You have published several books focused on women in midlife—their careers, relationships, and life choices. In your 35 years as a psychotherapist, what have you determined to be the unique challenges women face as they enter their 40s?
It’s a time of change, and everyone has trouble with change. If you’ve had a family, the children are growing up and not needing you as much. A newly empty nest may affect your marriage, too. Your parents may be aging and requiring more care. Your career may feel stale or you may feel the need for a professional change. You are becoming aware of your own mortality and need plans for later life. Finances may be an issue because of college fees, the wish to travel, or the desire to begin a new venture.
What are the top pieces of advice you give to all women facing these midlife challenges?
Make your life your own. Decide to re-decide. This means to get on top of all the changes and make choices about them. This is your opportunity to make your life what you’ve been wishing for.
Step into the new you. Decide to change your life roles. If motherhood is winding down or your career is becoming stale, you can change your roles. Be less of a mom, more of a wife or businesswoman.
Why are you here? Decide to create meaning in your life. Earlier in life, women tend to shape their lives around other people: parents, husbands, children, bosses. Now is the time to put yourself in the center.
Share your bounty. Decide to give something back. Women often don’t realize how much they have learned in their lifetimes and how much they have to give back to the world. This is the time to make that decision.
You also write and speak about the challenges long-term partners face as they enter midlife. Can you tell us about those?
The skills couples need to keep intimacy alive in a long‑term relationship differ from those in a new relationship, and they’re not easy to learn because people don’t talk about them. Basically, couples need to lower their expectations of romance and glamour and raise the level of fun they have together. Regular weekly talks (I call them State of the Union discussions) keep the problems minor, the resentment level down, and the communication open, so that there is time and space for intimacy. In a successful, long-term relationship, passion becomes a shared sense of humor and goodwill toward each other.
Parents of grown children face the “empty nest syndrome”: the emotional reaction to the big change that happens when the kids grow up and leave home. It’s the reverse of “baby shock” — the reaction that happens when a baby changes your life overnight. It’s a time to readjust your marriage around just the two of you, and dust off the dreams about life as a couple again. Parents, especially moms, whose children are grown and successful, feel very proud but there’s often grief, too. They have to mourn the loss of dependent children and view their children anew as fellow adults. Of course, the best way to prepare for empty nest is to keep your marriage important all through the parenting years.
As you witness your parents aging, you are faced with the reality of your own mortality, and it’s time to plan for the changes aging can bring to your marriage, also.
What advice would you give these couples?
Every couple has a history of shared events and feelings, which I like to call their “relationship reservoir.” If a couple has filled their reservoir with power struggles, nasty arguments, and broken trust, they have little to draw on when times are hard. On the other hand, a couple with a history of trust, partnership, as well as kind and loving words and actions, has built up a lot of resilience and strength. Here are some guidelines to make sure your reservoir is storing what you need. To create a positive atmosphere of caring between you and your spouse or primary partner, follow these steps:
Accentuate the positive. Make a conscious effort to notice your partner’s strengths and good qualities. Repeat in your mind the attributes of your partner that you most like. If you are supportive of one another and work together to create a positive outcome for each other, your love and trust will grow daily. Work toward eliminating nasty remarks and criticisms of each other. If you cannot agree about behaviors you would like to see each other change, see a counselor, alone or together.
Do something caring every day. It is so easy to take your partner for granted. Try a new approach. Remember to thank your partner for whatever he or she has contributed to the relationship on a daily basis. Leave a pleasant note; take the time to share a joke, hug, kiss, or a kind word. Such things seem insignificant, but over years of being together, they will fill your reservoir with goodwill and a strong bond. (And I bet your spouse will delight you by responding in kind.)
Keep the lines of communication open. Have a “state of the union” meeting at least once a week, in which you discuss your feelings and the problems facing you, and work together toward solutions. If you share your concerns on a regular basis, they will not grow to a point of contention. Your meeting will be most effective if it also includes a discussion of the things that are going well. Set your meeting up to be a “date,” with breakfast in bed, a nice dinner out, or a special candlelit meal at home. Even sharing takeout food can be a lovely opportunity to “catch up” with each other and add one more good memory to your reservoir.
Keep a “memory book” of your relationship. Over the years, your book will become more and more meaningful as a reminder of the best parts of your relationship. Include a few photos of important events, notes and cards you have sent one another or received from friends and family, and notations of especially kind acts, thoughtful words, and loving interactions during your history together. Women often have a keepsake book of memorabilia from their wedding or a scrapbook of items concerning their children. Your relationship memory book serves a similar purpose. Like a condensed version of many photo albums or videos, this one book will give you instant access to the highlights of your time together. Looking through it together can give your relationship a boost whenever you feel the need.
What resources do you recommend to women in midlife?
Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex by Joan Price
Contact Dr. Tina Tessina at email@example.com and 562-438-8077.
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California with over 35 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples. She is also the author of 13 books in 16 languages, including: