Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

The Epidemic of Gray Divorces

More couples are ending their marriage after age 50.

Barbara and Jack got married twenty-four years ago. Barbara is fifty-one and Jack is fifty-two. Their oldest daughter is in college and their younger daughter, a high school senior, is soon going off to college as well. Over the years Barbara and Jack have drifted apart, avoiding each other in an attempt to keep the bickering to a minimum. Barbara’s numerous attempts for more emotional closeness have failed. In her frustration, she has turned to her sister and women friends to meet her needs for closeness. Jack has grown bitter due to Barbara's repeated rejections of his sexual overtures. He diverts his pent up energy into sports: basketball, mountain climbing, and long distance running. Despite their parallel lives, the tension in their home is high.

When Barbara contemplates her future, she can't imagine spending the next twenty-five or thirty years feeling this unhappy. After many months of careful deliberation, she concluded that she will be better off alone than in the anger, resentment, or boredom that she is currently experiencing, and she decided to announce her plan to separate and divorce to Jack and both daughters on their spring break from school. Shortly thereafter, Jack and Barbara put their house on the market and six weeks later, they moved into separate households. Apart from the house selling so quickly, this is an increasingly common scenario.

"Gray divorce" is the term used to refer to those who divorce after age fifty.  In 2009 this included over 600,000 people. Some researchers call it a divorce revolution. And the numbers are growing while divorce rates of other age groups is falling. According the Wall Street Journal's March 3, 2012 edition, this group has doubled in the past twenty years. Baby boomers are breaking up late in life like no previous generation. In 1990 only one in ten of all divorces involved people over fifty. In 2009 it was one in four.

Hitting fifty is empty nest time. Like Jack and Barbara, a large portion of these couples have found a way to overlook their differences, tolerate emotional distance and disagreements because they were committed to bringing their children up in an intact family. For many of them however, it wasn’t a real marriage, but an arrangement, an uneasy truce in which both partners tolerated conditions that were far from ideal. And 66% of the time, like Barbara, it is the women who are initiating most of these breakups.

Infidelity is not a major factor that accounts for the spike in divorce in later years. Infidelity in this age group is the same as the general population (which is 27%) who cite it as one of the top three reasons for divorce. The crucial variable seems to have to do with greater life expectancy. Baby boomers are living significantly longer than previous generations. In addition, those born after 1946 have entered marriage with a goal that was not shared by any previous generation: self-fulfillment.

Many researchers divide marriages into three categories: institutional marriages, compassionate marriages and the individualized marriages. The institutional marriage arose in the decades prior to World War II, and was primarily in economic concerns (two can live cheaper than one). The compassionate marriage was born after the Second World War. This style of marriage was characterized by the male being a good provider for the family, and the female being a good homemaker and the primary parent. We are now in the phase of the individualized marriage in which the primary focus has to do with the satisfaction of individual needs, personal growth, fulfillment, and shared intimacy.

The desire for self-fulfillment and marrying to create happiness, personal growth, enrichment, and learning is a legitimate and worthy goal. There is no problem with self-fulfillment, as long as it is not viewed as something that we have coming to us about which we have a sense of entitlement. Happiness, like any other desire is not something that comes to us simply because we want it, but rather is a function of a willingness to take responsibility for the fulfillment of a desired outcome and making the effort to bring it about.

If we hold our partner responsible for providing us with fulfillment, it's likely that we will end up feeling let down and disappointed, and they will feel resentful and burdened.  While many of these gray divorces may be necessary if the partners are genuinely mismatched, another group of them may be giving up simply because they don’t have the necessary vision and tools to grow their relationship into something that can provide for their deeper needs. 

Successful couples pay attention and respond to the signs that indicate whether they are on or off track in their relationship. They understand that luck is not the primary factor in the establishment of great relationships, and they take responsibility for doing the work that such partnerships require. What sets successful couples apart from others is they are committed to dealing with issues when they arise. And they have developed skills related to communication, negotiation, working out the differences (even those that are irreconcilable), letting go, forgiving, trust-building and trust repair. These challenges can be daunting, but meeting them makes it possible to up-level a mediocre marriage to a good one and a good one to a great one.

Fifty-three percent of those who divorce after age 50 have been divorced at least once before.  If someone has been divorced one or more times, they have a 150% greater chance of their next marriage ending in divorce than do first marriages. Often these people are suffering from the illusion that they have simply found the wrong person, and that it's just a matter of finding the right one. More often than not, it's not that simple. The responsibility for a broken marriage never rests entirely in the hands of one person. While the cause is not necessarily 50/50, there is always a contribution that both partners make to the breakdown of a relationship.

As long as the focus is on what the other person did wrong rather than what each person can do to contribute to the improvement of the marriage, it is unlikely that the necessary lessons will be learned, thus making it probable that "mistakes" will be repeated in future relationships. The best insurance for a future relationship that is more successful than our past relationships is the willingness to engage in the kind of self-reflection that supports us in understanding the nature of our part in the difficulties that have contributed to our situation. While it is always tempting to focus on our partner's part in the breakdown of a relationship, unless we reflect upon our part as well, our marriage will probably become one more addition to the divorce statistics.

No matter what the age of marital partners is, we are all challenged to learn the skills necessary to create great relationships if that is what we desire. As big a factor as love is in any relationship, when it comes to marriage, as many of us know from our own experience, love alone isn't always enough. The notion that great relationships require some hard work may conflict with the romantic belief that true love will always prevail, but as many of us know from experience, even the most loving connections can become cold, distant or resentful if they are not adequately tended to. The good news is that with proper care and nurturing it's possible to create the partnership of your dreams. The key has to do with the willingness to do your own work, rather than to concern yourself with whether or not your partner is doing theirs.

It’s a balancing act to make our partner’s needs as important, but not more important than our own. And it’s not always easy to be emotionally honest, tell the truth without blame and judgment, and to give fully of ourselves in expressing our love in all its many forms on a consistent basis. If we are going to continue to look for personal fulfillment in marriage, and there is every indication that this will be the persistent trend, we must learn the required skills, and develop the qualities that give rise to a successful marriage. It’s work, but the rewards are priceless. 

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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