When Ann Morgan James’ husband asked her for a divorce just two months shy of their 18th wedding anniversary, she was blindsided. The California author says she was fully aware the couple was having trouble, but believed they could make the relationship work. Her husband, apparently, did not. He asked her for a divorce and now the couple shares legal custody of their 14-year-old son.
Most of us are shocked to hear divorce news when it concerns a couple who spent more than a decade together. We wonder how they could have invested so much time into their relationship, only to declare it no longer works. Danielle Horwich, a licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles, says while there are no easy answers, there may be some obvious reasons behind the demise of a long and (what appeared to be) happy marriage.
A Loss of Connection
One reason behind the collapse of a longtime marriage could be that some couples may feel a loss of connection with each other once their children are grown and their day-to-day lives are no longer about parenting and building a home for their kids.
“After 20 or so years, when the children have gone, entered college, or begun families of their own, the couple must look towards each other and ask themselves: without our children what do we have?” says Horwich. “Some couples will see this transition as a vibrant opportunity to embark on new adventures. Others, will look towards one another and see they no longer recognize and understand the partner they married.”
A Realization That Life is Short
Rob L., a divorced non-profit executive in Minnesota, ended his 27-year marriage after being critically injured in a vehicle accident. “One day I was riding home from work on my scooter when a motorist didn’t see me. I woke up seven weeks later with my jaw wired shut and unable to move,” explained Rob. “When I was able to take in all that had occurred, I decided life was too precious to live in a dead, lonely marriage any longer.”
According to Horwich, individuals may feel the need to take on a new path in mid-life. Many of us begin to face the eventual inevitability of our own mortality between the ages of 40 and 65. “As mid-lifers encounter the reality of limited years, many reevaluate their success thus far,” explains Horwich. “They ask questions like, ‘Am I meeting my life goals? Am I leaving a positive mark on the world? Do I have new goals I would like to achieve?’ These are the challenges that offer the couple an opportunity to grow together or separate towards divorce.”
A Lack of Coping Skills
While midlife may be the time in which you are supposed to coast into your golden years, it’s also the time when life can present quite difficult circumstances. Health issues, caring for aging parents, and dealing with the death of loved ones all become more common occurrences in midlife, and require great adaptation and coping skills for couples. If a couple doesn’t have the coping skills necessary to make it through a major traumatic event, it could lead to a breakdown between the two of them.
“Rigidity and inflexibility to new roles and new habits is often what leads a marriage to break in the midst of these changes,” explains Horwich. “Conflict is inevitable, yet how the couple manages this conflict will be essential to their success.”
Ann Morgan James wanted to deal with the conflict in her marriage, but that wasn’t necessarily true of her husband. “I came from a place where I would never think of leaving him, I thought we would work things out,” she said. “However, he came from a place where you just leave. There was no talking, no fixing, it was just over.”
While all couples are bound to face major life changes and traumatic events throughout the evolution of their relationship, it doesn’t have to mean their love is doomed. Horwich says there are plenty of things couples can do now to ensure their marriage endures the long-haul:
- Remain connected as a couple during child rearing.
- Schedule regular date nights (where talking about the kids is off limits).
- Plan nights away for just the two of you.
- Begin asking yourself today how you want to be living your life. What are your genuine life goals? Have you begun pursuing them in any way, and can you?
- Commit to being self-aware and communicate your dreams, fears, and desires to your partner.
- See your partner, listen to your partner and notice how he/she is evolving.
- Learn to use productive communication skills.
- Work on the challenges of your marriage today. Begin now.
- Notice if you are rigid or inflexible when changes occur. See if you can let go.
- Short or long-term therapy to manage these tasks is well worth the investment for a marriage that continues till death do us part. (Plus, it’s much less expensive than a divorce!)