The Queenager | Eleanor's Letter
Renegotiating our relationships in midlife
I hope you’ve been having a good week – mine certainly threw up some food for thought. Actually, that is a rather vomitous metaphor… which wasn’t really my intention.
Anyway - I had one of those evenings where I was feeling a bit knackered and wasn’t at all sure I wanted to jump in an Uber and attend a debate about marriage. But I’d been invited by a law firm – Boodle and Hadfield, celebrating their 300 year anniversary – and the discussion was all about how the institution of marriage has changed over three centuries. So I dragged myself off the sofa, whacked on some lipstick and heels (this post Zoom dressing is quite a challenge, I mean having to put together an outfit which isn’t only to the neck is still tricky…) and toddled off to Blackfriars.
As is usual with these things I was glad I’d gone. The room was full of high-powered, predominantly female lawyers and some of their clients. The panel was hosted by Anna Richardson (you know her from Naked Attraction) and included a sex therapist, a Church of England priest and a person who described themselves as they, is marrying their boyfriend and identifies as polyamorous. You can imagine the perspectives were pretty wide (and the contributions from the floor were fantastic, particularly one female barrister saying the most complicated cases she ever tackled involved the fallout from polyamorous relationships, where some poor kids end up with two biological and two other parents who all have to be satisfied with post-split custody arrangements… sounded tricky, to say the least).
Anyway, the most relevant part of the discussion was about how relationships – even marriage – need constant renegotiation, at least once a year… and if you’ve been together a long time then a big reckoning where you talk honestly about what is and isn’t working and what you really need is a must. The couples therapist was talking about how the people that he saw often arrived with the same complaint: their partners seemed to expend effort on their careers and their friends and their bosses and their colleagues and their hobbies and even their children and pets… but the person who most often came bottom of their list, or certainly felt that they did, was their partner. “How is it,” the therapist asked, “that we kick off in our relationships with that jittery feeling of love and rainbows, our significant other rocks our worlds, we’ll do anything for them. And then we get married to them and a decade or so later they are the person to whom we make the least effort? They are the one who gets the knackered, grumpy, in your tracksuit and passing out version of you… never the shiny excited one. ”
There was one of those slightly stunned hushes all around the room. Many pennies dropping. I thought about my own marriage – 20 years next month. And asked truly myself how often I put my husband at the top of my endless to-do list. The answer is from now on I am going to make sure he is there more.
I’ve just turned fifty and there seems to be divorce all around me – friends parting ways, hooking up with new people. Some looking cheerful, others devastated. Children in the mix… I know what that’s like my parents split up when I was five. And it was awful. (Maybe that’s why my two siblings and I all got married in the same summer and why two decades on we are all still together.) I remember a famous rock star being asked how his marriage had survived four decades of showbiz; “Just don’t get divorced!” he’d said. There’s something in that. But we also know that the early fifties are the peak time for divorce, such couples even have a moniker – silver splitters. Often the kids leave home and two strangers look at each other across the breakfast table and think hmmm, is this it? If I’ve got twenty or thirty more years, do I want to spend it with you?
This is where that renegotiation malarkey comes in. My stepfather Peter Hildebrand wrote a book called Beyond Midlife Crisis – it was all about the huge psychological development that people are capable of in later life. How we think we are formed, have become who we are after fifty years on the planet, but that the truth is we can always learn, and change – and the reality in his clinical practice (he was the head of the Adult Department at the Tavistock Clinic, so he’d seen a few patients!) was that people made massive shifts and often became far happier as they aged. This has been proved: there is a U curve of happiness, peaking in our younger lives, declining to the age of 47 – and then coming right back up again as we get older.
In the marriage debate, the therapist was talking about the importance of valuing your partner (which sounds obvious but is hard in practice) and renegotiating our roles. This chimed with me because Peter (and my mother and sister who are both psychotherapists too) often talk about how couples come to a new deal in middle age. I see it all around me: one woman I know said to her husband that they could stay together but she wanted to spend three months of every year painting in Spain. Another husband said he was devoted to cycling (a true Mamil middle-aged man in lycra) and wanted to go off on many such tours – and she responded by saying, great she wanted to retrain as a teacher. They are both happy and have new creative outlets.
The therapist was talking about what the deal-breakers are in relationships and how over years one party often gets ground down by the other taking them for granted, not being thoughtful, and not recognising their contribution. A client was moaning to me the other day about how her husband is under her feet at home and is for the first time ever doing the family shop, taking the cat to the vet and ferrying their son to cricket matches – he wants to tell her about it in minute detail constantly when she is trying to work and look after her ageing mother. “It drives me nuts,” she says. “I’ve been working and doing all of that domestic stuff for years and he was never interested, but now he is doing it I am supposed to keep up a constant litany of how marvellous he is for doing it. I’m grateful, but for fuck’s sake!”
I think it is so true that often the small things in relationships are the dealbreakers - not the big things. One of the reasons I am still married is because of my husband’s thoughtfulness in all things, whether it’s thinking about what I might like to eat while he is wandering around the supermarket, or sending me a message he knows will make me smile. One day I had to give a big talk and was really stressed out and he dressed up in one of my work outfits and got one of my daughters to photograph him in it. He sent the message just before he knew I was going on stage: I laughed so much when I saw him in my grey trouser suit I forgot to be nervous. It is those small gestures of thoughtfulness which keep love alive.
So if you feel you are heading for a silver splitter moment, maybe first consider what might be renegotiated first. The priest at the debate talked about ‘agape’, the Greek word for love which is not erotic and romantic but kind, nurturing, and cherishing. He described it as living in the kindness of picking up someone else’s socks and washing them, or caring for them when they are sick. Love comes in many forms but at the root of all of them is consideration and empathy – sometimes putting someone else’s needs or feelings above our own.
But many of our Queenagers argue that they have been doing that for years. That for decades now they have been looking after the needs of others and for them this is their time, time to revisit their own dreams, to have a bit of space for themselves. I’m all for that and applaud it all the way. But sometimes there is a less radical solution to finding that freedom. Maybe rather than splitting with our partners, we can renegotiate.
It was ironic to hear about how renegotiation, communication and love can pull relationships back from the brink of a room full of divorce lawyers; but then again, if any group know the horror of the other path it is them!
I’d love to know what you think and if you have also renegotiated a long term relationship or got out of one. Leave your comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if any of you fancy it, I am on stage at Adweek on Tuesday May 17th at 1.40 pm at The Picture House Cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue talking about Queenagers and the power of midlife women and why brands shouldn’t ignore them with the lovely Liz Earle (Queenager and wellbeing guru). Our friends at Adweek have very kindly said that the first fifty subscribers to this newsletter who register on this link can have free delegate passes to the whole of Adweek (they usually cost a fortune) and, if you fancy it, it means you can come and hear me speak.
Also if you want to come to our next Noon Book Club it is on May 30th – the book is Clare Poole’s The Authenticity Project. If you’d like to get the Book Club book sent to you FREE every month by our supporters at Penguin then become a paid subscriber to this newsletter (for only £6) it will also support our work at Noon and my campaign to change the narrative about the later stages of women’s lives to one more fit for purpose and relevant to the way we live now.
Have a great week!