After 27 years of marriage, Bill and Melinda Gates tweeted their decision to divorce. Why did two people in a long-standing marriage, a union that has earned the couple billions and the establishment of one of the largest foundations in the world, decide to separate?
In most marriages, after decades together, we know each other’s routines, the idiosyncrasies of our families of origin, the cadence of each other’s work days, and how we like our coffee. After so many years of marriage, we meet our partner at their best and, of course, at their worst.
Many couples will have raised their children together at this time and discovered things that they admire about each other, as well as things that they disagree on. One might think that if any of these problems suggested incompatibility, a marriage would end long before a couple is 50 or 60 years old.
That is no longer the case. In my current work with couples, I have noticed a perceptible difference in older couples in long-term marriages. Years ago, the vast majority of my clients who weren’t happy in their relationship chose to stay married out of convenience or routine, or even out of a sense of familiarity. In recent years, many have deliberately chosen to separate. My client base reflects the divorce rate for Americans 50 and older, which has doubled since 1990.
Why do older people get divorced? A soon-to-be-divorced woman told me that she sees her life in chapters. And even though she thought her current husband would be a part of her life through all of them, now she wants to write something on her own, and maybe, one day, with another partner. She does not want to hurt her husband and wants to free him so that he can also find true happiness in his next chapters.
Couples are no longer simply “breaking up” over time. One or both people in the marriage are making an open decision to change course for the time they have left. And recognizing that life is short and precious, one or both of the couple choose what they feel is the most satisfying path. They tend to believe that if a marriage is not working for them, it is not working for their spouse either. Therefore, they give themselves the space to earn or regain happiness and fulfillment.
What has changed in the long-term marriage and divorce?
There are several reasons for the more deliberate separations. I find that traditional marriage models don’t work uniformly for all couples, especially middle-aged couples. These people no longer assume that their marriage is necessarily a lifelong commitment if it no longer works for one or both spouses.
People reevaluate their relationships in real time. This, in my experience, is relatively new. Historically we have been quiet about any dissatisfaction in marriage, often following the trope of complaining to same-sex friends about problems in relationships: lack of sex or connection, boredom with everyday life, annoying habits, stingy spouse. or that you overspend.
In recent years, more and more couples are talking to each other or to me, their therapist, openly about their dissatisfaction in their relationships. Couples are now likely to discuss the nature of their relationships and determine whether they want to work to maintain their marriages or separate.
Taboos are less prominent
I have also noticed that the taboo surrounding such reassessment, and even the notions of separation and divorce after a long marriage, is rapidly diminishing. As we live longer lives, many people, like the soon-to-be-divorced woman, are looking at their lives in chapters. And the marriage that takes them from 20 to 50 or 60 is a very important chapter, one in which they face financial difficulties, establish careers and raise children.
Many choose this as their life story, respecting tradition. But more and more others are willing to consider the possibility that even if they were the right match for each other at one point or for some time, they may no longer be. Sometimes they seek therapy to talk about it.
A new chapter in a longer life
After raising children or seeing a spouse in a career, many married people I’ve worked with in middle age want to reinvent themselves. They want to start a new career or embark on new adventures, often on their own, sometimes with a friend, or sometimes with a new partner. They may feel that their marriage has lost all joy or that they have lost the connection between them.
Now that we live much longer on average than our parents did a generation ago, I have worked with many middle-aged clients who feel that now is the time, while there is enough time, to move on to the next chapter.
I have worked with some people in their 70s and even 80s who regret not taking that opportunity for themselves, staying in a marriage that all too often feels lifeless, stale, or full of conflict.
Why do men and women leave
It seems to me that men are more likely to end a marriage in middle age to seek another relationship or to participate more fully in a relationship in which they are already involved. This smacks of the stereotype of the midlife crisis: men pursuing youth by feeling desired, often by younger women. Some men I have worked with also say that they have fallen in love and want to give themselves the opportunity to find love again before their time is up.
Women who initiate breakups, on the other hand, often seek to change their lives. Many have described to me that they still feel quite young in their 50s and 60s, and that their husbands seem older and less energetic. They are often the spouses looking for new careers, new adventures and new opportunities. They can start a business, get fit, or move to another part of the world.
For the divorcing middle-aged women I’ve worked with, the reasons seem to be more based on experience. Some of them are not even imagining future relationships. For men, on the other hand, the reasons given tend to be based on what they feel is lacking in their marriage, which they feel they can discover in another relationship.
Are these trends healthy or unhealthy?
Some couples have chosen to stay together for decades, up to their 50s or 60s, in order to provide a stable, constant and loving environment for themselves and, above all, for their children. I have worked with several who have suffered for many years from loneliness and isolation, loveless marriages and, at times, carry growing contempt and resentment for their spouse.
This can be a very painful exercise of many years that, in the end, may not benefit the children at all. The young people I work with tend to tell me that they want their parents to be happy. If being together doesn’t provide that, they get it. And a respectful breakup in an unhappy or unsatisfying marriage is a model of healthy relationships for our children.
These changes in the way we view marriage in our 50s and 60s can also be seen as quite healthy and refreshing. Because we are more open to talking to each other about what works and what doesn’t in our marriages, couples seem to be developing healthier relationships that have the opportunity to truly grow and deepen over time.
If you are unhappy with your relationship
Couples who have been together for half their lives or longer have options available that were not open to their parents in middle age. If you’re unhappy with your relationship, don’t assume it’s too late to work on it. Talk openly with your spouse about the nature of your feelings and what your spouse, or the two of you together, could do to make things better or to inject new life into your relationship.
Change your work patterns so you can spend more time together. Protect your dating time so that you can get to know each other on a romantic and sexual level if those elements are missing.
In essence, if you feel like your relationship is still viable, but needs improvement, try writing the next few chapters together. And if necessary, find a therapist to guide you through the process.
Finally, you may feel like this iteration of your relationship has run its course. I strongly suggest that you spend time with your spouse calmly explaining your feelings if you feel comfortable and safe doing so, and if your level of communication allows for such a conversation.
Allow each other the grace to reflect on the good things in the years you have spent together: the children, the jobs, the battles won and lost, the humor and the love. Then they can let go of each other to complete the following chapters separately.
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