We’ve all heard the statistics; well over 50% of all marriages end in divorce. You might be surprised, however, to hear that, in the United States, the divorce rate doubled between 1990 and 2009 among adults 50 and older in the U.S., according to a working paper released in March by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. In short, the divorce rate these days is highest for the Baby Boomer generation, those of us born between 1946 and 1964. There are many reasons for this.
Many couples purposely wait to divorce until their children have graduated from high school in an effort to make the transition easier for all concerned. Divorce can be especially traumatic on young children because even in the best divorces, it causes major life change. Families often must move out of the home that they lived in during the marriage. This can mean a new school, new friends, and new activities for minor children.
Even if a spouse is able to afford to remain in the marital home, the children will now have to share their time with their parents, as they shuffle from household to household. Additionally, divorce with minor children is usually more expensive and stressful for parents because there are so many more issues involved. How will parenting time be shared? Will a primary caregiver now have to join the workforce? Who, if anyone, will remain in the marital home? It’s easy to see why parents, if possible, would prefer to wait for their children to leave for college before ending their marriage.
Furthermore, it is sometimes when the last child heads off to college or to that first job, that many couples realize that they no longer have anything in common, now that their nest is empty. After decades of marriage in which they were focused more on the joint effort of raising the kids and making a living than they were on each other, they discover that they have grown apart, rather than together. That’s why so many relationship experts suggest that invested couples enjoy “date night” and similar activities together, in order to strengthen their relationships while they still can. Successfully married couples understand that their relationship with one another is just as important, and takes just as much work, as their relationships with their children.
But there’s more to it than simple disinterest. As children leave and spouses realize that they have drifted apart, for any number of reasons it is now far easier than ever before to spouse-shop, and to trade in the old model for a new one. The increased mobility offered by today’s society makes it so much simpler than it was 100 years ago to meet potential mates that many spouses find themselves confronted by the “grass is always greener” dilemma. Do they stay in an unfulfilling (or worse) relationship in which they have little left in common with their boring spouse, or do they try again for the golden ring with someone else?
The fact that women participate in the workplace nearly as often as men these days also contributes to this phenomenon. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, the workplace is an outstanding venue in which to look for romance, peopled as it is with those who all have their office and probably their work interests in common, and who spend more of their waking time together during the week than the spouses likely do. Tackling a tough work issue with an employee, or experiencing a work success with another, can be a tantalizing aphrodisiac that sparks the flames of seduction in a workplace relationship.
The rise of the internet also plays its part in causing Baby Boomer divorces. As spouses come to the realization that they no longer have anything to talk about, they often reach out to old high school or college sweethearts and reconnect. It is frightening how easy it is to fall in love over the internet, but especially so when the couple have a history together that they can share. While these internet romances are far from reality, as both sides are able to show each other only what they want the other to see, they can create an irresistible temptation, especially when one’s real intimate relationship is less than fulfilling.
And finally, there’s the rest of the family, the now adult children. Adult children may come home to live when they cannot find a job, or when they are getting divorced, or perhaps because they have become disabled and have nowhere else to go. The differences of opinion that the couple may have experienced in raising their children when they were small, may have seemed minor back then. Now, as their children have aged into young adults and older, new disagreements as to how to provide for them and what roles those parents will play in the adult child’s life, as well as the simple stress of having another adult in the home that the two spouses share, can lead to the divorce of those parents.
Better economic opportunities for women, decreased social stigma, better health, and longer life expectancies all contribute to the higher rate of divorce for those over age 50. This still youthful, fit, and lively generation is not content to just idle into old age in a non-fulfilling relationship. Rather, Baby Boomers are willing to make major life changes in order to ensure that their silver years meet their expectations, especially if, when they were young, they divorced once before. It is a well-known fact that remarriages are at greater risk of divorce than first marriages. Second marriages fail even more often than first marriages, because, quite frankly, if you’ve been divorced once, it’s not nearly as scary the second time.
But finally, there are the truly silver folks who have stopped coloring their hair and who are also getting divorced, those people not just over 50, but over the hill and on their downward slide. Why do they get divorced, after fifty or sixty years of marriage?
Sometimes, it’s the interest in sex, or the lack thereof. He has always been more interested in having an active sex life and she has not. He satisfies his interest elsewhere and she always turns a blind eye. But now, something has happened, one of the children, now adults, or perhaps a friend, or even his most recent paramour, has convinced her that she doesn’t have to put up with it anymore. So, she divorces him.
Often, the changes that accompany old age can be difficult for one of the spouses to deal with. Couples divorce when one spouse becomes fixated on an age-old disagreement. He says she cheated on him and she says she did not. When did she allegedly cheat on him? Fifty years ago! But because of his senile dementia, he raises the issue every day now. Also because of his age, he becomes angry and loses control. Finally, he hits her, for the first time in 50 years. She divorces him.
A year later, when their son gets divorced and moves back in with her, he does, too. She explains that they never fought in front of the children and she feels that her son’s being there is protection from his temper. And she still cares for him.
Or the spouses may agree that divorce is in their best interests. He is diagnosed with the onset of Alzheimer’s. The doctors say that it has not impacted his ability to reason, yet. He decides that he wants a divorce because he doesn’t want to be a burden on her. She agrees because she has seen other couples go through this diagnosis, and she is scared of how it will affect their relationship. And, she intends to take care of him anyway, but if she is granted their few assets in the divorce, the state will help her care for him when his needs increase beyond her abilities.
Five years later, they are still together, despite that he suffers from severe dementia caused by his Alzheimer’s disease.
Divorce impacts older generations differently than younger generations. While the largest issues for younger divorcing couples are usually focused on how to continue to emotionally and financially support minor children after the end of the relationship, older couples are likely more interested in how to ensure that they are both financially secure during their golden years. Alimony awards are more common, and marital assets are more abundant. However, individuals are nearing or at the end of their income-producing years; thus, wealth maintenance is of the utmost importance.
So how do you know if divorce is the right option for you, especially if you’ve been married for decades? It can be an intimidating, and perhaps exciting, thought. Over the years, you and your spouse have likely each taken on very specific roles. One of you may be the primary wage earner, while the other is the primary caregiver (if not of children, then of the home and the wage earner). Maybe you haven’t been a member of the workforce for decades, if ever. Maybe you’ve never taken out your own garbage, pumped your own gas, or cooked your own meals. Will you be happier with these new responsibilities? Is divorce worth it? Or is there still hope for your marriage? How can you responsibly make such an important, life-changing decision?
Discernment counseling is a specific type of counseling that focuses a therapist on helping a couple to decide whether they should remain married or initiate divorce proceedings. It is different from regular marriage counseling because, rather than focusing on keeping a couple together, its sole purpose is to assist the couple in determining whether or not they should continue in the marriage. Unlike traditional marriage counseling in which the counselor meets with the couple together, in discernment counseling, the counselor typically first meets with the couple together, then with each individual privately, and then with the couple together again. While regular marriage counseling is an open-ended process, discernment counseling is usually completed within five sessions. The result is either a plan for how the couple can work to stay together in a healthier, happier way, or instead, an agreement that the couple will divorce.
The role of the discernment counselor is to guide the couple to understand whether they are both willing to work hard to save their marriage. If both spouses would like to do so, the intense relationship work begins, similar to marriage counseling, as both individuals learn how to contribute more affectively to their marriage. After six months, the counselor revisits the question with the couple, whether they would like to stay together. At this point, they will have more clarity and knowledge as to whether that is really a viable option for them.
Discernment counseling is not only helpful to couples when both spouses are uncertain if they should stay together, but it may also be effective when one spouse has determined that he is ready to end the marriage. This type of counseling for these “mixed agenda” couples creates a holding pattern in which the couple is guided by the therapist to evaluate their relationship and determine their needs for their futures when divorce is inevitable. Typically, one spouse will lag behind the other in the grief process and acceptance of the death of the marriage. “Mixed agenda” discernment counseling can allow that individual to catch up emotionally with the other. This can make the ensuing divorce process less painful, less acrimonious, and less expensive.
Regardless of whether the spouses divorce or not, discernment counseling can help them in the long run because they learn relationship and communication skills that will improve their current, restructured relationship and their future relationships.
At any age, deciding whether to divorce will likely be the biggest, scariest decision of your life. Discernment counseling can help a couple either stay together, or become more comfortable in their decision to dissolve their marriage in a healthier way.