07/15/2014 03:33 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Satisfaction Highlights Midlife Relationship Strains

A new television series, USA Network's Satisfaction, premiering on July 17, 2014, manages to portray midlife relationships in a serious, though often comic, way that captures many of the subtleties that adult relationship researchers observe in the laboratory.

The premise of the series is that both husband and wife, married for 18 years, each struggling with their own personal desires for long-term fulfillment are not finding it quite yet. The series promises to show us how both partners wrestle with their midlife angst in ways that challenge their personal identity, role as parents, and search for meaning in life.

On the surface, the show is about sex, but this is only a small part of the picture from a psychological standpoint. Instead, its true focus is on how individuals develop within the context of their relationship, but they also develop in ways that involve their own inner demons.

In Satisfaction, the demons involve each partner's desire for career fulfillment, the wish to get back in touch with the values and ideals that shaped their early lives, and the hopes that they can transmit these values to their teenage daughter.

The search for intimacy is, of course, also at the heart of this show as, indeed it is in so much of what Hollywood produces. However, by weaving this theme into the themes of personal development and fulfillment, we see a much more realistic (though of course exaggerated) portrayal of what each adult in a long-term relationship experiences every day.

These themes of how individual and couples develop over time came under the scrutiny of the psychological research lab in a 2014 article by University of Houston psychologist Benjamin Hadden and his colleagues C. Veronica Smith and Gregory Webster. They used the now well-established framework of adult attachment theory to develop a model that would explain how relationships would either ravel or unravel with time.

According to adult attachment theory, we develop our sense of self in relationships as a function of our bonding with caregivers when we were infants. In the majority of cases, the child develops a secure attachment style of being able to bond with others but not be overly clingy. However, if the child is made to feel that the caregiver is unreliable and neglecting, the chances are high that the child will develop an anxious or avoidant attachment style.

After whittling down the many contributors to relationship satisfaction, Hadden and team concluded that the longer the relationship, the more heavily attachment style became weighted in determining satisfaction. Over time, the anxious or avoidant partner becomes more and more difficult to live with and this is when things start to unravel.

The good news from the Hadden et al study is that securely attached individuals, which do constitute the majority of adults, are able to weather the storms of their individual developmental trajectories over time. Their strong bond allows them to explore, individually and as a couple, the midlife themes of development that will help them find true fulfillment.

Parodies of midlife adults, mocking their search for eternal youth, intense yearning for sports cars, and self-expression in the bedroom, can be funny but bear little relationship to reality of what most people are actually seeking. Fortunately, USA network which usually brings us buddy shows (Suits, White Collar, Graceland) has managed to avoid these midlife stereotypes.

Time will tell as to whether Satisfaction will remain true to its premise of showing us how the lines of individual and joint development evolve over time. For the moment, it's a relief to have a break from the usual midlife silliness and instead to explore this important period of life's deeper themes.

For more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog, Can Relationships Withstand the Strains of Midlife?
Hadden, B. W., Smith, C., & Webster, G. D. (2014). Relationship duration moderates associations between attachment and relationship quality: Meta-analytic support for the temporal adult romantic attachment model. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(1), 42-58. doi:10.1177/1088868313501885