Is It Ever Too Late to Leave, Separate, or Divorce?

When an 89-year-old decides enough is enough, the future looks brighter.

Posted Oct 30, 2020

What can you say about an 89-year-old who's decided, once and for all, to get divorced?

Is this like the old joke, where an elderly couple appear before a judge who, right before he signs their divorce decree, asks them why they're splitting up now, having been married for 76 years? "We wanted to wait until the kids were dead," the wife explains.

Let's just say there's never a good time for a break-up. Finding an excuse to stay with the wrong person is much easier than finding a new house, family, mortgage, sexual partner, tennis partner, parenting partner, and ride-share. Getting divorced or exiting permanently any long-term relationship is ridiculously complicated and searingly painful; any of us who have experienced the process will show you the scars. Even if they've apparently faded with age, we'll show you where we can still trace the wound.

So how can a woman, who will be 90 years old in a few months, be certain that she can no longer stay in a relationship with a man, 15 years her junior, who insists he wants nothing except for the marriage to continue?

How? Picture this moment: The furious husband insists to the wife, "You can't leave me," and during the time he takes to say those words, she realizes "I can. I can. And I do." And leave him is precisely what she does.

Sometimes you need to get out of a relationship just to keep breathing. If you feel as if you’re trapped in an iron maiden, where every word said by the person you no longer respect or love is a spike through your flesh, then you pack up what you can and you go. You can always stop what you’re doing. If you need to end a connection that has been poorly wired from the start or one where the bandwidth has been narrowed to nothingness, you might face silence, but the cost is nothing compared to the sense of real clarity.

It's my friend Fay Weldon who's divorcing her third husband, and Fay has given me permission to write about it. The scene where the woman announces, “I can and I do”—is taken, almost verbatim, from Weldon’s 1974 classic, Female Friends. You know Fay's work even if you don't know her: She's the British author who was made a Commander of the British Empire for her services to Literature, who has won the Writers' Guild Award, the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, who's written more than 30 novels which have been translated into at least 40 languages—including the bestselling The Life and Loves of a She-Devil—and who wrote the pilot for the BBC's Masterpiece Theater "Upstairs/Downstairs" all those years ago.   

Known for the humor, insight, wickedness, and compassion in her writing, Weldon’s personal life and her writing life have always danced together in public. She’s been accused of writing what is impossible to imagine, and yet living what is even more impossible. When her second husband, accomplished painter Ron Weldon (with whom she had three of her four sons) left Fay for his therapist/astrologer, they had an ugly and public battle over alimony (he wanted a lot from the then financially successful Fay) as well as property they owned. “You’ll get this house over my dead body,” Ron said to Fay. On the day their divorce was finalized, Ron died of a heart attack. By then he had made over his will to the therapist/astrologer, so Fay bought herself a new home. People said the whole episode read like something out of a Fay Weldon novel.

But what has made Fay Weldon’s work some of the most important writing of the 20th and 21st centuries is its relentless celebration of life. It’s Weldon’s fierce joie du vivre that’s prompted her divorce from her current spouse. This person, who has been unkind, overbearing, manipulative, and unwelcoming, and who has left her virtually penniless, almost repossessed her sense of engagement and vitality, like a spiritual bailiff. But life and spirit triumphed, and family and friends came to her side. She is recovering from a serious illness and living—and writing again—in the home of one of her sons and daughters-in-law.

Fay Weldon has taken to heart one of her own most important invocations: the need to treasure every moment and to look to the moment ahead. This passage, too, is from Female Friends: “So treasure your moments of beauty, your glimpses of truth, your nights of love. They are all you have. Take family snaps, unashamed. Dress up for weddings, all weddings. Rejoice at births, all births. For days can be happy — whole futures cannot. This is what grandmama says. This moment now is all you have. These days, these nights, these moments one by one.”

And how do you know when you are ready to leave, separate, or divorce? When you can laugh at someone who once bullied you: “She finds she is laughing, not hysterically, or miserably, but really quite lightly and merrily; and worse, not with [her ex], but at him, and in this she is, at last, in tune with the rest of the universe.”

Fay Weldon, filing for divorce in 2020, is having the last laugh.