How and why do marriages of many decades come apart just at the time when the task of raising children is done, when the busy working years are coming to an end, when it's time to relax and enjoy life?
There is a rich backstory behind every late life marital breakup. But, in my work with couples and in observing the trajectories of friends' marriages, these breakups are rarely impulsive, rarely a matter of late middle-aged craziness. Sometimes the marriage ends when two dedicated parents realize that they have little in common except the now-grown children and no mutual interests to bind them as they rattle around their empty nest. Sometimes radically different retirement dreams or reactions to retirement can come between partners. The causes of a late-life marital crisis and divorce, however, are most often in crises of decades past.
For Peter and Lisa, friends of mine since college, the signs of trouble came early: only a few years into their marriage, she called me in tears. After the birth of their first child and the declining health of his parents, who lived with them, Peter had started drinking heavily. That evening they had argued -- and he had hit her. Though he was immediately aghast at his own behavior and apologized profusely, she was
shocked and scared. We talked into the night. The crisis passed. His parents died. Their two kids grew up. They both enjoyed very successful careers, financial security and the luxury of two homes -- one near the kids and grandkids just outside Minneapolis and the other near a sunny beach in Florida. Retirement bliss seemed pre-ordained.
The first signs of trouble were notes from Lisa talking about how happy she was in Florida, but how depressed Peter was, how difficult it was for him to step away from his prestigious position, how he was feeling at loose ends, how he missed being away from Minnesota. He felt washed up. She felt ready for new adventures. The most ominous sign of trouble was an email about a year ago: they had separated, with Peter returning to their northern home, Lisa staying in Florida.
A few months later, she told me the full story: how Peter's drinking had never really stopped for the 43 year duration of their marriage and how it escalated in retirement. After he became so drunk and disorderly at a friend's wedding that the police were called and he was arrested for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer, she decided she had finally had enough. After years of quietly living with his drinking, his verbal abuse and his mood swings, Lisa decided that she wanted to live her remaining years in peace, with the happy socializing and volunteer work that defined her retirement dreams. She said she had stayed with him for so long for the kids, for the good of his very public career and because, for so long, she had hoped that he would be able to get sober and that life would be different. She came to realize that the only life she could change was her own -- and that ending the marriage was her best chance for a good life.
Another friend, Betty, had an unusual but seemingly workable marriage with a husband Jack who was a corporate CEO. When his company moved to Chicago, Betty and Jack agreed that the best move -- at the time -- would be for her and their teenage children to remain in Laguna Beach, Ca. so that their daughter could enjoy her senior year with her friends and their son could continue with his surfing and playing with a band. The arrangement appeared to work well. Betty and her husband met for romantic weekends in Chicago or at resorts in between or in Laguna. The kids thrived, grew up, went to college and on to successful careers. Betty became a member of the school board, an officer of the local symphony and immersed herself in a variety of volunteer projects. Then Jack's company merged with another and he was forced into retirement. He came home to stay. And suddenly there was trouble. "He orders me around and wants his meals served right on time while he sits around all day with the t.v. clicker in his hand," she told me, angry tears running down her cheeks. I observed that he might be depressed. She shook her head. "No, he's fine. He's happy as can be. I'm the one who's going crazy. "
A few months later, they went to a local marriage counselor and not long after, she filed for divorce after 46 years of marriage. Two years later, I saw her at a social event in Orange County. She was radiant, looked 20 years younger. She was eager to share the details of her new life: in addition to continuing all her volunteer work, she was learning body surfing, line dancing, and was dating a considerably younger man. She said she felt happy for the first time in years.
Not all older couples who are unhappy with their marriages have the means or energy to divorce or to start anew. My mother-in-law Alberta simmered with resentment toward her moody, non-communicative husband of 48 years. Yet she was dependent on him in significant ways. Despite living in the Los Angeles area for well over half a century, she had never learned to drive. She used to pull me aside at family gatherings and whisper urgently: "I can't stand him! One of these days, I'm going to fly the coop!" I would squeeze her hand and say "Well, Alberta, that's an excellent reason to learn how to drive." She would nod in agreement -- but she never did. And when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer a few years later, she told me that, looking back over her life, her only regret was not divorcing her husband years before.
And not all gray divorces are by mutual agreement. One devastated patient I saw for several years was a wife of 40 years who was left behind and who, because she was so dependent on her husband to make decisions for both of them, even in divorce, she lost everything -- and was living in a rented trailer with too many cats, few prospects and persistent feelings of hopelessness.
At a time of life when so many obligations -- to children, to parents, to careers -- have now diminished, many feel that now they have a last chance for happiness, even if that means being alone.
There are some, of course, who consider an escape, weigh the consequences, and decide to stay in a less-than-happy marriage. Another college friend I'll call Dave has been married for 42 years and is the proud father of five loving, successful adult children. He and his wife have been at odds for many years, but the family is a close one, enjoying a full array of holiday traditions, vacationing together as a family every summer at a beachfront condo, enjoying the grandchildren. When he considered filing for divorce, he envisioned the family divided, with no more full family holidays or summers by the shore, with grandchildren visiting grandma and grandpa separately -- and the scenario broke his heart. It was painful to stay married, but even more painful to imagine splitting up a large, loving family.
Those of us married for decades know that marriage isn't easy, that there are highs and lows, times of wonderful intimacy and times of wounded distance. But many of us have been fortunate -- with the partners never giving up on the relationship at the same time, willing to work hard to help love endure, committed to each other's happiness and well-being.
But some relationships truly need to end.
After 35 years of daily struggling, my parents consulted a lawyer about a divorce. He told them that they couldn't afford to live apart, so they continued to live together in stress and hopelessness until they both died, much too young, four months apart. I'll never forget my Aunt Evelyn, my mother's favorite sister, looking down at my mother/her beloved sister lying in the coffin. Evelyn's eyes filled with grief and fury. "Your father killed her," she said at last. "He killed her as surely as if he had put a gun to her head. He killed her spirit. He killed her hope." I nodded sadly in agreement.
Leave or stay? Live on with the familiar or take a bold step into a new, uncharted future? Each choice an aging person in an unhappy relationship makes is very personal, very painful.
But there are times when leaving a stressful, unhappy marriage is not only life-enhancing, but possibly life-saving.