Once the world was new
Our bodies felt the morning dew
That greets the brand new day
We couldn't tear ourselves away
I wonder if you care
I wonder if you still remember…
The Moody Blues, “Your Wildest Dream”
Linda, a 53 year-old psychotherapy patient, was talking with me about a recent New York Times article about the rising numbers of midlife men and women who are divorcing. That, despite other data that the overall divorce rate has dropped somewhat, to around 40 percent. Linda was worried. She and her husband had been experiencing more conflict lately, especially since their two children had finished college and were off on their own. She said it felt like they were on different wavelengths about nearly everything – sex, money, lifestyle. “Sometimes I think we’re ‘on the brink’…” Linda said, not wanting to use the “D” word. “Maybe we’d both be happier going separate ways. Life is short…”
Linda is prone to anxiety, and has a lot on her plate with her career as a public relations executive. But given the rising numbers of midlife divorce, marital conflict is an understandable concern. (Disclosure: I’m a midlife baby boomer; been there, done that). There are several likely reasons for this trend, but I think there’s a particular dilemma that may remain under the radar. It’s that many midlife baby boomers are caught between feelings of longing for a relationship ideal that they think might be real but unfulfilled; and a pull towards settling for what they have, with all it’s imperfections and disappointments. This is a huge conflict. It’s worth understanding what it reflects, in order to deal with it in a healthy way; especially in the context of transformations occurring in people’s emotional and sexual relationships today.
Linda and her husband know of couples who had announced they were getting divorced, often to the surprise of many: “They seemed perfectly fine; no hint of trouble.” They knew of more than one couple in which one partner said, “I just felt the need to experience more of my own life, at this point.”
Linda wondered, were she and her husband mismatched to begin with and just didn’t realize it, back in their 20s? Had they grown in such different directions that they no longer wanted or cared about having a life together in their years ahead? Or had their work become their true “lover” rather than each other?”
Good questions for any long-term couple. But what is it that’s made baby boomers more prone – or receptive – to divorce? There are several plausible reasons. For example, the sociologist Pepper Schwartz has pointed out that many, in their youth, “… pushed against the restrictive conventions of social life their parents more or less had accepted.” They “…experienced decades of relationship innovation, creating cultural confusion about whether marriage was necessary, and what made an excellent -- or even adequate -- marriage.”
Looking more closely, these experiences affected boomers in different ways, with different outcomes that nevertheless converged in marital conflict. That is, the majority of baby boomers didn’t participate in or even identify very much with the women’s movement, the civil rights and anti-war movements; nor embrace the positive ideals of the 60s, like love, peace, tolerance and authenticity. Many were more aligned with the older values and attitudes about careers, materialism and traditional marriage, those of the “Mad Men” generation.
But many others were, in fact, inspired by those ideals and aspirations for personal and social change, especially about their love relationships. Over time, the impact of the 60s social movements became visible in the rise of midlife marriage conflicts and increasing divorce in both segments of baby boomers.
For example, those more aligned with traditional views of marriage and embraced conventional cultural values were nevertheless enticed by the explosion of change they saw all around them – music, sexuality, rejection of traditional authority; of following a “program” for adulthood. They felt the allure of greater personal freedom and expression. These experiences created many conflicts, especially for marriages that were going south. And as those boomers became midlife adults, some chose affairs as an alternative to painful divorce. And they struggled with the psychological constraints of the career and life paths they had followed.
But even those baby boomers who clearly identified with 60s values became stymied about how to incorporate them into their lives and relationships. Those ideals were undercut and eroded by the powerful influence of their family relationships. And, by relentless social conditioning, especially in the form of a still-prevailing adolescent model of love. That, in turn, sullied the belief in and desire for ever finding a true “soul mate.”
By the time baby boomers became midlife adults in the thick of long-term marriages, many found themselves caught between longing for finding or re-creating a lost ideal in their relationship; and simply settling for what they have at this point, because it looks like the most realistic and practical.
Such conflict was inevitable: Much of their youthful attraction to the values of love, authenticity and trust was a reaction against the post-WWII rising middle class comfort and stability, in which they were raised. It struck some as feeling too smothering and programmed. Also, many also grew up with considerable dysfunction and pathology in their families, including indifference by upwardly striving parents, neglect or outright abuse.
Young baby boomers didn’t have sufficient understanding of the lager culture’s social forces that impinged on them; they couldn’t. Moreover, they hadn’t developed enough self-awareness to apply the 60s ideals to their own personal lives. So, young baby boomers tended to recreate versions of their parents’ relationships, while longing for what they had hoped for and envisioned. They couldn’t grapple successfully with powerful social-cultural forces that pulled them towards conventional values and behavior in career goals, relationships – and then experienced conflict with them. They couldn’t enact values like love, tolerance, peace, or equality – in their own lives or society.
I’ve heard many baby boomer midlifers question in their therapy sessions whether they had settled for less in their marriage because of what they didn’t know about themselves or their partners. Or, that the fear of being single led them to settle for less, as recent research has, in fact, demonstrated. Moreover, another study found that people who harbored doubts about marrying the person they did hitch up with are more likely to divorce. They may identify with ironic lyrics from a Talking Heads song,
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
Divorce may become an option when striving to become more authentic in the remaining time you have; especially when you think that’s no longer possible in your relationship. Divorce may be a semi-conscious effort to solve the dilemma of longing for something more alive, passionate, vital and connected with a partner; or settling for what you do have, with the limitations and frustrations of your current marriage. Interestingly, though, 60 percent of divorced people end up with new partners in positive relationships.
Others do want to reclaim what’s faded from their relationship. Restoring emotional, sexual and spiritual intimacy isn’t easy. One necessary part is becoming transparent and exposed to each other, in all the ways that long-term couples tend to cover up. What can help is knowing that reconnecting with past feelings and hopes can enhance the possibility of change in the future. Recent research found that focusing on nostalgia – positive memories from the past – lead to a more optimistic view of the future; of what may be possible.
Relationships are evolving. Baby boomers’ children are accustomed to varieties of relationships that their midlife parental generation opened the door to, somewhat: LGBT relationships; interracial relationships; permanent cohabitation rather than marriage, even after having children; polyamory; and even a movement to decriminalize polygamy. Capacity for change is important in life, but especially crucial today as the definition of love relationships as well as families steadily evolve.
Blog: Progressive Impact
Center for Progressive Development
© 2013 Douglas LaBier