My friend Jane smiled broadly standing next to her new husband. She looked elegant — dressed in a simple pale pink sheath, her long grey hair fastened neatly in a bun. It was great to see her so happy. Just four years before I sat with Jane, alternately handing her tissues and glasses of wine as she grieved the end of her forty-year marriage. Jane and her ex-husband are part of an alarming trend in “gray divorces.” Although the divorce rate for all other age groups has remained steady or even declined, the rate of divorce for couples ages 54-64 has quadrupled in the last three decades. Divorce rates for those over age 65 have tripled. Two out of three divorces are initiated by women, as it was in Jane’s case.
There are as many reasons for gray divorces as there are couples who split and each story has two sides. Although cultural shifts have made divorce more socially acceptable, it is still very difficult to untangle two lives. Divorce has major consequences no matter what your age, but may be more impactful after age fifty: equitably separating complex finances, managing the impact on adult children and grandchildren, initiating new relationships and/or learning to live alone. A decision to divorce is seldom impulsive and, in the case of long-term marriages, is often made over the course of decades — the result of one small transgression at a time. Every reason for divorce is valid for the couple that makes the difficult decision to legally call it quits after many years in a marriage. Some reasons like infidelity, addiction or abuse are blatant. Other factors may be so subtle that even the couple involved finds it challenging to articulate what went wrong. Many gray divorces are simply a result of chronic neglect.
Relationships evolve over a lifetime. People and situations change both gradually and suddenly. I heard it said that when men marry, they hope their spouse won’t change. When women marry, they often hope that they can change their spouse. Neither seldom get their wishes. It is difficult to sustain a satisfying relationship for both parties in an era of lengthening lifespans when a marriage could conceivably last 75 years or more. What worked in the early days of a relationship when you were young and starry-eyed, might not be enough in later life once you’ve weathered life’s challenges and are clear on who you are and what you need. When long-term marriages end, the heat of conflict often subsided years ago. Those marriages often end with a whimper, not a bang.
Although each couple is unique, there are some core reasons for divorce that are characteristic of those couples over 50: drifting apart, aging out of sync and struggling with regrets.
It’s not uncommon when two people are busy with careers and raising a family to lose track of each other. It’s hard to make time for deep conversations about dreams, disappointments, needs and wants when lunches need to be made and deadlines loom. A good friend recently told me that she went into a deep depression the day they took their youngest son to college. “We drove home in silence,” she said. “I realized I didn’t know what to talk to him about except our kids.”
Another friend, who recently retired, said, “We have nothing in common anymore. He has his interests and I have mine. We are like roommates simply sharing a house.” People change and often forget to tell each other. One friend said, “This may sound trivial, but the subject of non-fiction books came up at a dinner party the other night. Bob announced that I don’t like non-fiction! That may have been true when I was in my twenties, but I’ve read non-fiction books almost exclusively for at least the last five years. If he doesn’t know that about me, imagine what else he hasn’t noticed.” Good marriages are based on an active friendship that includes shared interests and meaningful conversation.
Couples can also become unhappy when they age at different rates. Women often find a burst of energy after menopause, or when they retire and finally have time for themselves. “I want to travel,” a friend said, “but he traveled a lot for work and is now content to stay at home.” One couple found themselves in a standoff because the wife enjoys indoor hobbies like painting while the husband wants to be outside and golf every day.
Another, who is a bundle of energy, wishes she could get her husband’s help with house projects, but he spends the day on his computer tracking their investments and keeping up with news reports. A change in outlook due to aging can also be hard to navigate according to a woman I know. She said, “My husband used to be fairly easy-going and positive. Now all he talks about is every ache and pain. I have them, too, but I don’t let them rule my life. His constant health report wears me out.” When basic needs aren’t being met, even small differences can be the last drop in the bucket.
Seniors often take stock of their lives and feel compelled to do something about regrets before it is too late. People naturally become more introspective as they age. I hear people in my age group frequently say, “Life is short” or “It’s now or never.” A woman, who married young, may have chosen a spouse who was acceptable to her parents rather than someone who stirred her soul. Now, at 60, she feels like she missed something essential. Women in their 60s and beyond traditionally made significant compromises in a marriage and may now regret it. The wife of a corporate VP once told me, “We moved five times for his job. Each time I left a job I loved, a home I created and friends who were dear to me. It was just assumed that I would make those changes for the sake of his career. Now it’s my turn to choose where I want to be.” Seniors often long for one last chance for happiness, whether that means finding a better relationship or going it alone in peace.
In spite of legitimate reasons for divorce, up to 50% of people who divorced regret having made the split. So, what can you do if you are unsure? The obvious answer is to seek couples counseling to get guidance and support from a professional. If your spouse refuses to go, you can still benefit from individual counseling. Sometimes the marriage is simply the scapegoat for other sources of unhappiness. Some women divorce and then discover that the marital dissatisfaction was merely a cover for deeper personal issues that need to be resolved.
Taking action to avoid divorce
All relationships, however, require effort and regular maintenance. There are proactive things you can do to keep out of the lawyer’s office:
Life is short, indeed. If your marriage isn’t meeting your needs, be determined to find more mutually satisfying ways of interacting or decide to dissolve the marriage based on what is best for you. Get clear on what you need to be happy. We may have been chasing an unrealistic fantasy of marriage earlier in life. Now, inside many of us, is a deep admiration for that old couple that we see walking hand in hand. But who is steadying whom? Could it be that our generation, in their unrelenting quest for personal growth, failed to learn how to be interdependent — the necessary quality for intimacy?
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