The numbers of longtime couples walking away from their marriages is on the rise
Many couples look forward to the time when their children leave home for college or find jobs and houses of their own. They anticipate rekindling their romance, starting a new hobby or traveling the world.
But that’s not true for all. For some, the transition into the empty-nest phase of life is just empty.
A national AARP study found that the divorce rate among people ages 40 to 79 years old is on the rise, with more women seeking the break in higher numbers than men.
It’s a phenomenon that’s sometimes called "gray divorce."
"When people get married and fall in love, they tend to see only the positive," said the Rev. Harold Hauser, director of the Southside Christian Counseling Center in Tinley Park.
"When you get married, things happen, not just bad things, but good things. A child comes along and that is a good thing, but it also taxes the relationship. Jobs, mortgages, all these things tend to get into the mix. If you are not careful, they can get in the way of the one you love. It’s not just the bad things that push us apart. It can be the good things as well, and then your marital battery has been drained."
While the average marriage to end in divorce lasts about eight years, some of these older couples have been together more than 20 years.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76 percent of men who married between 1955 to 1959 stayed married for more than 20 years. For those married between 1975 and 1979, the number making it past 20 years dropped to 58 percent.
AARP’s "The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond" found that about 66 percent of women initiate the split.
Many cite physical and emotional abuse, but say they postponed a divorce for five or more years because they had children and wanted the family to stay intact, said Xenia Montenegro, AARP’s manager of market research.
But women also claim to divorce because of an unfaithful partner, they fell out of love or they had trouble adjusting to the empty-nest life.
"Divorce has less of a stigma today than 20 or 30 years ago," Montenegro said. "Many women are also working so they are financially less strapped than they were in the past."
Women are generally viewed as the caretakers of the relationship and the family.
Known as the "Walk-Away Wife Syndrome," some women initiate the divorce because they feel their husbands aren’t responsive to fixing the problems of their relationship. After years of nagging, these women surrender to the notion that change isn’t possible and often live silently until announcing they want a divorce, sometimes to the surprise of their husbands.
The AARP study finds that 26 percent of men said they never saw it coming.
The idea that an older man leaves his wife for a younger woman is a common misconception about divorce among older couples, the study said.
Hauser was 54 years old with four children when his wife of 28 years asked for a divorce. She wanted to be single again, he said.
"It was one of the most traumatic events of my life," he said. "I didn’t see it coming."
Four years after the divorce, Hauser said he can see where career, health and other life problems taxed his relationship with his spouse.
Being friends helps
Still, while experts say the golden years can be difficult, there are ways to make the transition into the empty-nest phase easier.
"A lot of our past behavior has been focused on our children so it doesn’t seem as we are friends anymore," said Hauser, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist. "We want to be more than roommates who share a same address. Now that the kids are gone, you see your spouse and say, ‘Welcome back.’"
Recognizing the transitional nature of this period is one of the first steps in making it smoother, said Claudia Arp, a founder of Marriage Alive, a nonprofit marriage and family educational organization, and author of several books and DVDs on marriage.
"Some people celebrate the empty nest like a second honeymoon," said Arp, author of "10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters," which is used by the Chicago Archdiocese for marriage counseling. "But the honeymoon ends and some people hit it with a crisis. The transition is from a child-focused relationship to a partner-focused relationship. It’s a chance for couples to reinvent themselves."
Let the past go
Arp said that during the empty-nest years, couples should reconnect with each other, renew their friendships and rekindle their love.
"In the second half of marriage, you are more in control, hopefully wiser, more tolerant and accepting your spouse as a package deal that the good comes with the bad," she said.
"If you haven’t changed your partner in the first 20 years, then change isn’t going to happen. You need to let go of past marital disappointments. It just blows our mind that you’ve invested that much time in a marriage and want to walk away. If there isn’t abuse, we believe you can rebuild the relationship. We believe marriage can be better in the second half of life."
For couples in trouble, Arp recommends marriage education or counseling. It can be as simple as watching a video or reading one of the books she co-wrote with her husband of more than 40 years.
"What makes a marriage go the distance is the level of friendship the couple share," Arp said. "One way to build that friendship is to spend time together. One way to spend time together is to have a date."
Hauser recommends counseling, self-help books, talking with friends or church leaders or taking a class on marriage and family at a community college.
Dr. Constantine Bruns, clinical director of community counseling at the Community Counseling and Wellness Centers of America, said couples seeking marital help often come to his Midlothian clinic.
His clinic offers a couple’s compatibility program in which each spouse is interviewed individually and their answers entered into a computerized scoring system, Bruns said. Counselors use the information to better tailor therapy sessions, he said.
It is also helpful to bring in adult children who are deeply invested in what is happening to their parents, Bruns said.
"Most couples are trying to save their marriage," he said. "They’ve tried to solve the empty-nest conundrum and failed. They are facing the typical pressures of getting older, such as finances and more medical expenses. One may have divorce on the mind, but the other wants to try to save that marriage. You don’t want to let go of your relationship."
75 percent of women in their 50s reported enjoying a serious, exclusive relationship after their divorce — often within two years.
81 percent of men in their 50s did the same.
70 percent of those who initiated a divorce were confident they’d done the right thing.
45 percent of divorcees said their biggest fear was being alone.
80 percent of respondents reported either a somewhat or very positive outlook of their life at present.
58 percent of men and 37 percent of women said they postponed divorce for five years or more to stay together for their children