Yesterday, I alluded to the idea that mid-life dating has some particular intra- and inter-personal obstacles to contend with. One such obstacle is the strange regression that mid-life daters inevitably experience when they unnaturally find themselves in a process that fits naturally into the developmental process of young adulthood.
We don’t go to the marriage altar in young adulthood anticipating that in 20 years or so, we’ll be doing the same process all over again. Instead, we expect that we’ll beat all the odds because our endless love will carry us through richer or poorer, sickness and health, better or worse.
Through Thick and Thin
What we find is that when thickness become thin, it’s a lot harder than it seemed. When the difficulties and developmental stages of life replace the honeymoon high, our anxieties lead us to do exactly what we had expected and intended not to do, which is to recreate the worst of our parents’ relationship. Not having anything else to model our own intimate relationship after, we unconsciously do the only thing we know–in a slightly different way, perhaps, but with the same results. In fact, we often think we’re doing the exact opposite of what our parents did, only to realize that we’ve done the same thing from a different angle.
As our relationship slides toward (or into) disintegration, we have choices, including: 1) get help to arrest the process and figure it out together; 2) get help to arrest the process of our own contribution to the disintegration, even if our partner chooses not to; 3) blame the other for the disintegration; 4) continue our own downward spiral post-divorce until we finally cry “uncle” and decide to get help in figuring out what went wrong so we can make better choices with better insight and understanding.
The Silver Lining: A Do-Over Opportunity
Whenever we choose to seek understanding, we find a silver lining to mid-life divorce: the painful but hopeful “do over” opportunity to do it better this time, with the wisdom of age and the emotional maturity earned from an honest introspection process. We have better information about how relationships flourish, flounder and fail than we’ve ever had before, and you can learn it.
When you seek insight into your contribution to the demise of your partnership, you’re likely to find that you became one of your parents and married the other. For example, one may have been an over-functioner and the other an under-functioner. Or one may have been the pursuer and the other a distancer. If you look far enough back, you’ll find these patterns in previous generations, too. And it’s not only in your family, but in all families to different degrees, with corresponding levels of dysfunctional outcomes.
In other words, you were simply unconscious of powerful forces of conditioning, temperament and human nature that you now get to become conscious of. I encourage you to do as much of this discovery work as possible before you get back into the dating game. If you take this opportunity to do things better, knowing now what you didn’t know then, you’ll be wiser in the dating pool than most people, and you’ll likely eventually find another insightful person who is trying to learn from past mistakes, as well.
When You Get Out There
That said, some of that do-over work can only be done in the context of an intimate relationship, which gives you endless opportunities for more of those “do overs.”
The first do-over opportunity will be how you select whom you date. What conscious and unconscious factors played into how you dated and mated in your young adult life? These are the factors that’ll come to play again in mid-life. Whatever unresolved attachment issues from your family of origin led you into to your marriage the first time (or the second, third…) are the same issues that you’ll have to resolve now, if you want to avoid making the same mistakes again.
The Halo Effect
As you do that, you’ll have those same happy hormones that you had when you were much younger, tricking you into thinking just like you did back then: s/he’s perfect, gorgeous, funny, powerful, etc. It’s called the “halo effect,” a natural human phenomenon in which our positive feelings about a person’s likable characteristics blind us to the neutral or negative characteristics that will come into play after the happy hormones have dissipated. And they will dissipate, I promise you.
So yes, expect yourself to regress to feeling 18 again, or 24, or whatever age you were when you met your partner in young adult life. Whatever unconscious motivations were driving you then will drive you again, if you don’t become conscious of them, and they’ll still be powerful beyond measure…and beyond your control if you aren’t actively trying to be in charge of them, rather than the other way around.
Differentiation, Differentiation, Differentiation
Biology and conditioning from your family projection process are difficult enough to consciously identify and resist; you’ll never be able to avoid them if you’re going through life asleep. As always, differentiation is the key.
“The two spouses begin a marriage with life-style patterns and levels of differentiation developed in their families of origin. Mating, marriage, and reproduction are governed to a significant degree by emotional-instinctual forces. The way the spouses handle them in dating and courtship and in timing and planning the marriage provides one of the best views of the level of differentiation of the spouses. The lower the level of differentiation, the greater the potential problems for the future. People pick spouses who have the same levels of differentiation” (Bowen, in Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy, p. 79)
You’re wiser now, though–more self-aware and more self-defined–and can do it differently. I hope you and your potential partner save yourselves and each other unnecessary pain by doing it over well.