Empathy, Trauma, and Marriage in the Middle: a look at Dorothy Littell Greco’s latest book

Marriage in the Middle bears the subtitle Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys. If by “embracing” Dorothy Littell Greco means coming to grips with, she has delivered.

Each chapter looks at an individual component of life and contextualizes it for couples in midlife, defined by Greco as “those of us who are roughly between the ages of forty and sixty-five.” Chapter Three, for example, speaks of physical changes, such as “reading glasses, receding hairlines, and reorganized hormones,” while Chapter Ten concerns a couple’s need for community and friends and accepting help from outside the marriage relationship.

Chapter Six—“Navigating Trauma and Loss”—drew my attention. I’ve had plenty of loss in the past decade and a half, with the death of both my sister and aunt in the same night to the more recent death of my father. Greco writes: “Losses occur at any—and every—stage of life, but once we enter our fourth decade, they begin to accumulate.”

These traumas will affect not only our moods, but our brain’s chemistry, leading to “hyperarousal (i.e., always on high alert) or hypoarousal (i.e., shut down).” I’ve learned personally from my own trauma that these in turn lead to overly responsive reactions to events or stimuli: jumping out of my skin at a friend’s unexpected voice, withdrawing into my shell when given a perceived criticism. Just because the trauma has passed does not mean these responses are going to go away, either. “After a traumatic event has ended, the body continues to secrete stress hormones keeping victims ready to respond to the next threat,” Greco says.

This chapter, like the others, does not merely identify where the problems can arise for a midlife couple. Greco moves toward identifying how to embrace—how to come to grips—with the effect of trauma and its aftermath, and move toward health in the individual and in the relationship. This chapter’s subsection “Restoration: Pivoting Toward Hope and Wholeness” does just that.

Greco writes sympathetically but unflinchingly of the need for: truth between the couple, calling for confession even; forgiveness and empathy (but not denying or ignoring wrongdoing); and facing pain honestly knowing that Jesus is with you throughout your struggles, hardship and pain.

Ultimately that’s what this book is about: faith in Jesus that allows faithfulness in all things related to marriage in the middle.

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