Most of us begin to think about what we want in a relationship when we start dating (or thinking about it) as teens. There’s just one problem with this: the portions of our brain that are involved in rational decision-making are not fully formed in our youth. Teenagers are more impulsive, more easily stirred by emotions, and less able to apply good judgment to emotionally charged situations than adults. The experiences and expectations of adolescence can shape our ideas about what a relationship should be like, so it is worth a look backward before we begin to consider a midlife relationship.
Think about the pattern of your previous relationships. Be aware that we all develop “stories” about our lives that help us to justify our actions and often, to put the blame on others when things go wrong. If you really want to learn from your past, this portion of your journey will probably be somewhat difficult and painful. You have to be completely honest with yourself, and focus on identifying your own behaviors and mistakes in past relationships. It doesn’t do any good to blame past partners. Don’t blame yourself, either, because blame doesn’t move you forward in life. Do, however, try to identify the beliefs and behaviors that have interfered with the quality of your past relationships.
You need some quiet time to reflect on these issues. Reflection comes easily to some people, while others may find it more of a challenge. In any case, use the tools that help you the most. You may find that writing is a great way to sort out your feelings; many people use a journal (paper or online) for this purpose. Be cautious about sharing your journal and protecting your privacy, because this part of your journey should be for you alone. If you are writing for an audience, it changes the nature of the task. You may also regret sharing your innermost thoughts before they are fully formed. If you prefer to think things through with someone else, choose a trusted friend or a therapist. You need to create a peaceful, private environment to think about your life and relationships.
Ten Questions to Guide You as You Consider Each Past Relationship:
- How well did I know myself before I started this relationship?
- How well did I know my partner?
- What surprised me the most as this relationship developed?
- Looking back, can I see there were hints of trouble ahead?
- Why did I miss those hints?
- What were the good and bad aspects of each relationship?
- How have my needs changed over the years?
- What pain am I still carrying from the past?
- What behaviors and beliefs do I need to change so I can participate in a healthy relationship?
- What information and support do I need, and how can I find it?
Be particularly careful, as you go through this process, to avoid blaming yourself for
• ignorance – we are all ignorant until we learn something!
• victimization – it’s not your fault if you were abused in any way.
You can take responsibility for your errors without beating yourself up emotionally. Everyone makes mistakes, and we are not born knowing how to have healthy relationships. Unless you were lucky enough to have a great relationship model in your family while growing up, you have to develop your own guidelines for what you want and then learn how to shape your future.
If this process is unbearably painful, this is a sign you need to spend more time dealing with how the past is still alive in the present for you. Therapy or a support group may really help you to put the past in the past, and to move forward toward a happier future. Some people get stuck on their anger and bitterness, while others pretend (even to themselves) that everything is perfect. Neither extreme is workable. Everything that has happened has made you into the person you are today, and offers an opportunity for learning and growth.
Northwest psychologist and author Jennifer Y. Levy-Peck, PhD, and her husband Charles Peck are writing a book for baby boomers, seniors, and those over age 40 looking to create and maintain a romantic relationship that is wonderfully thrilling at any age. Their column, Magic at Midlife, appears regularly in www.northwestprimetime.com. You can participate in the creation of their book (and enter to win a $100 Amazon gift card) by sharing your experiences in a survey: www.surveymonkey.com/s/MidlifeRelationships. Northwest Prime Time is a monthly publication for retirees and those contemplating retirement. It can be found in the greater Seattle area and other Puget Sound locations. For more information, call 206-824-8600 or visit www.northwestprimetime.com.
Previous Magic at Midlife Columns
Creating Holidays for Changing Families:
When Extroverts Meet Introverts: http://northwestprimetime.com/news/2013/dec/16/when-extrovert-meets-introvert/#.UriBbLCA3IU
Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Y. Levy-Peck and Charles Peck