Honest Talk about Marriage in the Middle of Life

If 30 is the new 20 then maybe 40 is the new, I don’t know, 27? At least I hope it is as I move every day closer to four decades of life.  My husband and I will have been married 17 years in a few months and people told us it would get easier and easier.  

I’m not sure if that was entirely true.

Whether we have just graduated from college with a year of marriage under our belt or we are looking at high schools and colleges with our teenagers, we are in busy times.  Maybe we have a couple-o-kids and rent to pay and a car to fix and jobs to keep, and to be honest, it is exhausting. 

Life in this stage is a little like being in the first weeks of pregnancy.  

In the first trimester a woman is absolutely drained. When I was only about 10 weeks pregnant with my oldest daughter I remember wondering how on earth did I need to take a nap at 8:30 in the morning? I was a school teacher at the time and there I was, nearly snoozing at my teacher’s desk as I welcomed my middle school homeroom class for the day.  

A mom-friend of mine whispered to me as I almost nodded off in church the next Sunday: It’s because your body is building all of the systems for a complete other body! No wonder you’re tired! 

Ah. Yes, well that makes perfect sense. 

It’s the same in this middle-section of life. We’re building jobs and families and those life-long relationships that we hope we’ll have after we’ve been there and done all of that. We are in a period of constructing and making and our hearts and bodies are spent. How can we not be exhausted, stressed and in need of a “life-nap” at any given moment? 

I think the first thing we need to recognize is that our relationships, including our marriages, need a little grace.

Life is full of stages and this stage is a particularly difficult one. 

A couple years ago, my husband and I entered what I can only describe as a dark period of our marriage. There were no real giant moral failures (at least not like there has been in the past for us) but we entered a season of anger, passionless intimacy, selfishness and mutual hurt and we are only now starting to climb out. 

Some of it was due to poor spiritual and emotional choices on our part, but some of it was just the place in life that we were in. We were in the middle of middle-life and it was hard to take time for each other, it was difficult to listen, and it has been almost impossible to truly see one another. 

All the sermons on marriage and the classes tell us the same things, don’t they? 

Have sex more. 

Spend time with each other.

Date again.

Rekindle the fire.

Recognize that the person you married is still there. 

But let’s talk honestly.  All that stuff is great for “Kristy” and “Shawn” who live next door. But for me? You can’t just tell me to have sex more. That doesn’t work. And sometimes when I hear the how-to-rekindle-the-fire talks, I really just want to say are-you-kidding-me? You don’t live my life. You don’t walk my halls.  

So I believe the second thing we need to do is to be honest. 

Sometimes there isn’t real time for regular date nights. Not when we’re shuttling girls to Daisy’s on Friday nights and kids to Little League on Saturday afternoons. 

Sometimes sleep really is more important than sex, even if you’re a guy. When we’ve been up since three am with a baby who is cutting her teeth, the last thing we want to do at nine at night is get naked and party.  We just want to curl up with our pillow, {the one we hug} and close our eyes. 

And sometimes that person you married has changed and it’s not a matter of finding the person you married deep within his new beard or new job; it’s getting to know a new person all over again.

Life and hardship change a person and a lot of love is trying to fall for a “new” person all over again. 

And maybe you don’t actually cheat but there are crushes and wonderings and feelings of longing for something new.

Let’s face it, that exhilaration of first lips against lips and the excitement of promises whispered in ears is really never the same after the beginning of life with your spouse. 

But this is the stuff no one talks about. Not even our closest friends. We don’t talk about it because we think no one else feels the same. 

But we aren’t alone. Many of us are in the same middle-lifed boat. 

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it begins with grace and honesty. Once we can recognize with clarity (which is actually self-honesty) that we really are in a hard section of life and we can be honest about it with our spouses and our friends, then we begin to see relief. 

Does marriage get easier? Maybe in some ways it does. But the promise and commitments we make to this one person at the beginning becomes a life long exercise in grace, love and in transparency. Let’s move forward with grace and with honesty and perhaps we can walk through this middle of life with joy that outweighs the exhaustion. 

Have you had struggles in the midst of your marriage? Have ‘programs’ been helpful or not?

Sarah Markley is a full time mother, speaker and writer. She lives in Southern California with her two daughters, Hope (10) and Naomi (6) and her husband, Chad and just celebrated 16 years of marriage. She blogs at sarahmarkley.com and speaks regularly for conferences, MOPs meetings and church groups. She is a staff writer for (in)courage and a monthly columnist for A Deeper Story. She believes wholeheartedly in second chances, radical grace and the belief that everyone has a story to tell.

[Photo: seanmcgrath, Creative Commons]

  • Melanie Pennington

    We are there right now! My FIL is terminally ill. One child is finishing college and the other just beginning. I weigh more than I ever have. My husband is in grad school and getting set to change careers. As lay in bed last night, he mentioned that I didn’t always feel like his friend. That cut to my heart, but I can understand as well. He doesn’t always feel like my friend. Grace in marriage is important. Maybe more important that sex.

    • Sarah Markley

      I’m so sorry about your father in law, Melanie. Hoping that you and your husband can find grace as well as intimacy during this middle time.

  • http://twitter.com/radchenko819 Anna Radchenko

    I struggle with being in the stage of wonderings and feelings of longing for something new (as you may recall from my story in past emails we’ve had) … the thoughts come and go, and I’m glad when they’re gone, but it seems to hit even harder when they come back.

    You wrote, “And sometimes that person you married has changed and it’s not a matter of finding the person you married deep within his new beard or new job; it’s getting to know a new person all over again.”

    How true the above quote is. We’ve only been married two years come this August, but I found myself (only recently this past week) feeling like I’m holding my husband back from being who he really is… he used to go places, do things, spend time with other men in fellowship and discipleship, he took photographs and had a life of his own… when we first met I was intrigued by all of that… now I feel as though all he can do is go to work and spend his spare time with me, at home. I brought it up to him yesterday and he told me I’m not holding him back, that he’s where he wants to be – with me… but I can’t shake the feeling that he could, may have accomplished more without me? However, perhaps I need to just accept that he just turned 26 and his priorities are changing… his interests are changing, HE’S changing… and so I am? Although I feel terribly the same, actually terribly lost, no where near how I was when we met three years ago… I was so sure then, so full of life and joy, and passion… and now I just feel lost, tired all of the time, and deflated.

    Sorry for the mini-post :) I have many words in my mind today, but am procrastinating on writing the posts I actually need to that are due! Thanks for writing. Your honesty in your posts about your marriage are encouraging… you’re not the only one – and neither am I. Thanks for reading.

    • Sarah Markley

      Anna, I so love your honesty. Thank you so much for sharing so openly. I think you’ve said something very interesting — that he’s heading into his late 20s and his priorities are changing. Those of us who get married in our early 20s have to face some big stuff – we are still figuring out ourselves and our lives at that age. And we change a lot from 18-30.

      I think if you and he both can be honest about your journeys and maybe seek some help from a counsellor to help you through the rough spot, you’ll be doing the right thing.

      I’m so sorry that things are hard right now. When we got married, no one told us it would be this hard. Ever. Even if they did i’m not sure I would have listened. But even so, it isn’t easy.

      I hear you. And you aren’t alone, Anna.

    • Erika

      Anna, I’m not sure how old you are, but I’m 26 and let me tell you — it’s been one CRAZY year, at least internally. And I think a lot of examples from society would show the same. I think it’s just a time of great transition in general, in evaluation of choice, in building a foundation for habits. I think the best thing to do is keep being honest, keep urging your husband to be honest… and try not to suppress what your gut is telling you. Like Sarah said, maybe counseling is a good idea. There’s a stigma associated with it and people think: “Oh no! Counseling! That means we will fail!” but that’s only because too often, people go to counseling a little too late. Think about going for one or two sessions… it may help change both of your perspectives on what’s a trying period in anyone’s growth and development. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.chripczuk Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk

    Good words, Sarah. Sometimes I think it’s hard to talk about the realities of marriage because it always feels like you’re telling someone else’s secrets, especially if you and your spouse share friends. My husband and I were terrified when we went to a marriage consellor for a “ten year tune-up,” and probably the most helpful part of it all was setting aside the time to invest and having the car ride there and back to talk. Yes, marriaged takes work, always.

    • Sarah Markley

      i agree. and i think that, like following christ, marriage comes with cost. and anyone who says otherwise is selling you a false bill of goods. but in the same manner, it also comes with great gain. thank you for your honest comment kelly!

  • anonymous

    Our stories are parallel in so many ways. We just entered year 16 of marriage and these past couple of years have been the most difficult. More difficult than losing his parents the first year…more difficult than the emotional affair 5 years ago. We lost our house last year, lost our business last week and the one thing I’ve learned from all these tough moments is how you react during the trials. How you treat one another is crucial in what your future holds. I wish someone would have told me this when I was 20, watching my husband watch his mother take her last breath. Was I loving, gracious, kind, gentle, understanding? Was I his friend? That one moment could have been the deciding factor on whether or not he could trust me with his emotions in the future. I often think that if I ever get the opportunity to counsel a young married couple…this is what I would tell them. No matter what life throws your way, LOVE ONE ANOTHER first. I always tell my husband “We’re a team–I’m not the enemy.” I speak truth and life over my marriage, even though many mistakes have been made. We spent 2 years in family counseling and it helped. It is a process, though. Changes won’t be made over night.

    • Sarah Markley

      oh, i love this: love one another first. so so true.

      and yes, changes don’t come overnight. i love that you said that too. such wisdom in your comment.

      i’m so sorry for all your recent hardship. hoping the next stage for you is a little brighter.

  • http://youaremygirls.com/ Jennifer Camp

    Thank you, Sarah. And in that honesty with one another, we hopefully increase in trust for one another, supporting each other’s journeys and walks with God. My husband encouraged me, years ago, to create a ‘what do you love list’, as he wanted to know how to love me better. He wanted to know what I loved to do, how God gives me life and energy, and how he could support me in doing those things I loved. It would help us learn more about each other (after already being married for 15 years) and love each other better. The invitation to learn more about my heart was beautiful–but it was surprising how difficult it was for me to make the list. I was so removed from my heart–what I loved and how God uniquely made me to be with Him and live life with HIm–that it took me months to approach the idea and listen to God as to how in the world to write down what I loved.

    Our kids are 11, 9, and 7 now, and we are also approaching 17 years of marriage. That love list was a beginning for us. It helps us not only better understand ourselves, but also support one another. It helps us make sure that we live out these lists of ours–and love each other the way we need to be loved.

    • Sarah Markley

      i love this jennifer!! such a great idea and such good wisdom. thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/MaryDeMuth Mary DeMuth

    So proud of you, friend. Good words, these.

    • Sarah Markley

      thank you friend!!! xo

  • http://jacquelinegardner.wordpress.com/ Jacqueline Gardner

    I’m not married, but as a woman in a committed relationship potentially moving in that direction, I really appreciate your honesty, Sarah! You’ve put voice to a lot of my own anxieties about the future. It’s really comforting to hear the truth about marriage…not just the good stuff and not just the crappy stuff, but just the real life stuff. I think it helps singles to know what to expect and how to respond. It lets us know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into and reminds us that it’s not all puppies and rainbows…but it’s also not all miserable and emotionless either (sometimes I get that impression from married people…) Thanks for this piece! :)

    • Sarah Markley

      yes. you are so right! there are so many amazing things about being married. but always they are coupled with the difficult. thank you for your perspective jacqueline!

  • Emily Wierenga

    Just so glad you’re part of the Prodigal team, girl! Love you!

    • Sarah Markley

      me too!!

  • Becca

    This was just what I needed to hear today. I just wrote a post about how hard my marriage is and feel panicky and alone that I made myself vulnerable about it. But I feel like you’re write and that’s why I wrote it – the more we talk about it and recognize we aren’t alone, the better we will be able to work towards change. Thanks for sharing – (here’s the post if you want to read it) http://thestanleyclan.blogspot.com/2013/04/done-for-days-when-marriage-feels.html

    • Sarah Markley

      so true, becca! we are not alone!

  • Cherie

    I recently started following your blog and I have to say I love your honesty and transparency. Our marriage recovered too from my infidelity and we have been married 24 years now. God has done a lot of amazing things in that restoration! There is still struggle and imperfection! I firmly believe that the purpose of marriage is to make us more like Christ. How can we do that if we have no trials to test our faith and overcome? We are now empty nesters AND my hubby is getting ready to retire from the army….always life changes and new challenges with each:-) thank you again for your openness!

    • Sarah Markley

      congratulations on 24 years!! and yes, cherie. i agree – our marriages can make us more like Jesus. thank you!

  • Michelle

    Oh My… How did you KNOW that I desperately needed these words??? You pretty much nailed the current stage of my marriage… Yes, things have been much, MUCH worse in the past. But I guess my husband & I assumed when God restored our marriage things would get easier, and the passion & love would thrive. It feels the complete opposite of that right now. We are exhausted, lonely, and strangers to one another. Passion?? Mercy, THAT is more work than tending to the needs of my autistic son. We truly love each other, we do! We just lost “how” to love each other along the way… It is a relief to hear we are not alone in theis journey…
    Thank you, Sarah!
    ~Michelle xoxo
    (The girl who is continually Blessed & encouraged with each word you write…)

    • Sarah Markley

      thank you so much michelle!!

  • Erika

    Thank you for this! A lot of people talk about the beginning of marriage and sometimes even the end, but not about that middle time when you’re used to each other, when life and commitments are going on all around you and it’s so busy that if you pause and look at yourself in the mirror, you’ll realize you’ve changed and you didn’t even know it! I definitely want to make sure that if/when I get married, we make it through the middle part and someone else TALKING about it and being open about it helps to know what sorts of issues we’ll face. Thanks for this, thanks for being honest!

    • Sarah Markley

      i agree erika! thank you so much for your comment!

  • Grace

    Oh I could just cry. We are approaching our 23rd anniversary and I will be 48 shortly after that and I piped in to say that I had no idea how hard this stage of life would be. I don’t think I have heard of a program geared to the kinds of things that jump out and slap you at this time of life but I would have to say NO I don’t think “programs” work. Honesty with yourself, your spouse and friends that you trust is the only way through this that I can see. It would be so much easier to jump ship some days but that isn’t the person I a) want to be and b) need to be as a Christ follower (not necessarily in that order). The rewards for sticking with it are, some days, obvious and comforting… other days I have to just remind myself of a and b. You are certainly speaking my language right now. Please keep talking. :)

    • MarkAllman

      And sometimes a and b are what get your through.

  • MarkAllman

    I think we all have expectations that surround everything in our life; from our marriage to being a parent to having a job and none of those expectations turn out to be very good. Being married and being a parent has not gotten easier and in some ways much harder. Bad choices in any area can rock them all. I think it helps to spell out expectations continually so they can be discussed, discarded or kept. I do not think much of the guidance out there on helping marriages helps those who are in danger of losing it all. I heard a sermon where the pastor said recently that you should never go to bed angry with your spouse and he and his wife had stayed up to 2 or 3 am at times. I thought some people have no idea how bad a relationship can be. I wanted to scream and say for some people they would have to stay up around the clock for days. Life is tough and there are not easy answers. It takes a lot of grace, love, forgiveness, and hard hard work to get through life with a marriage in tact and being the parent you want to be.

    • Grace

      Well said Mark.

  • Elena Shaun

    What you say is so true: everyone who commented is knows life’s difficulties and challenges. I receive your posts in my email box daily and there’s always something in there for me to relate to. I thank you for that! I too am feeling just as all the other ladies (and male) are or have. Married for 23 years, mostly good, but had infidelity, mostly on the emotional level. I struggle but know I love my husband. We have 3 beautiful children. One is in college and the other are 5 and 7. Lots of happenings in our lives at 45 and 46. But we have Jesus. He is the only “man” who can make it right. He is the only “man” who was perfect and He is the only One who can truly satisfy us. I just wish He coiuld come down right now and give me a hug and a pep talk! But that is what relationshis on earth hold for us: we all struggle and we all need the same things to fill our souls once and for all. We are going to counseling and I think it has helped me. The grass isn’t always greener, just needs watering or it will dry up: Amen?

  • davinia

    Hi, what a wonderful article , I will be the new ’27′ in a few weeks and will have been married 19 years this December, I love your honesty, yes we do become new and differant people as we get older. I am wondering if this is the key, perhaps to get excited about the changes in us, to stop expecting my self and him to react in the same old way. We are differant people to who we were, at the alter all those years ago. Older yes, but also more interesting, we need to value ‘our’ journey. You can not buy a marriage of 18 years off the shelf!! it is hard earned and needs to be cherished. I am a woman whos has struggled with many of the issues you shared.
    We need to stop and take stock of what we have, i remember going to a Christian conferance and hearing ‘Your husband is your only chance of a great sex life ‘ and this has helped me when things get a bit low and flat in that area.
    Love the article and your blog, Bless you sarah

  • keltrinswife

    I like what you said about falling for a new person all over again. So true! Be blessed:)

  • Amy T

    We too will be celebrating 17 years in August. We were married young, 20 and 23, and waited 6 years to have our first child. Almost 6 years ago (with the *surprise* pregnancy of our third) life got really hard. Like REALLY hard. We were both physically, emotionally and mentally spent. We had previously done a pretty good job of working at our marriage and doing all the”right” things – couples bible studies, marriage retreats and the like. Yet in the midst of our marriage struggles, it was those things that we had no time or energy for. And frankly, I don’t think either of us even wanted to do those things. We were in survival mode, and carried a lot of guilt that things were not wonderful in our marriage. And then something hit me and I just started saying (out loud to my husband when necessary) that “these are the hard years. These are the draining years.” I felt relief in being able to admit it and say it. THESE ARE HARD YEARS OF PARENTING, which equates to hard years in marriage. We will get through them, things will get better, but of course we’re drained. And you know what, we did get through them. Our youngest is almost 6 and we’ve finally turned the corner. I never anticipated the hard years to last for SIX years, and I’m glad I didn’t because I think that would have seemed daunting and overwhelming. But I can definitely see the light again as we climb out of those exhausting years and begin to enjoy each other a little bit more. We can see each other again in a way that we just couldn’t during the survival years.
    I don’t know what the answer is, or if there even is one. But I just wanted to give some hope to others who might be the HARD TIMES (or middle years) right now. Hang on, it does get better.

  • RHome410

    I’m a bit past where you are… at 53 and approaching 28 years of marriage, but we have 8 kids… 7 at home, and 5 of them teens, and there are career challenges for my husband and life stage things like parents ill and passing on. It’s hard. We’re both so busy and too much on our plates. I am TIRED. We went to the Family Life Marriage conference and I had great hopes for improvement, but we got back home and nothing is changed. I have a friend who says the exact same things, so I know it’s not just us. THANK YOU for pointing out that all the simplistic, sappy ‘solutions’ aren’t good answers for everyone. I want relationship first, then sex, not the other way around. That’s the way it was when we met… friendship, then marriage, then sex, so why should we do the opposite now? I know I need to give my husband more grace, but I am really struggling with the energy and willingness to do so.


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