This past week the New York Times reported that more couples in their 50s and 60s are deciding to divorce and spend their sunset years alone. Here’s a link to the Times’ summary of the study from Bowling Green State University. It revealed that a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970. (To read the full story the Times makes you set up an account, which is free.)
This phenomenon makes me feel sad. I can’t presume to judge but couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would jettison a longtime partner at midlife. The couple is likely to have survived many of marriage’s big stressors: money problems, building careers, raising kids, aging parents. Doesn’t the experience of weathering life’s challenges together make a relationship stronger rather than weaker? Perhaps not always.
Physical and emotional abuse, infidelity, dangerous addictions such as alcohol or gambling…these are real deal-breakers in a marriage, and few of us would question a partner who wants to break free of this, even if they put up with it for decades.
But the gray area – which the Times article alludes to – is the situation in which the couple simply grows apart as time goes on, or one of them simply prefers to be alone and free. The decision can be heart-wrenching: one woman in the Times story spoke of how she wept throughout her divorce, but feels relieved now, even though she is living on the edge of poverty.
How many of us know a midlife couple who makes everyone wonder how on earth they’ve stayed together? I know of one woman who looks forward to when her husband travels and breezily says her marriage would not survive if he were home all the time. Another acquaintance stayed put in the family home when her husband took a job 1,000 miles away. Ignoring his pleas to join him, she stayed where she was because of her career and her friends…until her husband took a mistress there and they divorced. She was devastated and bitter when it happened.
How many of us know couples who stay together, yet openly disparage their mates in front of others, or (more often) complain incessantly about them behind their backs? Who show their friends more respect and consideration than their spouses? Would these people be truer to themselves if they just called it quits?
I don’t pretend to have the answers to this, but my take is that people should not expect marriage alone to make them feel fulfilled. Children, faith, careers, interests, friends…they also contribute to our sense of purpose and contentment. Yet whether you are married for five years or 50, marriage has to be more than just two people sharing a roof. Love and respect for each other, and shared interests and philosophies, go a long way towards strengthening the bond and keeping a marriage vibrant through old age. And while personal fulfillment is an elusive Holy Grail, doesn’t hurt a marriage to put “we” ahead of “me.”