Therapist Joanna Harrison on navigating conflict in midlife

My experiences of working as a couple therapist and of being in a relationship have shown me that our relationships are a constant work in progress, that there are always changes both inside us and around us. Every stage has its new challenges – a bit like teething problems. One of the ways the state of our relationships warns us that there is something that needs attention is when we find ourselves in conflict with each other in our relationships. Midlife is a transitional stage of life and the conflicts that come up at this stage can flag up important issues that need attention at this time, a bit like a canary in a mine. If we can pay these issues the attention they need, then this can help our relationships.

There are two areas I often see contributing to increased conflict in midlife, so here are my tips on addressing them helpfully:

Symptoms associated with menopause

Often perimenopause and the menopause get blamed as the cause for increased conflict in relationships. It’s not usually the whole picture but it is true that hormonal changes can lead to increased irritability or anxiety and so it can help to give some focus to this side of things, if you are going through this or feeling like you might be. Asking yourself – are there changes you can make to support your situation and improve it?

Could seeking specialist advice from a medical professional help, or are there changes you could make to your diet and to the levels of exercise you are taking, all of which can support your mood ? If you are struggling with sleep does this mean you need to think about adjusting schedules and what you are doing – everything from social life to domestic workload?

Often making these changes can feel hard on your own and it might be that you need the help of those close to you. Thinking about your support network, whether that’s family, friends or professionals, and reaching out to people that you trust can help you take important necessary steps to look after your health. It can feel hard to acknowledge change in oneself as well as frightening and it’s important that you don’t feel alone with having to manage it.

Top tip: Make space for a conversation with your partner about all the jobs you have to do and think together about whether there is anything that can be shared more equally or reduced to enable you to focus on your health and not bite off more than you can chew.

Communication difficulties in relationships

Midlife stirs up difficult feelings. For example, sad or fearful feelings to do with getting older and having physical changes (linking back to what I have talked about above), mixed feelings about possible gaps between what you had hoped to achieve and where you feel you actually are, and, for parents, feelings around their children getting older and maybe having to deal with the turbulence of adolescence.

Increased caring responsibilities for elderly relatives add to the pressure. Everyone has their unique set of circumstances. When I see conflict in couples at this stage of life what it so often relates to is not so much being able to solve these issues as couples not finding a helpful way to talk about them together. What happens when couples can’t connect with each other about the things that matter to them is that their sad or fearful or angry feelings ‘leak’ out unhelpfully into conflict – often about seemingly petty things so that then one person is accused of ‘over-reacting’.

Setting aside proper time rather than in the heat of the moment to speak about how you are both feeling, where you actively listen to each other, not trying to solve anything, but to connect curiously with what is on each other’s minds, can help minimize conflict. And if you do have an argument, take some time afterwards when feelings have cooled down to try and understand better what it was you both felt strongly about.

As uncomfortable and difficult as conflict can feel in our relationships, it can also give us an opportunity to understand each other and ourselves better and to connect. When we connect we are in a better position to mourn the losses that midlife involves and to find positive ways to move forward.

Top tip: If you hear each other saying something you don’t agree with, rather than try to persuade them of your point of view, instead make an effort to acknowledge what they are feeling to show that you have heard it. Often this can help conversations to be more creative and to take the heat out of having different opinions.

Positive possibilities

This time of life challenges us to listen to ourselves and each other in new ways, if we can find the time and courage to do so. When we are able to it can open up possibilities and lead to us enriching our relationships.

Joanna Harrison is an experienced couple’s therapist and author of Five Arguments All Couples (Need To) Have And Why The Washing Up Matters.

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We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.