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Midlife relationships: Is your relationship ’til death us do part?

Article by Maxine Harley

 midlife relationships image

If you’re still in love with your childhood sweetheart then long may that continue.

Sadly too many of us have not had that blessed experience.

There are many types of relationships – and by the time we’ve reached our 50s we’ve probably either heard about, or experienced some of them ourselves.

After chatting to a couple of female friends recently it got me thinking about how relationships feature in and shape our later lives.


What emotions does the word ‘relationship’ bring up in you?

Safety, security, comfort and support?

Stress, hostility, fear, pain and sacrifice?

Your relationships are about YOU

The relationships we attract are a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves.

We attract what we give out. What we give out changes as we change.

We get what we sub-consciously believe we deserve, and then we get what we accept or tolerate.

Your self-concept therefore shapes the life you create for yourself and the relationships you get into.

Relationship quality can be measured by how you FEEL when you think of, or are with, the other person.

How you feel about yourself then determines the feelings you want to feel when you are with them.

Our relationships either change with us, or we can decide to discard them because they’ve become like a restraining and constricting snake skin.


Check out the foundations


When looking for a new relationship we must first examine the foundations – both our own, and those of our prospective partner.

We need to determine whether past experiences have created either shaky or firm psychological foundations.

Our foundations then support our boundaries and how resilient and accommodating we are in our relationships.

If there is a history of abuse or neglect with either person then their foundations will be less robust – and they are less able to trust that any emotional storms will pass. They may create their own storms in the relationship, to test out the foundations, and to satisfy themselves of their safety and strength.

I’ve known of several female clients who were sexually abused as girls who now shun relationships with men. Some have developed lesbian relationships – which doesn’t bring them any guarantee of safety or happiness either.

Choosing to be without an intimate or romantic relationship

I have a few female friends who have no desire to be in a relationship again. They have had such a stormy time with their adult relationships with men that they’ve opted to stay single and avoid any more emotionally-draining dramas. They have become tired and profoundly disappointed with men in general.

Their kids have grown up and perhaps given them the joy of grandchildren. They find an outlet for their human need to be relating with others from social groups such as book and film clubs.

Most of my female friends also have their own financial wealth and security – which they have no intention of jeopardising, just to have a man around.


Attachment matters

Different types of relationships each have their own link to the different styles of emotional attachment we developed in childhood.

We either expect and attract partners with a similar ‘Attachment Style’ to our own,

or we look for the traits and characteristics that we know deep down we are lacking in ourselves.  We hope that we will then feel whole and complete – for once in our lives.

New potential partners will also be seeking out people for similar reasons too – although neither party may even be aware of what is driving their choice.

The more emotionally secure amongst us have a much easier time in relationships.

They have grown up with trustworthy and reliable parents, were shown unconditional love, had clear and safe boundaries, experienced sensitive communication, and knew deep down that they were loved and loveable. They will have been primed to share their life with someone similar, and to expect that this relationship would last.

For the rest of us there’s a different story with unhappier outcomes.

If we’ve grown up without the expectation that our emotional needs will be met we will find it hard to trust anyone.

Having an insecure attachment style like this can bring us problems in all of our relationships – and even result in a decision to be insular, bury the pain of our unmet needs, and to give up on relationships altogether.

We might keep testing the boundaries to check out someone else’s tolerance for our behaviour – and in doing so we can push that person away for good.

There may be an urge to compulsively repeat the old drama and heartache of not feeling loved, safe and special. When we recreate what is painfully familiar to us we do so in the hope of somehow changing the ending of the drama. The hope is ‘this time I’ll get it right’.

We dread further mind-games and power-struggles. We despair at being stuck in the Groundhog Day drama of those constantly repeating patterns, arguments and the acute fear and pain of rejection or abandonment.

Some will stay in such an emotionally draining drama rather than risk being alone. The paradox is they are already emotionally alone within such an emotionally abusive and neglectful relationship.


Starting again

mature romance image

I’ve recently been speaking with a close friend of a similar age to me, who’s been having problems in her new relationship.  After many years of marriage – which ended in widowhood – embarking upon the ‘dating scene’ in her 50s has been a totally new and unexpected challenge.

Yes, it’s tempting to ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ and ‘make up for lost time’ – but our expectations, body image and levels of tolerance have changed since the dizzy days of our teens and twenties.

We might also want the good fun stuff from a new relationship, but not want to be tied down to domesticity and duty again. We have an empty nest – and we aim to keep it that way!

I’ve also spoken to women who are deeply unhappy with their new relationship, but they stay put and settle for a lot less than they want because they’re afraid of being alone and ‘on the shelf’ in old age.

There is also a ‘healthy selfishness’ that comes from not wanting to be someone’s carer in old age. Of having the time and resources to tick off those bucket list experiences… with our girlfriends!


There can also be a mismatch of expectations in a new relationship – brought about by a lack of clear expression of what we want and expect. Instead we make assumptions and hope for the best. We need to assess our compatibility and shared vision of the future of any new relationship.


Not many of us risk rocking the boat early on by clearly stating what exactly we are looking for. We don’t want to appear bossy or too fussy!


Some of us aren’t even sure if a new partner might be ‘on the same page’ when it comes to sharing our time and perhaps our lives together.


It’s a rare occurrence for someone to be clear and up-front about something if they think there’s a chance of repelling that potential partner. Hidden truths emerge after a few months and we then have re re-evaluate redefine, and perhaps end the relationship.


Better to be clear and assertive at the start when we are excitedy exploring the possibilities ahead.


Not all relationships are equal

There’s a whole spectrum of relationships that we can choose from – and they have to be an informed choice that is shared by both parties.

There are those relationships that lack emotional, physical and sexual intimacy and loving care – and the other end of the spectrum where they can seem almost suffocating… whatever our age:-


Detached – a functional relationship lacking any emotional ties – e.g. escorts, one-night-stands and casual flings

Platonic – for friendship and support, although they may be tactile and loving the other person isn’t seen as a potential life-partner

Friends with benefits – a blurred boundary that includes sexual intimacy without the expectation of having a committed relationship

Loose polygamous –  there is a third party in the relationship – or several of them. There may be another relationship running alongside, or a preference for orgies, swinging parties, fetishistic prostitutes, a ‘split’ life as a transvestite and/or bisexual parters. In this relationship they may outwardly be seen as a couple, but one or both members have a secret life that other people may not know about. Perhaps one relationship partner has become overly tolerant of this behaviour, so as not to risk being alone

Loose monogamous – seen as a faithful couple, but they don’t share their home or finances. They probably do have joint holidays and spend time with one another’s family and have joint social friend’s and attend events together as a couple. They dread feeling ‘trapped’ by the predictable routines that come from living together with their partner or husband/wife.

All in –  these couples share their life plans, their home, money, they actively create a blended family, and spend lots of time together (unless one works away). The traditional image of a couple.

Within any of these relationships there can also be underlying dynamics, for instance:-


  • Parent & Child couples – one is child-like and incapable (e.g. with the organising of the home or finances) and the other is more parent-like and takes care of their partner, making allowances to compensate for their partner’s short-comings. It may suit both parties to have this power imbalance of dependence and care-taking, or of passivity and dominance


  • Master & Slave – a clear power imbalance that is either desired and accepted by both parties, or there will be a fight by one against the feelings of oppression and of being bullied into submission.


  • Two Peas In A Pod – where there is a blended identity, maybe they finish one another’s sentences and wear matching outfits! The message is ‘we are as one’. This can feel safe or stifling and creates additional problems when the relationship ends, particularly when due to bereavement


  • Disorganised & Dramatic – when there is high drama, and banter that is sarcastic and insulting. There may be big fall outs and passionate make-ups. It’s on-and-off, push-and-pull, suffocating or isolating. A familiar roller-coaster of emotions. A wanting of the other when they are aloof and disinterested, but only wanting them until they become closer… too close for comfort! Then comes the creating of distance through arguments or emotional withdrawal to push them away again. They ‘can’t live with them can’t live without them’. There may be a playing out of the childhood dramas which reactivate feelings of being unlovable and unworthy of time or attention, or of being neglected, ignored, criticised or bullied – and needing conflict to feel significant and noticed. Sadly no-one else can heal those early relational wounds except ourselves.



We all need to know our own patterns and to learn how to behave in ways that bring us what we need to be able to grow and fully enjoy life.


Our relationships are pivotal to our lives, yet in school we weren’t taught anything about them. We’ve had to learn on the job!


The primary relationship we have is always the one we have with ourself and our inner child – who needs our love, empathy, attention, care and compassion. She needs us to be her playmate and protector, her advocate and advisor.

The well-being of our inner child is a barometer of the well-being in our relationships.

Because she has you and you have her ’til death do you part’.


maxine image resizedMaxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR


www.maxineharley.com – where you will find help to heal from your childhood traumas and emotional wounds. There’s also five short self-help online courses, including –

‘3 Steps To Sort Yourself Out – without therapy!

‘How To Sort Out Your Relationship – without couples counselling!’ &

‘How To Sort Out Your Sexual Intimacy – without sex therapy!’


www.the-ripple-effect.co.uk – where you will find a series of 10 self-help online workshops including one called Understanding Relationships.


www.maxineharleymentoring.com – helping women to understand and manage their emotions, boundaries and behaviours – to FEEL better, so they can BE, DO and HAVE better in their lives!

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