The Middle Years of Marriage

Challenge, Change, and Growth

by Vince Waldron (Author)
©2017 Textbook XIV, 182 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 13


Midlife can be a time of great change for individuals and a "make or break" period for marriages. Couples navigate a relationship landscape defined by such lifecourse landmarks as "the empty nest," changing roles at home and at work, aging bodies, and the need to care for family elders. Some partnerships are resilient through this period, adopting practices that help them cope, bounce back, and even thrive in the face of adversity. Others sputter, wither, and burn out. What makes a midlife marriage resilient? Drawing from hundreds of interviews with couples, The Middle Years of Marriage answers this question.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface (Alex Zautra)
  • People are Hurting
  • People Can Change
  • Resilience is Social
  • References
  • Section I: Foundations
  • Chapter 1. What Do We Know About Midlife Marriage?
  • What Is it like to be Middle Aged and Married in America?
  • The Demographic Imperative
  • How Many People Are We Talking About?
  • What About Their Kids?
  • How Diverse Are They?
  • How Healthy Are They?
  • How Do Their Finances Look?
  • How Educated Are They?
  • What Does It All Mean?
  • Midlife Marriage: What the Research Says
  • The (Developmental) Tasks They Perform
  • Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development
  • Levinson’s “seasons of life”
  • Duvall’s family stages
  • The Stories They Tell
  • The Nature of their Bonds
  • Research on changes
  • Research on challenges
  • Research on opportunities
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter 2. Creating the Marriages at Midlife Archive (MaMA)
  • The Participants
  • The Course
  • A Focus on Aging Relationships
  • A Focus on Midlife
  • My Assumptions and Biases
  • Relational Resilience as a Sensitizing Concept
  • Personal Biases: My Midlife Life
  • The Student Interviewers
  • Students as Co-Researchers
  • Why Choose to Engage Students as Researchers?
  • What Value Did Student Researchers Bring to the Study?
  • Quality of the Data
  • References
  • Section II: What the Couples Say
  • Chapter 3. Midlife Changes and Challenges (Amy Przytula Vynalek / Catalina Cayetano / Dayna N. Kloeber / Amanda Tuholsky)
  • Distinct Midlife Challenges
  • Intersecting Midlife Challenges
  • Difficult Adult Offspring
  • Relational Stressors
  • Making Sense of Adversity
  • References
  • Chapter 4. Protecting
  • Protective Practices
  • Enacting Resilient Identities
  • Determined: “Determined to stay on our feet”
  • Reliable: “The couple you go to when you have a problem”
  • Ready: “Prepared for life’s peaks and valleys”
  • Loving: “But, ultimately their love sees them through it”
  • Patient: “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19)
  • Root Metaphor Analysis
  • Analysis and Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Coping
  • Communication-Intensive Practices
  • Direct Action
  • Root Metaphor Analysis
  • Lesser Themes
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Growing
  • Communication-Intensive Changes
  • Direct Action
  • Initiating Shared Activity: “Like those high school kids who fell in love all over again”
  • Working Differently
  • Separating and Rejoining
  • Relocating
  • Formalizing Arrangements
  • Root Metaphor Analysis
  • Relationship as Adventure
  • Relationship as Growth
  • Relationship as Redemption
  • Lesser Themes
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Section III: Theory, Methods, and Measures
  • Chapter 7. Theorizing Relational Resilience at Midlife (Gary A. Beck (Old Dominion University))
  • Middle-Age Experiences
  • Resilience Theory, Broadly Cast
  • Resilience Components
  • Resilience Components, Plus Time
  • Stressors
  • Outcomes
  • Resources
  • Additional Implications of Time
  • Future Research and Applications
  • For Research
  • For Practice
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter 8. Methods and Measures
  • Data Collection Procedures
  • Data Analysis Procedures
  • Qualitative Analysis
  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Supplemental Method: Root Metaphor Analysis
  • Interview Schedule
  • Introduction
  • Rapport Building/Background (Establish a Friendly Conversational Tone)
  • Midlife Changes, Challenges and Opportunities for Growth
  • Advice to Younger Couples
  • Demographic Data
  • Conclusion
  • Interview Assignment
  • COM 417: Long Term Relationship Interview
  • Student Consent
  • Overview
  • Instructions for Written Analysis
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Students played a large role in the research reported in this book. Literally hundreds of students in COM 417 (Communication and Aging) completed interviews and reports that are quoted in the pages that follow. They generously gave me permission to use these contributions.

A small group of very bright graduate students helped with an initial analysis of the stressors reported in Chapter 3. They are Amy Przytula Vynalek, Catalina Cayetano, Dayna N. Kloeber, Amanda Tuholsky, and Qun Lu. That work was also featured in a paper delivered at the annual convention of the National Communication Association in 2014. Daniel Kelley, an M.A student at the time helped by organizing the data, searching the interviews for key terms, and locating relevant literature. Students Emily Abellon and Chloe Kartes helped with data archiving tasks.

Cori Hart, an undergraduate honors student working under my direction, interviewed 7 long-term same-sex couples as part of her undergraduate honors project. Her research proved to be very useful because the main corpus of interviews included only a handful of same-sex relationships.

I am also grateful to Gary A. Beck, the author of Chapter 7, for helping me think more deeply and theoretically about these data. Gary’s chapter contributes a communicative model of relational resilience that will help scholars generate new research studies. ← ix | x →

I deeply appreciate series editor Tom Socha for his support of my work and for his efforts to create an outlet for communication scholars who study lifespan issues. Few of us can claim to have had the personal and professional impact of this generous and productive man.

Finally, my thinking about relational resilience was deepened by many rich conversations with Alex Zautra, a prolific resilience researcher, and in the last years of his life, a dear friend. Alex died while this book was in the late stages of preparation. I miss him deeply but am grateful to have known him well.

| xi →


Alex Zautra*

In recent years I have worked with Eva Zautra to translate the research findings of clinical psychology to help people form meaningful and satisfying relationships. This work is grounded in a long research program on the nature of human resilience (e.g. Zautra, 2009; Zautra, Hall, & Murray, 2010) and Eva’s more recent efforts to update the concept of social intelligence, making it accessible to the general public in the form of an online public health intervention (Zautra, Zautra, Gallardo, & Velasco, 2015). Vince Waldron’s new book, The Middle Years of Marriage, dovetails nicely with our own work. It confirms some of our findings about, for example, the malleability of social behavior. As our own work suggests, Waldron and his students have confirmed that aging dogs really can learn new tricks, even if that dog has been scarred by encounters with the sharp elbows of a challenging midlife. The book also expands our own thinking on how neuropsychological plasticity finds its expression in changed patterns of relational communication. Waldron details the kinds of communication that help couples resist, cope with, and thrive in spite of, adversity. ← xi | xii →

Ultimately, The Middle Years of Marriage is a book about resilience, relational resilience. It doesn’t presume that all committed relationships should persist though the changes and (for some of us) stressors of midlife. But it does wonder why some relationships do persist, and even thrive. To find the answers, Waldron had his students interview hundreds of midlife couples over several years. He reflects on this rather ambitious project in Chapter 2 and describes the resulting archive of interview reports and recordings. In Chapter 8 he provides methodological details, including the semi-structured interview protocol that allowed his relatively inexperienced students to conduct interviews that were both systematic and conducive to conversation, some of which became quite intimate. Students interviewed their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, co-workers, family friends and in-laws. The interviews proved meaningful to many of the students, some of whom had never experienced a deep conversation, even with their parents, about how marriages really work (or don’t). In some cases the interview itself became a resilience-enhancing experience. It appeared that some couples were fortified by the interview experience, as if putting their relationship to words affirmed their bonds and readied them for future challenges.

Although he doesn’t articulate them in quite these terms, Waldron’s The Middle Years of Marriage, yields several themes that have emerged in our conversations as we developed our own intervention.

People are Hurting

As Chapter 3 reveals, nearly all couples, even those who would describe themselves as very satisfied with life and marriage, have been rocked by midlife adversity. These hurts range from infidelity to illness, from financial ruin to “failure to launch” adult offspring. The very ordinariness of adversity is in itself notable. Our own work has been motivated in part to address what we see as the widespread hurting we see around us. The reality is that many Americans are lonely. Many are looking for ways to connect with the people around them. And many need help in repairing broken relationships.

People Can Change

At the heart of The Middle Years of Marriage are chapters on how some couples manage to cope (Chapter 5) and grow (Chapter 6) at midlife. In both ← xii | xiii → chapters Waldron describes concrete practices, both individual and collective, that facilitate this kind of resilience. Often in their 50s and 60s, some of these partners have bonded for decades. They are bound together by long-held roles, habits, and scripts. Yet change they must and change they do. We see evidence of this change in our own work. Provided with sufficient training, people can make adjustments in the way they value their relationships with others. Even at a late age they can try out new patterns of behavior and form deeper bonds.

Resilience is Social

No doubt, some people are predisposed to be resilient due to their biological make-up, genetics, or early developmental experiences. Yet, as Waldron shows us in Chapter 4, partners often work together to build resilience into their relationships, to ready themselves for hard times, and protect their union against the pressures that pull so many couples apart. As we see in the later chapters, in many cases this means building new social bonds, including connections to new friends, communities, and sources of professional help. For others, strength comes from renewing bonds that have withered. Reconnecting with siblings. Asking adult offspring for support. Rekindling neglected friendships. From these social connections couples draw support, wisdom, confidence, and strength. This book highlights the role of human communication in making these things happen.

As Vince and I talked about this project, it became evident that he is optimistic about the capacity of people to reinvent themselves and their relationships. This book provides convincing evidence that reinvention happens more than we might expect, especially when we look across the lifespan. I have been lucky to live long enough to experience that kind of change. I have repaired my share of relationships and, in recent years, formed a very special one. The relationship stories reported in The Middle Years of Marriage are different from mine and yours. In fact, each one is unique. Not all end well. But as you read across the book you will see that they are connected by the very hopeful thread that we call human resilience.


Zautra, A. J. (2009). Resilience: One part recovery, two parts sustainability. Journal of Personality, 77(6), 1935–1943. ← xiii | xiv →

Zautra, A. J., Hall, J. S., & Murray, K. E. (2010). Resilience: A new definition of health for people and communities. In J. Reich, A. Zautra, & J. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience (pp. 3–29). New York, NY: Guilford.

Zautra, E., Zautra, A., Gallardo, C. E., & Velasco, L. (2015). Can we learn to treat one another better? A test of a social intelligence curriculum. PLoS One, 10, 1–17.

*Alex Zautra died before completing this preface. These passages were constructed from notes taken during conversations with the author.


XIV, 182
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XIV, 182 pp.

Biographical notes

Vince Waldron (Author)

Vince Waldron (Ph.D., Ohio State) is Professor of Communication at Arizona State University. He is an author or editor of six books on personal and work relationships, including the award-winning Communicating Forgiveness. His work is currently funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging.


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