This is an email interview I did with Dorothy Greco—the first of it’s kind! Dorothy is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful, and more recently, Marriage in the Middle. She and I differ theologically on many points, but I have found her approach to Marriage a good antidote to the “follow your heart” model of relationships that is causing so much dismay and unhappiness even in Christian circles. I particularly love that in Marriage in the Middle Dorothy gets into the nitty-gritty of all the bad things that can and do go wrong not only in marriage but in life itself. One of the chief ways to be happy, I always think, is to adjust one’s expectations to more reasonable proportions, and she helped me do that in this book. These are all my own questions, that I had as I flew along through the book and my own life. Enjoy!
- In a time when people are increasingly deciding that marriage is not “worth it” or will not increase their happiness, have you ever convinced someone to get married and seen them enjoy and be grateful for that estate?
First, I would not feel comfortable trying to convince anyone to get married, which of course, is not what you were suggesting. I offer that clarification so that your readers don’t think I’m an insensitive control-freak and skip the rest of the post.
If a couple is already pondering marriage but feeling indecisive, I would gladly have several long conversations about the pros and cons of holy matrimony in the hope of helping them decide whether or not they were ready and compatible.
I totally believe that marriage is worth the work, effort, blood, sweat, tears, etc. By design, marriage is meant to ease our aloneness and allow us to partner together in bringing God’s kingdom to earth. It’s sometimes maddening, sometimes glorious, sometimes hilarious, and always beautiful.
- Have you ever regretted counseling someone to get married?
No, but my husband and I have counseled a few couples not to get married or encouraged them to wait. (To a one, they ignored us.) On one occasion, we both had some significant concerns about a couples’ compatibility and probably were not as forthright about sharing those concerns as we should have been. Sadly, their marriage did not last long.
- What are the particular joys of marriage at middle age that you did not anticipate?
By this point, my husband and I have been together for half of my life. Being intimately known by someone who is fully aware of every failure and limitation, and yet continues to love me is such a gift.
I’m also thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with my husband in artistic and ministry endeavors. As the years go by, there’s an ease about our partnership. We have a clear sense of how to work together. That’s not to say that we don’t still have occasional conflict as we partner. Some of our worst fights have been in the context of ministry.
And sex. Yes, it does get better the longer we’re together. I think that’s because ultimately, it’s not about plumbing. It’s about knowing and being known. About trust and tenderness. The world’s narrative tells us that sex is for those who are under thirty and who have flat abs but that’s a lie.
- What do people who get divorced (not because of abuse or adultery etc.) miss out on when they give up at this stage of life?
I interviewed several women who were divorced when I was writing Marriage in the Middle. They all talked about how excruciatingly painful the process was and how alienated they felt. In many Christian communities, the stigma is still there and is still very real. That helped me to have more compassion and made me think about how I might respond differently the next time I have a friend who’s going through a divorce.
It probably surprises no one to hear that the divorce rate rises during midlife. That said, I’m thrilled to debunk one of the most incorrectly quoted stats in Christendom: the overall divorce rate is not 50%, has never been 50%, and is significantly lower for couples who actively pursue their faith. (Meaning those who go to church regularly, pray together, read the Bible, etc. [See this or this page 10])
When a couple is together for several decades, their lives are intricately intertwined. That includes the tangible objects (such as the Vitamix, the dining room table, and the art work) and the more consequential matters of the heart. I recently repotted an enormous fern that we’ve had for about twenty years. It was root-bound and needed a larger pot. But when I pulled it out, the roots were so wrapped around each other that it was impossible to divide it without damaging it.
Couples who decide to reboot and start again because they feel incompatible or unhappy may miss out on doing the deeper spiritual work of midlife. When we choose to stay in a relationship that’s challenging (not abusive, but challenging) and partner with God to change, it’s nothing short of miraculous. There’s a deep joy mingled with a sense of incredulity. We actually did it! We made it through the gauntlet and came out as better people! Honestly, though this type of work can be incredibly, excruciatingly difficult, there’s nothing more satisfying.
My own parents stayed together until their forties “for the sake of the children” but never worked on their marriage. That seemed unfortunate to me. If you can see that remaining in a marriage covenant is worth it for your kids, wouldn’t it be more worth it, more beneficial if you committed to grow? If you committed to let go of your unforgiveness, your pride, your resentment, and learned how to really love your spouse?
- Does being a Christian make marriage easier or harder?
Maybe both? I think the standard for what makes a good marriage might be higher for a couple who follows Jesus. We hope and expect that there will be honesty, fidelity in thought and mind, spiritual unity, and a strong sense of mission.
Thankfully, we have the Holy Spirit living within us. We have access to the same resurrection power that raised Jesus from the dead (Phil 3:10). And we also have a rather comprehensive user’s manual so if we ever get stuck and feel like “Gee! I don’t really know how to love my spouse this week,” we can turn to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, which should keep us busy for the next thirty years or so.
- How did you find people to interview—did you have to twist any arms? How did you get them to be so open?
I’m now in my sixties so I know a lot of people. Because I’ve worked as journalist for more than 35 years, my antennas start to twitch when I sense there’s a story. It was more difficult getting folks to say yes for this book than it was for my previous book, Making Marriage Beautiful. Probably because this cuts so close to the bone. In every interview, I pushed the couples to go deeper. They had to choose to trust me. (The promise of anonymity probably helped!) Perhaps because I listen well and always honor other’s stories, they felt safe. I also think that ultimately, they were eager for others to learn from their experiences.
Oh and the perks. Did I mention the perks? They all got a free autographed book. Ha Ha.
- What would you say to someone who gets married for the first time in midlife and finds it to be a really difficult experience—much more difficult than expected?
Couples who get married for the first time in their 40s or 50s might be more set in their ways and possibly have a longer list of expectations. We certainly are creatures of habit. Letting someone in after living alone for thirty of forty years will inevitably disrupt any calcified, sacred routines. This can be equal parts frightening and disconcerting.
In the long run, it’s actually a good thing, a mercy really, that marriage pushes us off our little thrones. God calls us to live sacrificially and to love without reservation. Marriage helps us to accomplish that.
Hopefully, individuals who marry in midlife or beyond will also more mature, wise, thoughtful, and self-aware. Those are all advantages that a starry-eyed 20-year-old does not have.
- Is it possible to survive marriage in a joyful way if one of the spouses isn’t a Christian/doesn’t have the Holy Spirit?
It’s absolutely possible. Though I think it might make for a challenging, and at times, conflictual dynamic.
Following Jesus should compel us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our strength (or body). AND love our neighbors as ourselves. The loving our neighbors gets tricky as the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates. Who is my neighbor and why should I go out of my way to care about them? Especially if they don’t share my political convictions or refuse to wear a mask when they go grocery shopping. But I digress.
Obviously, one does not have to be a Christian or church-goer to love and serve others. We have neighbors who are confirmed atheists and yet resemble Jesus more than many of the Christians we know.
One of the goals for marriage is oneness. If the over-arching focus of our life is to become more like Christ and our spouse is not on board with that, it’s going to take a fair amount of negotiating and compromising to figure out how to make that work for both parties. It’s by no means impossible, but it’s definitely more complicated. (You might want to read Stina Kielsmeier-Cook’s new book: Blessed are the Nones.)
- What is the place of “happiness” in marriage?
First, I’d like to differentiate between happiness and joy. The former is more fleeting and dependent upon circumstances. The store had my favorite ice cream so I’m happy. Joy, on the other hand, is deeper and less dependent upon circumstances. Scripture talks about the joy of the Lord. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to understand that while I can’t necessarily choose happiness, I can choose to accept the Lord’s joy and even work to get there via showing gratitude and rejoicing. (Read Habakkuk for more on this.)
That said, happiness shouldn’t be a goal. It should be a byproduct of a life well lived. If I’m understanding Scripture, we can also access joy by rejoicing in God’s goodness. By recalling his faithfulness in our lives, no matter how small.
- Is it ok to be happy in a marriage if the other person isn’t?
If your spouse is in a season of deep loss or sorrow, that might be insensitive or cruel. Conversely, choosing to be miserable or unhappy simply because your spouse is seems a bit co-dependent and foolish.
- What are some signs you should seek out a counselor?
It’s organic for each couple but here are a few metrics to consider. Any one of these would be sufficient reason to seek-out counseling (if you can afford it).
- Is either spouse addicted to some substance like alcohol, drugs, or pornography?
- Are you fantasizing about leaving or having an affair?
- Are you avoiding each other, either physically or emotionally? (Not having sex for an extended period of time is a definite red flag unless chronic health issues are present)
- Are you stuck in patterns of unproductive conflict or unforgiveness?
- Are you struggling to communicate well?
- There are secrets that need to be brought into the light. (This includes hiding past or present behaviors or minimizing the prevalence of emotional detachment.)
- Is one of you depressed or suicidal? (If the latter, please seek help immediately.)
- Past trauma that has not been addressed.
- Are you having difficulty routinely and consistently connecting with each other?
- If one of you feels there is a problem, and the other doesn’t, get input for the sake of the one who is troubled.
- How can you tell if the counseling you’re getting (if you go for marriage counseling or therapy) isn’t biblical or helpful?
Any counselor, Christian or non, should be able to work within your framework or worldview. So if you want someone who supports staying in a difficult marriage, that should be communicated upfront. Then two sessions in, if the counselor starts suggesting divorce, remind them of your desired goal. If they continue to deviate from that, find someone else.
Having specific goals is important. It’s also crucial that you have a sense of the type of counselor that you want. Do you prefer someone to mostly listen or do you need someone who will interrupt your misguided thought patterns and challenge you when necessary? You might think you want the former but that means counseling could go on for a lot longer than it needs to. ($$) Having someone who’s direct and confrontational will result in uncomfortable moments, but if you’re humble and teachable, I think that’s a smarter way to go.
You should immediately feel some benefit or relief with a good counselor. If after 4-5 weeks, there’s no clear ground gained, that might be because you’re being resistant, or not feeling safe, or that your counselor is not a good match.
Finally, do seek-out specialists when necessary. If you have a trauma background, find someone who specializes in that. Pastors are often trained in theology and preaching. While they might be a good place to start, they often lack the time and expertise in therapeutic methods.
- Will my children ever leave home….���
Yes, sooner than you think and you will simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief and miss them terribly. Other than our spouse, they know us better than anyone else. They have seen us at our best and our worst. When their place sits unoccupied at the dinner table, it evokes a longing and a sadness that hurts.
- What are some strategies for beginning to peel back layers of hurt or bad communication habits in midlife?
I guess I’d recommend creating a historic time-line. When did things start to go off the rails? What major losses have you incurred? What fights never got resolved or hurts never got forgiven? When did you start to feel like your spouse didn’t care? What are the symptoms of neglect? Specifics matter. We need to know what we’re dealing with as we start to do the work that midlife requires.
Then as you begin to makes sense of your backstory, see if you can find any common themes. Does one of you tend to capitulate or defer and then resent the other? Does one of you rush through decision making leaving the other unheard and un- or undervalued?
As you tease out the through-lines, be willing to humbly apologize whenever the Holy Spirit reveals your sin. Honestly admit what your contributions are versus blaming your spouse. This will move you toward reconciliation more quickly.
The next step would be choosing to grieve your losses. This is essential if we hope to forgive. We can’t forgive what we haven’t acknowledged and grieved.
Then comes the hard part: changing. And in case you haven’t figured this out, this typically happens at a glacial pace. I’m working on some of the same issues I brought into the marriage, like giving into fear. I’m much less fearful now than I was 30 years ago, but remnants of fear might be there for the rest of my life. Finally, because we’re wounded in the context of relationship, that’s where we find our healing. We can only do so much work on our own.
Dorothy Greco loves to kayak with her husband, go on long walks, and make Gf/Df desserts. She and her husband live outside Boston, MA. Subscribe to her newsletter to keep up with her work: http://www.dorothygreco.com/. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle