by Jamie C. Williamson, PhD
Probably…. but maybe not.
Although the divorce rate is declining for couples under 40, the divorce rate is on the rise for older adults. These days, one of every four divorces in the U.S. is a “gray divorce” – a divorce involving people over 50+ ending a long-term marriage.
According to the Pew Research Center, for adults 50 and older the divorce rate has roughly doubled since 1990 and for those 65 and older the divorce rate has nearly tripled. As a divorce and family mediator at Amity Mediation Workshop, I’ve gotten to know many “gray divorce” couples. They often seek a pre-suit, pro se divorce without lawyers because they want minimal drama, minimal expense, and minimal heartache for themselves and their partner, who they still care for deeply.
When the nest becomes empty, older couples with children often find they have very little in common. They focused on their children’s lives to the detriment of their marriage relationship and wake up one day realizing that they relate well together as Mom and Dad, but are not in tune with each other as Husband and Wife. For older couples without children, the similar realization that they are basically living like “roommates with benefits” is often delayed until they both retire.
Clearly, some long-term married couples seem immune to the dynamics of married life and steadfastly retain a healthy relationship throughout all the changes and challenges that naturally come to a long-term couple. Others experience the ups and downs and even consider divorce, but find a way to re-ignite the feelings that brought them together as a couple and they, too, stay together.
Still others look across the breakfast table at their spouse (who seems like a relative stranger) and think “how did this happen to us?”.
They aren’t angry. They are sad. They simply don’t want to live the next 20-30 years in an unsatisfying marriage that does not meet their emotional needs. With great reluctance they conclude that divorce – and the fresh chance it offers – seems like the better option.
Protect your marriage against this “gray divorce” phenomenon by adopting these four habits that will to keep your marriage golden, even when you’re gray.
(1) Treat your marriage as the foundation of your family. If you allow your marriage relationship to erode in the early years, you, your spouse, and your children will feel insecure, unsettled, and tense. Without deliberate care and attention, a once intimate, loving marriage could become conflictual and distant. Even if this type of distressed marriage survives until children are launched or careers have ended, the kids will likely be troubled and the couple will likely opt for divorce as a relief from their unfulfilling relationship.
When it comes to family priorities, put marriage stability first, whether you are a family with children or without.
(2) Create a long-term goal and work toward it together. Young adult couples are less likely to divorce if they are well educated. So, it makes sense for you both to earn a degree or a trade specialization. Older adult couples, however, are less likely to divorce if they are financially secure. This means that unhappy older couples who can least afford to establish two households in their later years, are the ones most likely to separate.
This trend seems counter-intuitive at first. But, it makes sense when considering that financial security typically results from shared commitment to a long-rang plan. Unless one or both members of a couple come from wealth or receive a substantial inheritance, to achieve financial security they must define their financial goals and form a joint commitment toward them, whether the goal be home ownership, college funds, debt reduction, a beach house, a 5th wheel, or a dream retirement. Enthusiastically working toward shared goals like these requires constructive discussions about conflicting priorities. But, at the same time, establishing shared goals creates shared interests, a joint commitment, mutual respect for each other’s effort and contribution, and reasons to celebrate your success – all components of a satisfying marriage…all something worth striving for and holding on to.
(3) Be your best physical self. Contrary to popular belief, gray divorce is rarely connected to male sex enhancement drugs that allow men to satisfy younger women. But, this doesn’t mean that physical appearance isn’t important to physical intimacy for older husbands and wives. According to research conducted by Karl Pillemer, author of “30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships and Marriage”, taking care of your physical appearance is important to keeping sexual intimacy alive in your marriage.
Fortunately, satisfied older married couples don’t expect their partners to conform to an unrealistic, unnatural standard. Instead, they expect each other to show affection and make the most of what they’ve got. So, create and work toward a shared goal to stay fit and healthy, clean up each day even when you’re just hanging out at home, hold hands, kiss regularly, and every once in a while, share passion and physical pleasure any way you still can, whether that’s dancing on the kitchen floor, rolling like thunder under the covers…or anything in-between.
(4) Be your partner’s best friend. A romantic spark ignites initial attraction and typically continues to burn through courtship and only the first few years of marriage. Couples who have shared interests and a true friendship are the ones most likely to stay married and thrive when that romantic flame becomes embers and then, eventually only fades.
The single most distinguishing characteristic between happy couples and distressed couples is that happy couples are more likely to be best friends and actually treat each other as best friends would.
These married friends truly enjoy each other’s company and embrace their partner’s interests. They routinely create opportunities to be together doing activities they both enjoy and alternate between each other’s favorite activities. So, if your husband loves to watch college football, get excited about the game. If your wife loves musicals, buy her a season pass to the local Broadway series. Take exercise walks. Ride bikes. Plan trips and travel together.
Do everything together? Of course not. But, develop some shared interests that you both enjoy, even if you must fake it at first.
To sustain a life-long marriage, show an interest in what interests your spouse and treat each other with mutual respect. When you are upset by something your spouse has done, focus on the friendship and not the incident. Talk to your spouse as you would your best friend. That is the single most important habit of couples who remain golden, even when they are gray.
So, the first moment you begin to feel alone in your own home…. or the next time you worry whether your marriage will last your life time, remember these four habits of couples who stay golden, even when they are gray. Ask yourself if you have adopted these habits. Then, share this post with your partner and focus on the changes you both need to make in order to stay golden and “Work it Out”.
Let me know if I can help.
You’ll find me at Amity Mediation and Relationship Workshop, where we now offer psycho-educational Marriage Refresher Courses for couples who want to stay together and restore the warmth and friendship in their marriage.
We also conduct Divorce Mediation for couples who have decided that divorce is their best (and maybe only) option, but want an amicable process that allows them to remain friendly and avoid expensive litigation.