In 2007 the AARP noted a new trend. Divorce among those in long-term marriages was on the rise. The media picked it up, called it an exploding phenomenon and gave it a name: Gray Divorces. Now, we even have poster children for it, Al and Tipper Gore.
Happily, more recent numbers have not borne out the moniker of an exploding phenomenon. That being said, while the divorce rate among younger people is declining slightly, among the long-married it is still ticking up.
This interests me, not only because I am in the business of divorce but because I am also on the business end of a marriage that is two decades old. Having survived a seven course meal of marital woes familiar to so many, I thought as we got closer to our 25th anniversary we'd be sated and secure. Instead what we found was a whole new dessert menu of difficulties from which to chose. And I think it is safe to say that based on the Gray Divorce trend we are not alone.
As a population we are traversing a lot of new ground. Never before have we lived so long and so vitally in such numbers. These days, instead of entering the fourth quarter of marriage hoping just to hang on to health and hold each other up, we are healthy enough to look for happy. This creates a whole new set of parameters by which we judge our partners, ones that begin to resemble anew those we had when we first met.
I know my husband and I had a 'What fresh new hell is this?" moment 19 years into our thing. We found that once we had most of our 'known stressors' handled we had developed a very funky dynamic that wasn't serving us well. Having adopted some unhealthy coping habits while fighting the forces that besieged us once the battles abated we found things were a little off at home.
I think a lot of two decade plus couples are doing the same thing. They are asking themselves: Is this it? Have we fed the marriage enough to survive the empty nest? Is the 'we' that we have become where I want to be for the next 20 years?
I think this phenomenon is manageable for not all - but many - if we are not afraid to call it what it is and actively prepare for it.
Some suggestions? First, make sure your spouse is doing okay even if you don't see a problem. Ask, do not assume. What you don't know can wreak all kinds of havoc when you least expect it.
Second, now that you are no longer putting out as many fires start stoking that fire between the two of you that may have started to go out. This should begin well before the last kid hits the road. Face it, neither one of you are as cute as you used to be.
Third, have a real conversation about your expectations for the next 20 years. I bet that's not a discussion a lot of newlyweds have had. And even if they did, who they are now probably bears little resemblance to who they were then.
Fourth, understand the biology of it. Women don't just go through The Change; they actually do change. A woman's brain on menopause works much more like a man's. Not only do levels of estrogen drop but others do too like oxcytocin, a nurture hormone. Sacrifices and compromises that were once satisfying aren't so much anymore.
This is neither fun nor fair but it is not anybody's fault. It is a new reality designed by nature and everybody has got to adjust. Personally, my husband and I were both relieved when I realized he hadn't actually turned into some new brand of all-day jerk back in 2005. He was the same guy he always was; my perspective had simply changed. Likewise, life got even better when we figured out that the compromise ratio in our marriage needed to shift more towards fifty-fifty because what we had worked out before wasn't working anymore.
Is this advice a sure fire way to avoid late in life divorce? Having learned these things can I say my husband and I have beat the game? Well of course not. Life isn't that easy and people aren't that rational. The point is in this age of living longer and healthier we must work the fourth quarter of marriage like the new job that it is. Just because you have been married for decades doesn't mean you can just go walking blithely down the road like it has no more twists and turns. Map it out, pay attention: Gray Divorce is a marital IED that doesn't have to explode.