January 18, 2019

The Real-Life ‘Story of Us’

When radio-humorist Howard Stern announced earlier this month that he and his wife Alison were separating after 21 years of marriage, he was, according to therapist and author Dr. Betty Polston, right in keeping with a disturbing trend. The divorce rate in America is declining, except for one age group: middle-aged married couples. And yes, that includes nice Jewish couples like the Sterns.

Popular culture dwells on the highs of falling in love and the lows of breakup, but rarely ventures into the middle ground of keeping a long marriage healthy. The recent movie, “The Story of Us” is a notable exception. But as life expectancy has increased, post-retirement empty nesters are in for a long haul. There are precious few self-help books or seminars specifically for couples struggling to cope with mid-life challenges.

Psychotherapist and clinical researcher Polston is looking to change that with her new book, “Loving Midlife Marriage” (John Wiley & Sons, $14.95). Why? “A fulfilling marriage is the single greatest predictor of health, happiness and even our longevity,” she said in an interview with the Journal.

As an instructor at the University of Judaism’s “Making Marriage Work” seminars, and a counselor for Jewish Vocational Services, Polston helped dozens of couples whose lives, as well as their marriages, were entering middle age. But when Polston’s grown children left home, and her own spouse of 29 years, Bernard, retired from his law practice in 1989, all the issues the therapist had been helping her patients cope with suddenly came home to roost. “When it happens to you, it’s different,” she recalls. Her own search for the tools and techniques to cope with her own life changes became the inspiration for the book, and provide many of its moving passages.

The book, ably co-written by Susan Golant, looks at the big transitions that can shake what seemed like the most stable of marriages. “Issues in your marriage that seemed to have been settled years ago are up for grabs once again,” she writes. The division of labor is up for grabs when both partners are home all day — Polston calls this “chore wars.” Physical changes brought on by aging often make sex a source of tension and frustration. And that spouse who couldn’t wait to retire? Just see how long it takes before he or she starts climbing the walls, or slips into depression.

Because of these obstacles to a happy home, Polston sees the midlife marriage as a time for growth. Couples can redefine their life’s passions, enter new careers, explore sex in new ways, evaluate the lessons of past decades and move forward. The tools for doing all this are spelled out in the second part of the book, where Polston provides questionnaires and checklists to help couples take stock. If some of the suggestions sound less than revolutionary — long discussions on marriage goals and the like — Polston deserves credit for not sugar-coating what is bound to be hard work.

But boomers are aging (how many times have we heard that?), and Polston may be on to something. Time magazine will soon feature her in its look at midlife marriage, and she has appeared on national television discussing her findings. As for a session on the Howard Stern Show, she’s still waiting.

Betty Polston will discuss and sign her book at the Jewish Book Festival on Friday, Nov. 12 at 10 a.m. at the West Valley JCC.