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Fighting the 40-Year Itch of Marriage

7 warning signs that could signal potential problems

On a typical Saturday night, Diane Di Mauro and her husband, Antonio Burr, might visit a museum in Manhattan, then have dinner. But instead of chatting, they’ll often have long intervals of silence at the table. Ditto on the drive home. In fact, Di Mauro and Burr can spend all day together and barely speak. They’ve been a couple for 30 years. Are they in trouble?

See also: How to Keep the Romance Alive

Di Mauro doesn’t think they have a problem. “I feel sorry for couples who don’t understand silence,” she says.

As a relationships researcher for 38 years, I’ve learned there are two kinds of silence in a marriage. One is the frosty silence of people who have checked out of each other’s lives. The other, like Di  Mauro and Burr’s, is more companionable: Partners are on the same wavelength, sharing thoughts via glances and gestures.

In a world where seemingly stable and happy 40-year marriages collapse without warning, we may wonder about the structural integrity of our own partnerships. Is your marriage on solid ground? Here are seven potential warning signs—and when they are really cause for concern.

1. Your partner asks for space

What it usually means: Over time, couples often go from visiting the mailbox together to pursuing hobbies—or even vacationing—separately. That’s okay: Time apart creates room to miss each other and bring new experiences to the relationship.

When to worry: If your spouse no longer seems to enjoy your company, or gets angry or dismissive when you suggest time together, there could be something else going on, such as an affair or serious depression.

2. You fantasize about others

What it usually means: Thinking about sexy people is the most ordinary thing in the world. As the old saw goes, you’re married, not dead.

When to worry: If you can’t become physically aroused without pretending you’re with a particular person, there’s something more serious at work. What to do? You don’t need to tell your spouse you are craving someone else, but you can say you don’t feel fully connected and you want to talk through what might be blocking your ability to relate.

3. Your partner is starting to gross you out

What it usually means: When you share space year after year, you’re going to see your spouse do some unlovely things—and vice versa.

When to worry: If you stay angry long after the offensive behavior occurs, you need to find out why it bothers you so much. With discussion you may realize you’re angry about something entirely different.

Next: Having doubts about your spouse »

4. You doubt your choice of mate

What it usually means: Thinking about how your life might have been different is a wistful escape during periods of self-doubt. Sometimes you wonder “What if…?” Everyone does.

When to worry: It’s more than nostalgia when you constantly compare your real-life partner with someone you could have married but didn’t. Try to reorient yourself by listing your spouse’s great qualities and the wonderful experiences you’ve shared. If the list looks weak to you, consider seeing a counselor.

5. You’re sick of pretending to like your partner’s family or friends

What it usually means: You’ll never love every person a partner brings into your life, and there’s usually at least one you actively loathe. If you’ve been a jerk to someone your spouse adores—well, join the club!

When to worry: If you find yourself disliking all your partner’s friends, or if you’re frequently downright rude, you’re probably mad at your partner, or you would be more generous.

6. You learn your partner has lied

What it usually means: White lies such as saying a new gadget was on sale when it wasn’t are common. Do they harm the relationship? Rarely.

When to worry: If your partner lied about something big—such as losing a job—or because he or she was sincerely afraid of your reaction, your relationship has ceased to be intimate, understanding, or supportive.

7. You want to run away

What it usually means: Daydreaming about escaping your life (and spouse) could mean you need a new job, more exercise, help with a money mess, or a fix for a stymied friendship.

When to worry: If you are taking steps toward leaving, or just threatening to do it, things are seriously awry. You need to find out what is at the root of your fantasy—and what can make life better for both of you.

Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., is AARP’s Sex and Relationships ambassador.

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