What’s Really Behind Midlife Divorce?

Divorce Feature

LADY BRACKNELL: I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now.

ALGERNON: I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.

–Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Divorces among couples 50 years old and older have doubled since the 1990s, says the National Center for Family and Marriage Research. And second marriages are even less stable, doubling in divorce rates over those still working on their first.

Why are “grey divorces” so common?

Conversations around divorce in midlife ordinarily focus on the couple and their shared concerns: Financial worries. Empty nest syndrome. Parent care. Sexual dysfunction.

But what if the dissolution of long-term marriages were about something else entirely? Something that hides behind arguments about retirement planning and how to spend weekends?

Certified Divorce Coach and Marriage Educator (presumably not in that order) Cathy Meyer wrote in an article for LiveAbout that women and men often experience midlife differently. For him, the second chapter of life may be fraught with fear. For her, opportunity is knocking.

What if the problems of midlife aren’t the concerns they share, but are instead the expectations they don’t?

Show me your midlife and I’ll show you mine.

For men, the second half of life can feel like a reduction. Physical strength is waning. Authority at work may be less as younger colleagues with different skills start asserting themselves. Sexual appetite and ability can be more complicated. Less hair, less energy, less respect, fewer choices.

For women, midlife often looks more… liberating. The children are grown or nearly grown. She may hold a position of high responsibility, or she may be passing the torch and freeing up her time for other things. She may have a decent salary and therefore some disposable income. She’s likely still healthy and active and may even (finally!) be liberated from the inconvenience of a monthly cycle and pregnancy concerns.

Her body is changing and maturing in ways our sexist, ageist society disapproves of, but she cares less about the opinions of others – which, for many women, is the biggest liberation of all.

What do you do when one of you feels like you’re going to seed and the other is on the verge of bursting into blossom? Does a difference in perspective on what the future holds mean a marriage is doomed?

Travel Plans

Add together dissatisfaction and a sense of urgency, and you have a recipe for throwing out babies with bathwater and deciding it’s time to remodel the upstairs bathroom or maybe just sell the damn house and move to Tahiti.

Midlife can be a time of making big, impulsive decisions – after all, there’s only so much time left to do all those things you planned, and if anything (one) is holding you back, you need to jettison it (him/her) and get on with living, dammit!

But hasty decisions can have lasting consequences and bring lasting regret. Thinking through the possible repercussions before acting could be the difference between facing the music and dancing to it.

It might be helpful to think of all your possible futures as travel destinations. How do you plan for the trip that is the rest of your life?

1. Decide on a destination. What do you want from this journey? Excitement and adventure? Relaxation, comfort, and predictability? Bear in mind that this isn’t two weeks in Prague, this is the rest of your life – you have time for many adventures. It may be risk and wild times now, familiar comforts next. You don’t have to make decisions that cut off future choices.

2. Pick a travel partner. To do this right, ask yourself: What do you need from your partner? Someone to come along with you, step for step, as eager to take on the next adventure as you are? Or someone to come home to, tell your stories to, who provides a safe and familiar harbor? You may discover the travel partner you need is the one you already have. And if not, you may be better equipped to choose the next one, or to decide it’s time to go it alone.

3. Be aware of baggage fees. We all carry a lot of extra emotional and spiritual “weight” around, and our dissatisfaction with ourselves and what we feel we haven’t accomplished can turn into resentment of our partner. Is that person truly holding you back? If so, a re-evaluation may well be in order. But if the baggage is your own, be careful you aren’t jettisoning your best support system and your best friend.

4. Know the weather at your destination. Okay, this analogy is pretty much milked, I admit, but here’s what I mean: if you’ve been together a long time, your lives are all tangled up together. Untangling all that may mean losing some mutual friends, in-laws, estranging children. You may lose access to meaningful places, events, and activities. It will likely be a bit cold and lonely at first, and while that may not be the most important aspect of your decision, it’s important to be realistic… and ready.

So what do you do now?

The urge to throw it all off and flee, wind in your hair, bridges alight behind you, may be nearly overwhelming, but you owe it to yourself and to the person who’s shared their life with you to get this right.

If your partner – male or female – is imagining the future differently than you are, they may not even be aware of the gap in your expectations. One of you is envisioning matching recliners and sports teams on the telly, while the other is signing up for scuba lessons and learning Japanese, and the two points of view seem utterly incompatible. But are they, really? Might it be possible, with a bit of negotiation and compromise, to have it all?

Give yourself and your partner the respect of having the conversation. Be kind. Be open. Be honest. It may not save a marriage that has truly reached its expiration date, but it may help preserve a relationship that’s meant a lot for a long time.


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