Three Risk Factors for Mid-Life Marital Collapse

Why do so many men leave their wives in mid-life?

Posted Nov 08, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

In my clinical practice — as well as observations while talking with colleagues, neighbors, and friends — I've noticed many recent unexpected marital failures in mid-life. The typical story seems to be that after 20 or more years of marriage and several children who are about high school age or so, many husbands leave their marriages for a younger woman. Their wives are stunned, having that "deer in the headlights" look about them.

What's going on and what are the risks of this happening to your marriage?

This weekend, I attended a large birthday party for a friend and neighbor here in Silicon Valley who just turned 50. I was especially struck by my conversation with a neighbor at the party who works as a realtor for many very expensive local homes. She has noticed this unexpected mid-life marital failure phenomenon as both a busy professional realtor (managing home sales for the divorcing partners) and as someone who is highly involved with local schools and youth sports. Although she's about to turn 50 herself and is attractive, talented, personable, and vivacious, she jokingly worries that she too might get an unexpected surprise from her husband someday, given the fact that this has happened to so many people that she knows.

An abundance of research gives us insight into the factors that contribute to marital satisfaction and longevity. You might want to look at the research of John Gottman at the University of Washington, David Buss at the University of Texas (Austin), for a few of many examples.

While I certainly can't address all of the available research in this brief blog post, I'd like to highlight three important risk factors to problems in mid-life marriage: narcissism, unrealistic expectations, and the lack of guardrails for behavior.

Narcissism. We certainly do live in more and more of a narcissistic culture. There is much written on this topic and many Psychology Today blog posts about this issue as well. In a nutshell, if everything is all about you and your needs, it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to successfully negotiate the give and take of marriage and family life over many years.

Many narcissistic men seem to believe that they can do better and seek the excitement, novelty, and admiration found with a much younger and perhaps more attractive sexual partner. They don't seem to have empathy for their spouse, children, and others impacted by their decisions. If they have resources and options, they'll use them to get what they want.

Unrealistic expectations: Our obsession with personal fulfillment and attention to the lives of celebrities modeling a glamorous life creates social comparisons that suggest that we should be happy and satisfied at all times in our marriages. If we aren't meeting these high expectations, then we assume that there is something wrong with our marriage and that, in our throwaway culture, we should just replace the old spouse with a new and better one.

Lack of guardrails for behavior. In our very mobile culture and with fewer civic and religious institutional influences in our lives these days, we have the freedom to live as we wish with few societal guardrails keeping behavior in check.

So, extramarital affairs, divorce, the use of pornography, out-of-town trips that involve prostitution or hooking up are not met with the corrective feedback by our communities (both civic and religious) as much as in the past. Thus, our personal freedoms which we enjoy have a downside, in that we have fewer and fewer checks and balances (or guardrails) on behavior.

There are no easy solutions to these challenges but perhaps if we are aware of these important three risk factors (among others) we can try to nip potential marital troubles in the bud and minimize the unexpected surprise of a mid-life marital breakdown.

So, what do you think? What have you been noticing about mid-life marital collapse?