(CNN – May 7, 2021)
Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
After 27 years of marriage, Bill and Melinda Gates have Tweeted out their decision to divorce. Why would two people in a long-standing marriage — a union that has seen the couple through the making of billions, and the establishment of one of the world’s largest foundations — decide to part ways?
In most marriages, after decades together, we know each other’s routines, the idiosyncrasies of our families of origin, the cadence of each other’s work days, and how we like our coffee. After so many years of marriage, we know our partners at their best and, of course, at their very worst.
Many couples will have raised children together by this time and discovered things about one another they admire, as well as ways in which they wholly disagree. One might think that, if any of these issues suggested incompatibility, a marriage would end long before a couple was in their 50s or 60s.
That’s not the case anymore. In my current work with couples, I have noticed a discernible difference in older couples in long-standing marriages. Years ago, the vast majority of my client couples who weren’t happy in their relationship chose to remain married out of convenience or routine, or even a sense of familiarity. Over the past few years, many are deliberately choosing to part ways. My client base mirrors the divorce rate for Americans 50 and over, which has doubled since 1990.
Why are older people getting divorced? One soon-to-be-divorced woman told me that she sees her life in chapters. And although she thought her current husband would be part of her life through all of them, she now wants to do some of the writing on her own, and perhaps, one day, with another partner. She means no harm to her husband, and wants to free him up to find true happiness in his next chapters as well.
Couples aren’t simply “drifting apart” over time anymore. One or both people in the marriage are making an overt choice to change course for the time they have left. And recognizing that life is short and precious, one or both partners choose what they feel is the most fulfilling path. They tend to believe that, if a marriage is not working for them, it really isn’t working for their spouse either. So, they afford themselves the space to gain, or regain, happiness and fulfillment.
What's changed in long-term marriage and divorce
There are a number of reasons for the more deliberate splits. I find that traditional models of marriage do not work uniformly for all couples, especially those in middle age. These people no longer assume their marriage is necessarily a lifetime commitment if it no longer works for one or both partners.
People re-evaluate their relationships in real time. This, in my experience, is relatively new. We have historically been tight-lipped around any dissatisfaction in marriage, often following the trope of complaining to same-sex friends about the problems in relationships: the lack of sex or connection, the boredom with the everyday, the annoying habits, the tightwad or the overspending spouse.
In the past few years, more and more couples are talking with one another or with me, their therapist, openly, about their dissatisfaction in their relationships. Couples are now likely to talk through the nature of their relationships and determine whether they want to work to sustain their marriages or part ways.
Taboos are less prominent
I’ve also noticed that the taboo surrounding such re-evaluation, and even the notions of separation and divorce in the wake of a long marriage, is rapidly diminishing. As we live longer lives, many people, like the soon-to-be divorced woman, are seeing their lives in chapters. And the marriage that carries them from their 20s to their 50s or 60s is a most important chapter, one in which they encounter financial hardships, establish careers and raise children.
Many choose this as their lifelong story, abiding by tradition. But more and more, others are willing to consider the possibility that, even if they were the right match for one another at one time, or for some time, they may not be so any longer. They sometimes seek therapy to talk it through.
A new chapter in a longer life
After raising kids or seeing a spouse through a career, many married people I’ve worked with in middle age want to re-invent themselves. They want to start a new career or embark on new adventures, often on their own, sometimes with a friend, or on occasion with a new partner. They may feel as if their marriage has lost all joy, or they have lost their connection to one another.
Now that we are living so much longer on average than our parents a generation ago, I’ve worked with many middle-aged clients who feel like now is the time, while there is enough time remaining, to pursue that next chapter.
I’ve worked with some people in their 70s and even 80s who regret not taking that opportunity for themselves, remaining in a marriage that too often feels lifeless, stale or filled with conflict.
Why men and women leave
I find that men are more likely to end a marriage in middle age to either pursue another relationship or engage more fully in a relationship they are involved in already. This smacks of the midlife crisis stereotype: men chasing youth by feeling desired, often by younger women. Some men I’ve worked with also say they have fallen out of love, and they want to afford themselves the opportunity to find love again before their time runs out.
Women who initiate breakups, on the other hand, are often looking to change their lives. Many have described to me that they still feel quite young in their 50s and 60s and that their husbands seem older and less energetic. They tend to be the spouses seeking new careers, new adventures and new opportunities. They may start a business or get in shape, or move to another part of the world.
For the divorcing middle-aged women I’ve worked with, the reasons seem to be more experiential. Some of them are not even picturing future relationships. For men, on the other hand, the reasons given tend to be based on what they feel is missing in their marriage, which they feel they can discover in another relationship.
Are these trends healthy or damaging?
Some couples have chosen to stay together for decades, until their 50s or 60s, in order to provide a stable, consistent and loving environment for themselves and, most especially, their children. I’ve worked with several who have suffered for many years with loneliness and isolation, loveless marriages, and sometimes carry ever-growing disdain and resentment for their spouse.
This can be a years-long, very painful exercise that, in the end, may not benefit the kids at all. The young people I work with tend to tell me they want their parents to be happy. If being together doesn’t provide that, they understand. And a respectful break in an unhappy or unsatisfying marriage models healthy relationships for our kids.
These changes in the way we look at marriage in our 50s and 60s can also be seen as quite healthy and refreshing. Because we are more open to talking with one another about what’s working — and what’s not — in our marriages, couples seem to be developing healthier relationships that have the opportunity to truly grow and deepen over time.
If you are unhappy in your relationship
Couples who have been together half their lives or more have options available to them that were not open to their parents at midlife. If you are displeased with your relationship, do not assume it’s too late to work on it. Talk to your spouse openly about the nature of your feelings, and what your spouse, or the two of you together, might do to improve things, or to inject new life in your relationship.
Change your work patterns so you can spend more time together. Protect time to date one another, so that you can get to reacquainted with one another on a romantic and sexual level if those elements are missing.
In essence, if you feel your relationship remains viable but needs work, try to write those next chapters together. And if need be, seek a therapist to help guide you through the process.
Finally, you may feel as if this iteration of your relationship has run its course. I strongly suggest spending some time with your spouse calmly explaining your feelings if you feel comfortable and safe doing so, and that your level of communication allows for such a talk.
Allow each other the grace to reflect upon the good that has come from the years you have spent together: the children, the jobs, the battles won and lost, the humor, and the love. Then, you can release each other to complete your next chapters apart.