More Midlife Couples Pull the Plug on Marriage

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.”

 

When Aging Parents Re-Marry

About 20 years ago my friend Laura lost her mother after a lingering illness.  Within a few months, her father’s old friends fixed him up with Maggie, an attractive divorcee.

A whirlwind courtship followed, and Joe and Maggie, both in their late 60s, were married within a year after the mother had died.  Laura and her brothers were stupefied, especially when they saw their father doing things that looked strange to them:  dressing differently, vacationing in Palm Springs, becoming less and less like the man who shared their pain of losing their mother.  They would squirm when Maggie would talk effusively about how great it was to have a “lover” in her life.  When Joe died a few years later, his children felt a mix of grief; relief that Maggie was out of their lives; and outrage when they found out how much Joe left her in his will.

I bring this up because over the past month several acquaintances have talked about their mixed feelings about their older parents “moving on” to new relationships. On one hand, they feel glad that the parent has the chance for companionship as he or she moves into their twilight years.   On the other hand they may mistrust the new partner, especially if the parents’ relationship ended in divorce or they are still grieving over the other parent’s death.  They may not like the new partner, especially if he or she is very different from the first one.

And as with any relationship, money can complicate things.  Some children mistrust the motives of the new spouse, who may or may not want to influence how their inheritance is spent and might be called upon to make decisions about the parent’s long-term care.  While Anna Nicole Smith was vilified for her share of her husband’s estate – after one year of marriage – she maintained that she gave him one of the happiest years of his life.

One of the reasons I started this blog is to serve as a place for adults to talk about how their relationships (with parents, spouses, kids) evolve as they grow older.   I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences and candid thoughts about an older parent’s remarriage.  My plans are to publish a blog on this topic around Valentine’s Day.  And it goes without saying that names and other details would be disguised to protect your identity (as I did with Laura’s story.)

My hope is that we can all learn from one another’s perspectives.  Feel free to comment below or send your thoughts privately to my email – catherinebuday@gmail.com .  Thank you!!!!