versus trying to change each other), forgiving thoroughly, and learning how to love sacrificially, we can experience the kind of transformative, healing love that God created us for.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

DG: In Chapter 1 of the book I write, “Resilience determines how quickly we’ll bounce back after something difficult or trying has happened.” None of us are immune to loss or difficulty. Especially in 2020! Whether we’re facing health issues, the deaths of our parents, adult children moving on, or unemployment, the measure of our maturity is how we respond in these situations.

To be resilient, we first need to learn how to acknowledge and grieve our losses. If we pretend that we’re not hurting or that the losses are insignificant, we deny our reality.

Second, pride often prevents us from attaining the kind of health and wholeness that we truly want. We need to admit where we’re choosing maladaptive coping methods like eating for comfort, retail therapy, or mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds for hours on end.

And finally, we need to prioritize relationships. Engaging with a healthy, empathetic community will ease our aloneness and help us carry our heavy loads. While it’s true that we get wounded in the context of relationships, we also find our healing there.

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

DG: When we give a hearty yes to the wedding-day question—will you do everything in your power to support this couple’s marriage?—we agree to stand with our friends as they begin their lives together. But practically speaking, what does that mean? No one wants to be meddling or intrusive.

The first thing I’d recommend is that we pay attention to relational red flags. If there’s obvious tension, sarcasm, disrespect, or discord, find a time to gently ask your friends if they would be open to hearing your concerns. They may not say yes and sometimes even if they agree, they might be defensive.

Assure them you’re checking in because you care about them, not because your own marriage is perfect. If you’ve struggled with similar issues, admitting that might help them to feel understood rather than judged. Additionally, use tentative language and remain curious rather than assuming you know exactly what’s going on. For example, instead of, “You guys are always speaking so harshly to each other. You must be really mad,” try, “We’ve noticed that sometimes there seems to be tension between the two of you. Is there anything we could help you process?”

And finally, if you suspect that there might be abuse going on, it’s best to speak privately with the spouse who’s on the receiving end. Be sure to ask them if they feel safe and then be prepared to immediately help them find protection and care if they need it.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

DG: I’m attempting to embody the values of Marriage in the Middle in my own marriage! Seriously. Writing such a vulnerable book has a way of holding one’s feet to the fire.

Additionally, the church that we attend and where my husband leads worship has been engaging in deep conversations about race and racial reconciliation. We want to understand how to lament with and better support the People of Color in our church body.

Another issue that’s been taking up real estate in my thought life is how working families are going to navigate this school year. It’s not at all obvious how moms and dads will be able to get their work done while teaching or supervising their kids. My husband (who is also a teacher) and I are probably going to offer some kind of support group (virtually) during the fall so I’m currently imagining what that might look like.

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

DG: Yes! 2020 has been ridiculously hard on all of us, especially marriages and families. Many of our existing fault lines have been revealed and, in some cases, widened.

I want to encourage folks to ask for help. Not just one time but as often as you feel needy. Though our culture exalts self-sufficiency and independence, there’s no shame in being needy. It’s actually how we’re created.

And when you’re having a good-enough day, check in on your friends. If you’re going to the grocery store, ask your neighbor who’s trying to manage online school for her elementary school kids if you can grab anything for her. Send an encouraging text to someone who might be struggling. Offer to pay your co-worker’s student loans for the month. Those kinds of sacrificial, outward-looking choices will help us all to get us through this unprecedented season.