I got a phone call from my close friend Sarah the other day. "Guess who's getting divorced?" she asked. Oh, no, I thought. Not again.
Turns out I hear this way too often. And in my experience, divorce reaches a fever pitch around the time people's children reach high school and college-age. It is clear to me that these divorces are not sudden - but instead delayed - until the kids get older. The couples are staying together, biding their time, in order to raise their kids. But once the birdies fly the coop there is no other reason to stay together. Their empty-nest oftentimes leaves two people looking at one another; scratching their heads and wondering just what there is to keep them together anymore.
My parents were divorced in the late 60s – progressive for that time, I suppose. Not only did I feel ashamed of being the only kid with divorced parents but I never could get a full grip on what exactly the problems were until I became married myself and saw just how difficult it is – and how much work it can be – to keep a marriage together.
Michele fervently believes that the vast majority of divorces are not only unnecessary but create more problems than they solve.
Sheryl: In your experience, what are they major reasons for divorce over age 40?
Michele: First, here's an interesting fact. The divorce rate has gone down in general but there is one group in which the divorce rate continues to climb, and yes, you guessed it, in couples who have been married for 25 to 30 years or more. Generally, it's the empty-nesters. Part of the problem is that people put their marriages on the back burner during child rearing years. They work hard and are often child-centric. This means that there is time to chauffeur kids to sports and lessons and do homework and read bedtime stories but no time for intimate conversation, date nights or alone time as a couple. Many people assume that the marriage will just be there when the kids are gone, but the truth is, if you don't nurture a relationship for decades, there isn't much left when the children leave. Spouses become two ships passing in the night. SO TRUE> While children are very, very important, I always say that the best thing couples can do for their children is to put their marriages first. If they don't, there won't be a marriage.
Also, as you say, many people are unhappy but think that they should just wait until the kids leave to move on with their lives...alone. They want to give their children the gift of an intact family. And while this is very loving, the truth is, waiting it out isn't the best of all possibilities. Getting help IS. Today we know so much about what makes marriages work. We know that a good relationship requires skills and unfortunately, many people don't learn healthy relationship skills growing up. But the good news is that people wanting more loving marriages can now take a marriage seminar or get "Divorce Busting" therapy that can teach the necessary skills to stay in love, manage conflict and remain sexually passionate over time. Yes, these skills can be learned! GREAT PIECE OF WISDOM> People don't just fall out of love, they simply lack the right tools to stay in love.
I also think that many people over 40 experience something like a "midlife crisis." At some point in life, we all realize that life is finite, we all mortal. And we start to wonder whether we're missing something. Often, when people are unhappy, it's at this point that they blame their marriages or their spouses for their unhappiness. They assume that life will be more exciting, satisfying, fulfilling if they leave and start having new adventures. This might include looking for a new partner or lifestyle.
Sheryl: It's all well and good to say that couples should stay together. But what about the couples that should never have been married in the first place - the couples who clearly are not right for each other - have never been right for each other, in fact – but stayed together for the sake of the children (who are now grown and on their own)?
Michele: While it's true that some people should not have married in the first place, I have found that the majority of people I've encountered felt some attraction, connection, love, or positive feeling about their mates in the beginning of their relationships. But as things sour, our memory plays funny tricks on us. If we are currently unhappy, research tells us that we are likely to recall unhappy times when thinking of the past. If we are currently happy, we are going to recall happy times. INTERESTING FACT> In other words, our current mood influences how we remember things. Our memories are selective, indeed.
Sheryl: Some couples get married very young, perhaps moving straight from their parent's house into a new marriage. And then one (or both) spouses realizes one day that they want to get out there and experience other men/women, and would prefer being single. Or perhaps one realizes they've grown but their spouse has not, or they are growing in totally opposite directions, having little or nothing in common.
Michele: You are asking about three different situations here. The first has to do with wanting to experience other people. That is totally understandable for someone who has had limited experience with relationships. A DOSE OF REALITY> But what people need to know is that everyone is a package deal. There will be some things you love about your partner and other things you really don't like at all. You can trade your partner in for a new and improved version, and you might like certain aspects of the new person more, but I will guarantee that there will be new shortcomings to deal with as well. And if you have children, you have to think about the toll it takes when a family dissolves, even if the children are no longer at home. I KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE> Adult children often struggle when their parents divorce too.
The next example you give is one where a spouse grows emotionally or spiritually and the other doesn't. This is difficult. But it is possible to accept your spouse the way he or she is and get some of your needs met outside of your marriage. I DO NOT mean that people should have emotional or physical affairs. I mean that a marriage can not be the sole source of one's emotional gratification. Friends, work, hobbies, community involvement can make a big difference. It’s foolhardy to put all of your emotional eggs in one basket.
And finally, you say that couples can grow apart and have very little in common. That is absolutely true. However, it doesn't just happen. Every day, couples make choices about how they spend their time. EXPERT ADVICE> If you don’t continually renew your relationship by doing things together and consciously starting new interests to maintain connection, your marriage will drift apart. You can change that by reinvesting in each other. Plus, it’s important to remember that happy couples don’t need to have a lot in common, they just need to nurture the little they do have in common.
Sheryl: Many times one spouse is unhappy and wants to go for counseling – but the other thinks "nothing is wrong" and refuses. To make things worse, he/she may be uncommunicative and not "believe" in therapy.
Michele: NO problem. On my web site in and my books, I always write about a concept called, "It takes one to tango." This means that one person can trigger positive changes in a relationship by changing his or her own behavior first. If you handle old problems in new and creative ways - which a good therapist can help you plan- your spouse will respond differently. Additionally, there is something called marriage education or marriage seminars that are very, very helpful. Many people are willing to take a class when they’re unwilling to go for therapy. Try that instead!
Sheryl: While you believe in working toward keeping a marriage together, are there circumstances where you would advise couples – even encourage couples – to break up?
I don't advise people to divorce, nor do I ever advise people to remain married. That's not my job. I simply help people discover solutions they haven't thought of. If in the process, they fall back in love, fantastic! And if they decide to end their marriages, so be it. That is their choice. In regards to situations that are really troublesome like domestic violence, the primary concern MUST be safety, not the marriage. But with all serious problems such as substance abuse and chronic infidelity, there are many, many people who are determined to change and transform their lives and keep their marriages together. I've seen it happen time and time again. Although close to 50% of first marriages end in divorce, only 10-15% of those divorces are due to substance abuse, domestic violence and chronic infidelity. The remainder of the divorces are due to garden variety problems which in my experience are solvable!
This Matters> In a nutshell, what are the secrets of a happy marriage? I asked Michele for her top five tips:
1. Spend time together
2. Flirt and touch affectionately
3. Have sex regularly
4. Talk intimately and often
5. Focus on the positives, not what's wrong
6. I know you didn't ask for 6 but….get help when things go wrong!!!