The Trouble with Divorce
Something new—and significant—is happening with divorce rates after the age of 50. They are calling it “gray divorce.”
Statistics tell us that more than 1 in 4 people in the United States who are choosing to end their marriage are over age 50, and over half of those divorces happen after 20 years of marriage.
The divorce rate for women age 55 to 64 tripled between 1990 and 2017. In that same time span, for women 65 and older, the divorce rate increased six-fold! (For men in the same age group, it tripled.)
One explanation given by researchers is that people are living longer. Getting a divorce at age 65 is reasonable because a person has 20 more years to go, and the thought is they might as well be happier ones. If divorce makes us happy, that is…
While it’s true that a fresh start can make all the difference, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to divorce.
When Partners Try
In many cases, partners do their best to solve issues. They get help from a therapist or coach. They dedicate themselves to making things better. They make promises. They commit to revising personal, long-held patterns of response that don’t contribute in a positive way to their relationship.
But unfortunately, attempts to shift don’t always work.
It’s as if some couples develop templates. They lock into patterns of relating, and despite dedicated effort, time spent, and honest determination, revisions that would make a difference in warmth, connection, or communication with each other for instance, don’t take place.
I’ve worked with couples like this. Every therapist or counselor has.
When Partners Do Too Little Too Late
On the other hand, I believe some divorces are entirely unnecessary.
The realization that divorce was probably a hasty misstep may come months after the couple is divorced, along with an accompanying tsunami of regret. Though some partners go to great lengths to remarry each other, most partners simply try to make the best of it.
What’s an unnecessary divorce? Here’s an example of a communication pattern that can cause a couple to turn toward divorce. However, in my experience, these types of communication/misinterpretation issues can usually be turned around.
Dave feels criticized by Susan and shuts down. Citing a lack of appreciation for his efforts, he says that nothing he does seems good enough for Susan or makes a difference. He remembers how they used to be best friends, and talk for hours. Susan used to enjoy their intimate connection, but now she avoids it.
Dave gives up.
He spends more time with his male friends watching sports. He also occupies himself with the time-consuming hobby of rebuilding the engine of a classic car he inherited from his father. When approached by Susan to solve issues or reconnect, he responds coldly and dismisses her.
Dave wonders why things are so different between them. He’s confused. “She used to be my best friend and lover—what happened?”
Susan notices the shut-out, and concludes that “he’s changed” or “he’s become a jerk.” He’s either absent or refuses to engage.
Susan gives up.
She wonders where her real husband has gone. Why is he shutting her out? What is fueling his unwillingness to talk? Why is fixing a car more important than spending time with her?
Nobody wins. They walk away feeling unloved and unappreciated.
The Tricky Business of Getting Family Advice
A disgruntled partner often turns to family or friends for advice. Of course Susan’s friends wish to be supportive, so based on the information available to them, they agree that Dave is behaving badly. Eventually, they go so far as to encourage her to get out of the marriage. The problem is that their opinion is biased. They’ve only heard one side of the story.
Dave’s friends give him advice, too. Their advice also becomes part of the problem. They tell him he needs to spice things up and that he should plan a romantic weekend away with Susan. When he suggests this to her, the idea falls flat, and now he feels he has even more evidence that Susan is the problem. To his way of thinking, she’s unwilling to attend to the ever-widening gap between them.
Talking to family is tricky. Because our family doesn’t want to see us in pain, they often steer us toward what they think would give us emotional release. They agree with us that our spouse is the problem and encourage us to go our separate ways. But underneath it all, the motivation is that they may be telling us this in hopes of getting their own emotional relief—so they can feel better, too!
Throwing in the Towel
Let’s say this couple gets divorced after twenty years of marriage.
At first, without daily arguments or the friction of disagreements, Susan’s expectation is to feel happy and free. And she does! She feels liberated!
But after some weeks or months, reality sets in—for both Dave and Susan. How quickly feelings of relief can turn to pain!
For Susan, the greatest pain centers around the loss of family life, and how the children are dealing with the separation. In retrospect, she finds herself wondering if she could have done more to deal with the things that upset her. She realizes that if she had committed herself to finding solutions for what she was irritated with or hurt about, this would have helped them both.
As Dave moves on, he finds a new partner who appreciates him and is willing to have regular sex, which is exciting for him. But when the infatuation with each other wears off, he finds himself thinking about Susan. He wonders what they could have done to make things work. He realizes there’s a lot he probably didn’t understand, and a therapist could have helped them navigate things, perhaps leading to a different outcome.
The Trouble with Divorce
Spouses don’t vanish with a divorce and neither do problems.
If neither partner commits to personal changes that support connection, truth, and an open heart, they leave the marriage as the same folks who walked in.
After a divorce, we are left standing—with ourselves. I can tell you this is true because of my work with clients, but also because of my personal experience.
We take our habits with us. Unless we examine our normal reactions, beliefs and practices, we continue to misunderstand or misinterpret. We tend to keep our usual conclusions handy.
Essentially, we are the same person in the divorce (and after the divorce) that we were in the marriage.
If feelings of incompetence plagued us in our marriage, they will show up again in life after divorce, guaranteed, even if they are dressed a little differently.
If we felt unheard, that same issue will reappear.
If we were the critic, we will criticize again and have a chance to see it differently. A mentor of mine tells a story about going on a date with her new boyfriend. On their way to dinner she commented on his driving. He turned to her and said, “That sounds a lot like criticism, and I stopped taking that long ago.”
Which stopped her in her tracks. So she fixed it by being open to his feedback, and then asking questions. She was able to state a need, he found a way to work with her request, and together they figured it out!
Any issue in a marriage will come up again. Either we’ll see it write it off (“he’s a jerk just like my husband”). Or we’ll fix it.
Just because we changed partners doesn’t mean we left our problems behind. Our issues will always rise to greet us. It’s up to us to make use of the chances we’re offered.
Why? Because everything, everything, everything is an inside job.
The Good News
It is totally possible for any couple headed for divorce to turn a corner and see that they have come to inaccurate conclusions about the other. I’ve seen it many times.
I confess this makes me want to stand up and shout hallelujah. It is truly an awe-inspiring and revelatory moment, not only for the couple, but for friends and family who witness it. It is a moment that changes everything.
They realize that what they thought was true about their partner isn’t i.e. “s/he didn’t mean what I thought s/he meant”. Apologies are made, emotional doors open, and communication expands.
Then it becomes a delightful treasure hunt to find other miscommunications! “Oh, I see. She was showing me she loves me when she did that. I get it now!”
Finally, if you’d like to learn the top three ways to save a relationship, go here.
To Your Open Heart and Mind,
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