Marriage and the Midlife Crisis

Last week it was my husband’s and my wedding anniversary. We celebrated with hugs and kind words and time spent pottering about with our kids, getting on with the usual chores. In the evening we had a takeaway and dessert. In quiet moments I reflected on our almost 20 years together (13 of them as a married couple).

 

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

 

On the day of our wedding, it would have been good if, along with the marriage certificate, we were given a guide to negotiating the ups and downs of marriage, but as no one presented us with such a guide, like many other couples we bumbled along and came up with our own. Although it took a while to craft, it is, thankfully, short. It goes something like this:

  1. Love and respect each other.
  2. Communicate well.

And voila! That is it!

In the early days of marriage, when we were in our late 20s, it seemed so simple. We had it all figured out. Go us!

But you know what… we got older. We had kids. We were constantly tired. Number 2 sometimes seemed impossible. Simply because there was no time to communicate, let alone communicate well. Time seemed to have sped up and slowed down all at once. There was no time to just be. No time to be alone with each other. But equally, sometimes time stretched on forever… particularly when one of the children was ill or teething or going through a particularly challenging phase of development. You name it… it seemed to go on and on and on…. When we were childless, the importance of time spent together hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So in the glorious muddle of early motherhood I made a note to myself:

  1. Spend time together (with or without the kids, depending on their age & needs).

As the children became more independent and the hazy days of early motherhood began to clear I thought, Aha! We have more time now! We’re back on track. But you know what? We were now middle-aged. And you know what happens at middle age, don’t you? Yep. The midlife crisis.

 

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

 

But this wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my 20s. The midlife crisis was only for men who had a penchant for motorbikes, wasn’t it? Turns out I was wrong.

Suddenly at the midpoint of our lives, it dawns on us that time is beginning to run out. We still haven’t been to Australia, won the Nobel Prize or travelled in outer space. This is the time of the midlife crisis, which Jung says is frequently marked in men by a period of depression around the age of 40, and at a slightly younger age in women.

Some women seem to hit the midlife crisis when their children have all started school and they suddenly have a bit more freedom. Others, especially those who are working full-time, seem to have a later one when the children leave home.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

Whoa! This was serious stuff! And we both seemed to be going through it.

Not only are us middle-aged folk ‘psychologically vulnerable’ at this time, biology seems to be against us too. Our bodies are changing. Growing older. Hair falls out. Or turns grey. Hormones are in flux. Ovaries are on the downturn… For many women it is a last chance to consider having children. Men don’t experience quite the same fertility anxieties. Yet the possibility of other partners – younger spouses – often adds to the mix of the midlife crisis. As does realising that the ‘career-for-life’ (often chosen in one’s 20s) doesn’t quite turn out to be the right career. Where do you go from there – particularly when the weight of financial responsibility is on your shoulders? Job stuck. Heart stuck. Mind stuck. It all sucks.

I hope (I trust) we are through the worst of it, but you know what, it was sometimes rough. Sometimes more down than up. But what really helped was this:

  1. Communicating well.

Although there was the whole ‘figuring out how to communicate’ thing! In our 20s, talking to each other had always come easily, but real proper communication… well, first we both had to figure out how to do that. Turns out it’s dead simple. But hard. It consists of a) LISTENING to the other person WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (that’s a challenge!) and b) LISTENING to oneself and one’s own needs WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (again, harder said than done). After that, comes honest discussion, with solutions put forward for ways to work through the particular challenge. It’s about remembering that if you do still:

  1. Love and respect each other

in essence you’re on the other person’s side. So make time to talk. To listen. To find a way through a challenging time.

Also, in the midst of the midlife crisis muddles I remember thinking that self-reflection was (again) a real saviour. Figuring out that I was a highly-sensitive person as well as a limerent helped. So I added the following to add to the guide:

  1. Know thyself. (Though I think some Greek philosophers got there before me!)

Finally…

Midlife crisis, then, marks the return of the opposite, an attempt on the part of the psyche to re-balance. Jung says that this stage is actually very important, because otherwise we risk developing the kind of personality that attempts always to recreate the psychic disposition of youth.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

So the last point I’d add to the guide is this:

  1. Be mindful of life’s rhythms, and how these rhythms and shifts in circumstances can affect a relationship. Wild beings (Wild Man and Wild Woman too) instinctively understand the importance of taking note of natural rhythms. There will be ups and downs; as long as number 1. (love and respect) is still there, one of the most worthwhile things to do is to hold on to each other and find a way through.

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Limerence, and Are You Addicted to Love?

Limerence is defined as:

(psychology) An involuntary romantic infatuation with another person, especially combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.

First coined by Dorothy Tennov (from Wiktionary)

 

As an ex-scientist I love a good definition, and the above is so concise and deliciously objective, that it absolutely delights me, but of course it can’t possibly convey what it’s like to be a limerent. Perhaps poetry can help.

 

BC eyes by Marija Smits

Eyes 1, by Marija Smits

 

Love Blurt

 

You’ve just met the most amazing/gorgeous/incredible man ever,

and believe it or not, as luck would have it, he totally likes you too.

There’s this connection between you, like electricity,

and a something about his eyes and voice and smile that makes you go weak at the knees.

And life is suddenly totally absolutely perfect; you can’t think about anything else

apart from this one man, and you just know that THIS IS IT!

This is totally it, and you’re going to be together forever.

 

And then…

 

you meet one of his friends, and he is so totally amazing/gorgeous/incredible

and there’s this real connection between you, like electricity,

a something about his eyes and voice and smile, the way he seems to really know you,

although you’ve only just met,

and you think Oh shit, I am so totally absolutely screwed,

I am in really big trouble this time…

 

MARIJA SMITS

 

James-Mcavoy-eyes-by-Marija-Smits

Eyes 2, by Marija Smits

 

I actually wrote this poem a few years ago, couldn’t find an immediate publishing home for it, and then forgot all about it. My husband (who’s not a big fan of poetry) said positive things about it (if my memory serves me right). Or maybe he said that it wasn’t like my ‘usual’ poetry – perhaps less contemporary poetry-like – and so that’s why he thought it okay!

 

02-2017-love-and-limerence-by-dorothy-tennov

 

Anyway, a while later I got hold of the excellent book Love and Limerence by Dorothy Tennov, and suddenly realized: this poem is about limerence. And of course I know what limerence is, because I am a limerent. Oh shit, I thought. But also, thank goodness! It explained so much about my life (in rather the same way that finding out that I am a highly-sensitive person did).

Love (and limerence, if you’ve heard of it and know what it is) isn’t something that many people reflect on. Okay, well, many people experience love, but thinking about it, in a dispassionate and analytical way? Nope, there’s not a lot of that going on.

Tennov’s book takes a critical look at the nature of love and this thing called limerence; within the book are many people’s experiences of limerence, and reading some of the limerents’ stories, I couldn’t help but see myself in them. Thank goodness, I wasn’t the only one, I thought. But still: Oh crap.

First, I feel it necessary to say that being a limerent DOES NOT EQUAL being unable to love someone deeply and to stay faithful to them for years, for decades or for a lifetime… (Here is an older, yet relevant, post about long-term love, becoming parents and clear communication.) But sometimes, yes, being a limerent does equal the inability to ‘love commit’ to someone on a long-term basis (I’m sure many of us know couples who have broken up after a short or long while, perhaps because of falling in love/limerence with someone else. It could be argued that serial monogamy is a symptom/outcome of limerence).

But taking personal experiences (and love) out of this, shouldn’t we be more analytical about our emotions and question the whys and whats and hows of love? Some might argue: No, it’s pointless, it has little use. Or no, it destroys the “magic”. Or that emotions can’t be analysed. But my, this limerence thing is powerful stuff, and a peek into its workings can surely only better equip us to understand ourselves and each other better? Sapere aude – dare to know!

So with this in mind, I thought it worthwhile to go through the major categories/stages of relationships (as outlined in Tennov’s book):

 

Readiness for Limerence and Longing

This is the part where a limerent person has not, quite, found the right someone to become limerent for. But oh, the idea of that person! And the longing and the loneliness… and oh how crushing each Valentine’s Day is when that other person still isn’t in our lives. Music helps. Poetry helps. Books help. The pre-teen and teenage years seem to particularly be about this stage.

 

Hope

Tennov defines the person a limerent falls in love with as the “limerent object” (she’s quite right, because often limerence is more about the limerent than the person they are in love with). My poem ‘Love Blurt’ describes transference – when the limerence one feels for one limerent object transfers to another. Transference (to my mind) is evidence that limerence is more about the limerent’s mind/imagination than the actual limerent object.

Our society may label the “the limerent object” as “the one” (a tricksy label, indeed, implying that there is only one right person for each person on earth. Really? In a world full of billions of humans, surely this can’t be right?). Still, the period of hope is when a limerent person finds the other – the limerent object – and every waking thought is given to that person. It is an obsession like no other, and it presents itself as an actual physical pain in the chest. And very often (like in my poem) the voice and eyes and smile of the limerent object communicate volumes, tomes even. And

The objective that you as a limerent pursue, as is clear in the fantasy that occupies virtually your every waking moment, is a “return of feelings”.

Love and Limerence, by Dorothy Tennov p. 57

 

Mutual Limerence

This is the stage in a relationship which is pure and utter bliss. It is the stage in which two people, who are limerent for each other have overcome the barriers to being together and finally are together, completely and wholly, in a romantic, spiritual and sexual sense. It is the part where Romeo and Juliet finally spend a night together. Utter, utter bliss.

But does it last? Like forever and forever? A lifetime? Hell, no! As blissful as the prolonging of this stage would be, one has to be realistic: it would be exhausting to perpetually be in limerence with someone. It fades. It simply has to. But it can transform into:

 

Affectional Bonding

Often this is felt by couples who have passed through the mutual limerence stage and discovered beyond the superficial limerence a deep respect, liking and love for each other. It is a very real and deep meeting of human souls; for to know someone, to really know someone and to see them “spiritually naked” – as it were – to see their pain, their vulnerability, their fears, their desires, and for them to see you spiritually naked too, has got to be one of the most worthwhile and connecting things we humans can do. And many in our society still look at those who have been happily married for decades and decades and decades with wonder and delight and respect.

 

zentangle-heart-by-marija-smits

Zentangle Heart by Marija Smits

 

Non-limerence

Perhaps some of you who are reading this may think I am speaking another language. All this stuff about chest pain and longing and intrusive, obsessive thinking and fantasizing and emotional dependence is utterly… bizarre. So of course I have to point out that there are some who don’t experience limerence. Tennov actually had a “theoretical breakthrough” in her research on romantic love when she had a long and involved discussion with a non-limerent. The idea of the absence of all the stuff that limerents feel led her to understand just what limerence is.

And of course, can you imagine all the awful misunderstandings, muddles, tragedies even when a limerent falls in love with a non-limerent…?

 

***

 

I have a complicated relationship with limerence (!), and I am still thinking and learning and writing about limerence and its consequences. To me, it is a fascinating psychological topic. And if, like me, you are curious/intrigued by love and limerence I can definitely recommend Tennov’s book. In the meantime I hope I have given a good-enough description of what limerence is. It is up to you, though, to sapere aude (dare to know) the answers to these questions: Are you a limerent? and: Are you addicted to love?

 

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Prose for Thought