Featuring an interview with Dorothy Littell Greco, author of Marriage in the Middle

My husband and I picked up the minivan from the repair shop and headed out for a much-needed date night. Our van was a problem child, so the shop had become quite the hangout for us in recent months. 

The vehicle was on its third unreliable transmission. On the road, it would shift into overdrive on a whim and jolt us when it came back to its regular gear. Sometimes in our garage or in a parking space, we’d press the ignition and the van would just sit there with no response, not caring whether we had places to be. Many weeks, with our vehicle so often out of commission, I stood in the car rental line to find a way to drive to my teaching job that would pay me just enough money to cover the car rental. 

Each time the mechanics fixed one thing, another would break. They would send us off, probably praying that they’d never see us again, but inevitably a few days (or minutes!) later, we’d be back for another round in the game of “What’s that sound?” I didn’t think I could handle another warning light on the dashboard, a new problem to solve, or any more uncertainty about whether we’d make it to our destination. But here we were again. 

Midlife can set off a whole lot of warning bells and diagnostic trouble codes, but with good tools and lots of wisdom from the miles we’ve logged, we can change the way we drive the road in front of us.

“Hmm. That doesn’t sound right,” I narrowed my eyes listening intently to the scraping noise coming from the front end of the car. 

“Oh man. Do you feel that?” my husband asked as he eased off the accelerator. 

“Is the tire going flat?” I wondered. The car wobbled, and the further we drove, the more uneasy we felt. 

“Maybe there’s something stuck in the wheel.” 

We turned toward home and pulled our ailing van into the garage. We gave my mom and the kids a quick report before heading back out in our other more roadworthy vehicle. The next day, we took the minivan to a different mechanic who we knew and trusted. They called back to give us the ridiculous report that the dealership repair shop had sent us home WITHOUT TIGHTENING THE LUG NUTS!!! We were just a few stoplights away from our wheel rolling off of our axle.

The reality is, life can sometimes feel like that summer with our crazy minivan. Problems pile on one another, and just as one is solved, two or more pop up in its place.

Dorothy Littell Greco, author of Marriage in the Middle, writes that, “we’re all facing the limits of our power” and “the intense demands and rapidly changing circumstances of midlife force all of us to constantly adjust and adapt.” During midlife in particular, we navigate downsizings and financial constraints, health issues, questions about kids’ education or behavior, shifts in relationships, churches, or other community groups, and increasing caregiving needs as parents age. At the same time, we may be seeing fruitfulness in our creative or professional endeavors, drawing life-giving boundaries and giving ourselves permission to be who God made us to be, and blessing others with our hard-won wisdom. “We may even feel like we could teach a master class on adulting. At least on good days,” Dorothy writes. 

“…Awfulizing is sometimes easier than standing in faith. Over the years as we’ve experienced God’s sustaining presence, it has gotten easier to refute the fears. But it’s still work.”

-Dorothy Greco

My Interview with Dorothy Littell Greco

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Dorothy about her new book and what it takes to make a good relationship stronger, even when life feels like the wheels are about to come off.

Darcy: I really resonated with the part in your book where you and your husband, Christopher, had lived through a three-month series of catastrophes in almost every area in your life. You learned a lot about marriage in midlife through all that. Now you’re sharing some of your hard-won wisdom with readers. I’d love to know how your experience has changed the way you and Christopher react and interact when hardships come.

Dorothy: Perhaps because Christopher and I have trauma histories, one of the root sins that we both struggle with is fear. Fear that the bottom will fall out. Fear that God will not come through. At least for us, awfulizing is sometimes easier than standing in faith. Over the years as we’ve experienced God’s sustaining presence, it has gotten easier to refute the fears. But it’s still work. We both have to consciously and intentionally push back the darkness. We have gone through some really difficult experiences in the course of our thirty-year marriage. Through it all, God and his people have been faithful. That faithfulness has become a stone of remembrance that we carry in our pockets and regularly touch when we need reassurance.

Darcy: What does it look like for each of you to take care of each other without being enmeshed or overly dependent?

Dorothy: We’re both empaths. So when one of us is struggling, we tend to lose objectivity and enter into each other’s struggle. Empathy is hugely important for a successful marriage. That said, we’re still learning how to be responsible to and not for each other. It’s much more helpful for him to stay strong and stand in the truth when I’m falling apart. And vice versa. I’ll give you an example. I have a host of auto-immune diseases. This month marks my twenty-year anniversary of living with chronic health issues and ongoing pain. Cyclically, I fall into a pattern of insomnia, which increases my pain levels and can cause me to spiral downward. I definitely need Christopher to be empathetic and not diminish my reality. However, it’s not helpful if he takes on my despair. Then we’re both easy prey for the enemy. He has to find the balance of listening to me but also reminding me of the truth: ‘This is not going to be forever. You’ll get through this.’ Ultimately, we have to remember that we can only change ourselves. We can and should pray for our spouse—pray for miracles and divine intervention—but then we need to keep loving our spouse as they are, rather than withholding love until they conform to our image.

Darcy: Sometimes we need somebody to interrupt our thoughts, don’t we? Empathy is important. We need loved ones to validate our struggle. What are some tangible things you use to calm yourself or each other when life isn’t going like you want it to? 

Dorothy: Does chocolate count? Seriously, good food and a quiet meal together does wonders. Christopher is a theater teacher and worship leader. Proper breathing is hugely important in both of these professions, and we’ve found it to be important in everyday life, too. When we’re anxious, we often don’t breathe deeply which limits our oxygen intake. Deep, slow breathing helps especially when combined with prayer.  

Darcy: Yes, I often notice myself holding my breath in times of stress. Oxygen is a pretty baseline need, right? And chocolate. 😉 What else works for you?

Dorothy: We’re both walkers. There’s something about being outside, in nature, while engaging our core muscles that gets us out of our heads and allows us each to gain perspective and clarity. Walking on the beach is the best! Holding each other and praying for each other is also very comforting. There was a study done back in 2006 by neuroscientists at several American universities that showed how hand holding actually relieves stress. This is such an easy way to love each other.

Just like the loose lug nuts on my minivan wheel, some midlife relationship issues can be surprisingly easy to address (assuming people are not dealing with toxicity or abuse). Simple things like exercise, deep breathing, good food, and time decompressing with friends can do wonders in refreshing yourself and the relationship. 

Darcy: What do you do when the struggle keeps going?

Dorothy: It is difficult when there are ongoing issues in a marriage like depression, addiction, or, as in my case, long-term health needs. It can get very wearisome for the spouse who is not depressed, not addicted, not battling chronic illness. Couples in these situations need extra support structures around them and lots of grace and mercy.

Darcy: You wrote, “In the midst of this unraveling I had a dream in which the two of us were hanging onto the edge of a cliff. I looked over at him and said, ‘I hope you’re doing okay because I can’t do anything to help you.’” What would you suggest when both spouses are feeling overwhelmed and unable to help each other? What can help them feel steady in marriage and family life again?

Dorothy: The older we get, the more we realize that being part of a healthy community and spending time with friends is non-negotiable. This side of heaven, relationships will never be perfect, but they can truly be life-lines when we’re overwhelmed. Ask for help (professional and otherwise), and keep asking until the road becomes level again. We have to get comfortable being needy. Too often American Christians assume there’s something wrong with us if we admit our need. Scripture shows us that Jesus came for those who are willing to admit their brokenness. Refusing to acknowledge our need is really about protecting our image or avoiding shame. We should also be faithfully confessing our sin. All change starts here. When we admit our needs and our failures, that paves the way for real, honest friendships. 

Darcy: Thanks for your work on this topic and for talking with me today about your new book, Marriage in the Middle.

On Malleability and Reliable Help

Just like the loose lug nuts on my minivan wheel, some midlife relationship issues can be surprisingly easy to address (assuming people are not dealing with toxicity or abuse). Like Dorothy said, simple things like exercise, deep breathing, good food, and time decompressing with friends can do wonders in refreshing yourself and the relationship. 

When struggles are deeper, finding proper support is vital. For our minivan, that meant seeing a different, more reliable mechanic who wouldn’t shrug off the concerning noises and would help us actually stay safe on the road. For a troubled relationship, that will mean finding trusted, trained, and experienced counselors who will compassionately and responsibly guide couples toward relational health. 

A few months before our minivan dramas, I had heard a great song by singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, on a movie soundtrack. “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off,” the lyrics went. That summer, we sang that line over and over again and laughed that loving each other “till the wheels come off” wasn’t just a metaphor for us anymore–it was quite literal! 

Of course, we weren’t happy about our car trouble. Yet, as the weeks went on, problems that once would have made us grouchy and unapproachable began to feel less dominating. We accepted our comedy of errors. And we learned how to relax and feel love in the middle of the problems instead of waiting until they were solved. We couldn’t control the inner workings of our minivan, but we could work on how we reacted. 

Dorothy writes about the importance of flexibilty and openness in this stage of life: “…the crises that we encounter in midlife don’t have to result in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or isolation. They can help us and our marriages grow stronger…. Malleability fosters transformation. In the physical world a metal’s malleability is directly related to how much pressure it can withstand without snapping. Midlife is an extended season of pressure. If we’re malleable, the sustained stress will result in something new and good. If we resist change, we’re in danger of relational and spiritual rigidity. We become increasingly malleable as we flex and adapt in the face of health scares, financial dilemmas, professional disappointments, family conflicts, etc. Malleability should help us to learn how far we can stretch and what happens when we overextend.” 

In Dorothy’s writing, “you won’t find cliches or formulas.” She wrote Marriage in the Middle to help couples feel less alone, to share some of the reasons for the disequilibrium we may feel in life and marriage during middle age, and to offer healthy ways to deal with midlife’s unique challenges. I found Dorothy’s book a refreshing read that emphasizes positive ways that spouses can not only support each other through life’s difficulties but also grow as a couple.

Midlife can set off a whole lot of warning bells and diagnostic trouble codes, but with good tools and lots of wisdom from the miles we’ve logged, we can change the way we drive the road in front of us. 

Next week, I’ll be giving away one paperback copy of Marriage in the Middle to someone on my newsletter list! Sign up by Tuesday, May 11 at midnight EST to be eligible.

What good tools have you found to help your marriage thrive in midlife? What questions do you have for Dorothy? Comment here or send me an email and I’ll make sure she sees them.

Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer and photographer who lives outside Boston. The author of Making Marriage Beautiful, and the newly released Marriage in the Middle, Dorothy and her husband lead marriage workshops and retreats, speak at conferences nationwide, and have been helping couples create and sustain healthy marriages for over twenty-five years.

Buy Marriage in the Middle or visit dorothygreco.com to learn more about Dorothy and her work.


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