Ready to toss your marriage into the proverbial wastebasket? You’re not alone

I have no illusions about marriage, partly because I’ve been married enough not to have any and partly because I’m familiar with the odds of making it to assisted living these days with the same person you started out with 30 or 40 years before.

Still, in spite of everything I know about those odds, some couples seem destined to defy them or maybe I just hope they will, so in 2010, when Al and Tipper Gore split after 40 years together (she was 61, he was 62), the news gave me pause.

I was hardly alone in assuming they’d cracked the code: the storybook meeting at the post-prom party, the enduring political marriage, the public displays of affection and the overriding sense that after four grown kids, three grandkids and nearly half a century of triumphs and heartaches personal and political, the two individuals inhabiting that marriage had made it to the other side still holding hands. (“Please, Al and Tipper, don’t do this. For our sakes – don’t,” begged the Washington Post.)

Reportedly even their closest friends didn’t see it coming, and few could understand why it had, especially since the marriage was in the home stretch.

“You get through 40 years – of ill-behaved children and ill-behaved bosses and stolen elections – and then you split?” lamented Rebecca Traister in Salon. “This is precisely the kind of mysterious and inexplicable narrative of marriage thing that scares the bejesus out of people who are newly or not yet married.”

But end it did – with an email to friends saying they’d reached the “mutual and mutually supportive decision” jointly after “long and careful consideration.”

Meanwhile, while the rest of us were in the stands shouting at the Gores for blowing the game in the late innings, they were focusing on the innings yet to come – and had decided they’d be better off playing them apart. One of the couple’s close friends conjectured that perhaps they’d simply grown apart and had decided to pursue their own interests. Maybe, she observed, Tipper was “tired of being the wife” and preferred to “accomplish something on her own.”

The Gores may have had an extraordinary marriage, but their decision to separate was not.

Increasingly, couples around the globe with decades-long unions are making the same decision. In North America, the U.K., Europe and Japan, marriages of a certain age are coming undone in record (some say “epidemic”) numbers. That fact alone warrants notice, but it’s even more striking when you consider that in every other cohort besides the baby boomers, divorce rates have either stabilized or are heading in the opposite direction.

In Canada, divorce is spiking only among 50-plusers and becoming an increasingly common event for couples 65 and older. In the United States, the divorce rate has decreased in every demographic since the ’80s – except among baby boomers, where it has doubled. In the U.K. and Europe: similar story.

In Japan, that story has gone viral: in the past two decades, couples married 30 years or more have seen their divorce rate quadruple. The Japanese call the phenomenon “Retired Husband Syndrome.” (You can guess how it earned that moniker.) It’s still true that the longer you’ve been married, the lower your chances of splitting, but even with serious marital mileage under your belt, reaching the finish line in tandem is by no means a slam dunk anymore.

The trend is so striking it has been dubbed the “grey divorce revolution.”

What are we to make of this trend? Do we parse it couple by couple and see these marriages as disappointing failures, wondering how two people can throw everything away after coming so far? Do we view it through a generational lens and declare it yet more proof of the baby boomers’ allegedly inexhaustible capacity for self-indulgence? Or do we see it as a bravely progressive response and possibly the only sane one to an idea of marriage out of step with the times?

As divorce revolutions go, this isn’t the baby boomers’ first rodeo. My generation didn’t invent divorce, but it was the first to turn it into a mass movement. As a group, we are more prone to divorcing than others, which is one reason our cohort looks as if it spiked a fever on demographic charts.

Another is that many of us who split later in life are already on second or third marriages, and – here come those odds I mentioned – if you’ve divorced before, you’re statistically likelier to divorce again. (That risk increases exponentially if you marry a second or third time.)

Divorce begets divorce, in other words.

Not that divorce is contagious – although you’d never know it by the HazMat suits some married people don when couples in their social set announce they’re splitting. It’s just that if you’ve divorced before, you’re probably more risk-resilient than the next person – and since you’ve already survived the carnage once, you’re probably less likely to fear the things that tend to keep people from divorcing: fear of being alone, running out of cash, coping with the perceived social stigma – than you fear the prospect of wasting whatever time you have left dying a slow death in a marriage that’s been on life support since the Reagan Administration.

Some experts think that once gen-Xers and millennials reach late middle age, their marriages will topple, too; others are less certain that the cycle will repeat itself, since 30-somethings (many of them children of divorce) tend to hold more restrained views about marriage than baby boomers, marry later than they did (thereby gaining more premarital on-the-ground relationship experience than their parents had) and came of age in perilous economic times, which instilled in them a degree of caution about their life choices that dovetail more closely with their grandparents’ attitudes than their parents’.

The jury’s still out on whether same-sex couples will split up at the same rate as their hetero counterparts, but the consensus seems to be that there won’t be much statistical difference in their divorce rates. Once you sweep up the confetti, marriage is marriage, and so are its challenges.

Given the massive expectations projected onto marriage today, however, and our cornucopia of options for living rich and full lives if our own marriages don’t perform, nobody seriously expects the numbers to go down.

Pepper Schwartz is a sociologist who falls into the second category of experts. A divorced baby boomer herself, with bona fides a mile long, Schwartz doesn’t think it’s coincidental that her cohort is yet again setting divorce trends.

Writing on in 2013, she argues that the current uptick is a throwback to the ’60s and ’70s when, for what are now widely reported reasons, vanguard members of her generation began splitting and the divorce rate began skyrocketing. The relatively pampered children of a post-war economy and their adolescent disrespect for their parents’ restrictive conventions collided with the Pill, the flowering of feminism and that robust economy.

That collision prompted an already rebellious cohort to question entrenched thinking about gender roles and marriage and provided women with more opportunities for recreational sex, sexual partners, jobs and careers than had ever previously been available to them. The combustible mix detonated conventionally accepted ideas about marriage and family.

The result, predictably, was total confusion. Meanwhile, while baby boomers were busy working out whether to choose from column A (commit to their marriages) or column B (pursue their own emotional and sexual fulfillment) – and deciding if there was a way to do both – the idea of marriage morphed from a duty-bound lifetime arrangement to one far more tenuous, voluntary and fluid.

“In many ways,” observes Schwartz, “divorce rates are the boomers’ legacy.”

I too have bona fides in the field. For one thing, I’m a divorced baby boomer as well. For another, in the ’90s, I wrote a book called The Divorce From Hell about my then-spouse’s family court ride. I also worked briefly for a family lawyer, so I’ve seen marriages besides my own dissolving at close range. While I don’t fit the profile of the late-life divorcer – not if you count continuous miles logged – I am a vanguard baby boomer, and if you’re looking for a veteran of the first divorce revolution and its cascading aftershocks, I’m practically a poster child.

I was 21 when I married for the first time. It was the early ’70s. We met in university. That marriage lasted two-and-a-half years. Today it would be considered my starter marriage. In the mid-’70s, I met and moved in with someone new. We married four years later, and our daughter was born within the year. She was four when we split. The whole relationship lasted seven years.

For the next seven years, I was single again. Then I met a guy who was separated with two kids. He and his wife were in court. The kids were in the middle. It was awful. For the next two-and-a-half years, I was treated to a chilling inside look at how our family courts deal with divorce. My book is an account of what I witnessed. He and I were together 14 years. I was 54 when we went our separate ways. We never married – neither of us had any interest – but in every other respect our relationship was a marriage.

The Gores’ marriage may have seemed like a storybook affair but, viewed from a contemporary perspective, it was heading for the perfect storm. An unprecedented confluence of forces starts rolling in around late middle age today, driving long-buoyant marriages into troubled waters.

To begin with, the kids have grown and flown. Their departure may cause some couples to shout, “Free at last!” and convert spare bedrooms into man caves and yoga studios, especially if they’ve just come off a prolonged boomerang stint – but couples whose kids have long served as a buffer and distraction from their marital fatigue, boredom or worse may suddenly find themselves with a lot of dead air to fill.

Add to that potential stressor the fact that for the first time ever, turning 50 and 60 is no longer viewed as the gateway to dotage. With life expectancy now parked around 80, the idea of going gently into that good night no longer has legs, either as a retirement plan or, for that matter, a business model, since many baby boomers either want to continue working or must.

But even if they don’t (or one does and the other doesn’t, which comes with its own set of stressors), what with hip replacements, Lumosity and FitBits, who wants to mark time when there are reinventions to plan and bucket lists to fulfill?

If you’re married or otherwise coupled and happily so but having creative differences over the script for Act 3, then I don’t care if you’re as solid as Elizabeth and Darcy – you’ve got trouble on your hands. If you can’t agree on what happens next, how can you possibly take the show on the road for what may be a 30-year run?

Alternately, if you’re trapped in one of those marital Cold War arrangements and you look down the road – even without your glasses, the signs are too big to ignore: there’s zero probability of anything changing – and between the cancer scares and the contemporaries death has picked off already, you can feel the bullets whizzing by your head.

Sooner or later, you start doing the math. Nobody seems to raise an eyebrow when couples split anymore, and once your divorced friends make it to dry land, many seem to flourish. Some are reconnecting with old flames. Some are online dating. Some are finding new relationships and having new-relationship sex – albeit assisted by different pharmaceuticals than the ones that once heightened the experience.

Meanwhile, the people who prefer to fly solo seem unconscionably content. You’re the one coupled but you’re envying them. Sure, the prospect of going it alone at this point is scary. There’ll be lifestyle adjustments, financial uncertainty and telling the kids will be hard. But they’re grown-ups now. This is your time.

The first thing you need to know about this trend, particularly if you’re a heterosexual male baby boomer who’s been married long enough to assume you always will be, is that women are driving the bus here – much as they did in the ’70s and ’80s when they fled marriages in droves to heed feminism’s call.

Women are the ones who want out and, more often than not, their husbands don’t see that bus coming. In one of the first major studies of this trend, commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 2004, women wanted out 66 per cent of the time. That’s a flashing red light of a statistic, partly because it flies in the face of the prevailing cultural stereotype that older men leave their wives for younger women. We all know that does happen, but that’s not what’s causing these break-ups – at least not in significant numbers; nor is infidelity, which was cited as the cause in the survey roughly 27 per cent of the time – a figure in line with divorce stats across the board.

The data suggests a rather different scenario is unfolding.

Deidre Bair’s Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over is the seminal book on this subject. Bair was prompted to write it sitting in the dentist’s office one day in 2005 when she spotted an AARP magazine article reporting on the survey. Her own marriage had come apart after 43 years, and she’d been told countless stories by men and women who’d decided to live the next stage of life on their own.

The AARP findings largely corresponded with the stories she’d been hearing. Her book, for which she conducted nearly 400 in-depth interviews with men, women and their adult children, was published in 2007. At the time, both the trend and reporting on it were still relatively nascent. Since then, other studies have emerged, and major media outlets have covered the story globally.

In 2013, the New York Times introduced “Unhitched,” a column in which couples were invited to tell the story of their relationships “from romance to vows to divorce to life afterward.” “We are particularly interested,” wrote the editor, “in couples who split after lengthy marriages or civil unions or who were divorced more than once – another area where boomers have, for better or worse, led the way.”

“Unhitched” provides a fascinating unfolding-in-real-time sense of the dramas that play out on the stages of long-term marriages before the curtain falls. Bair’s book remains pivotal, however, for its richly reported bird’s-eye and nose-up-against-the-glass view of the late-life divorce trend’s many facets.

Prior to embarking on the project, she’d heard from women who’d divorced for “the usual reasons”: “He traded me in for a wife younger than our daughter” or “We had nothing in common anymore” or “I couldn’t take his [fill in the blank – gambling, drinking, womanizing].”

But she’d also heard many stories from men and women who said they didn’t care what the future might hold: they couldn’t continue living in a rut any longer; they wanted their freedom. For both, one theme surfaced again and again: It’s now or never.

Those themes echo in her book and in many other stories I read and heard. She writes of women so alone in their marriages they realized they’d be better off alone; women tired of caring for husband, home and children, women sick of compromising their lives away by kowtowing to controlling men.

Some women patiently plotted their escapes for years, like the Tim Robbins character in The Shawshank Redemption; others were jolted into leaving by cancer surgery or a car crash. In Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee’s The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, a woman on a hijacked plane vowed to leave her husband if she got out alive.

And Bair writes of a woman married 24 years whose husband called her constantly demanding to know her whereabouts. For several days, she actually agreed to record her movements until he announced that “On toilet. Taking crap” was no excuse to ignore his calls and ordered her to take the phone into the bathroom. With no income of her own, she pawned her late mother’s engagement ring to pay for a legal retainer. After hearing her story, a lawyer took her case without one, and she paid him once she found a job.

Bair also writes of men tired of supporting women and children they felt didn’t appreciate or respect them, caretaker husbands tired of taking care, beleaguered husbands fed up with wives who nagged them to death, gay men who finally decided to come out of the closet, couples that played by the rules of another time until one spouse changed them late in the game, leaving the other reeling, and others who looked ahead and realized the only way forward was apart.

Bair’s subjects are not only baby boomers, by the way; she talks to many men and women who divorced when they were in their 70s and 80s, suggesting that baby boomers’ values – or what researchers call the “soft reasons” for divorcing – growing apart, failing to communicate, wanting something more – have not only filtered down to younger generations but trickled up to their elders as well.

While divorce is almost always traumatic and late-life divorcers part for many of the same reasons younger ones do, the lawyers, therapists and financial planners doing triage for the walking wounded in these divorces say the life stage at which they’re parting raises unique concerns.

In their 2013 book When Harry Left Sally, Toronto family lawyer Marion Korn and financial planner Eva Sachs, co-founders of Mutual Solutions – a firm catering to this niche divorce market – point out that by your 50s, top-of-mind worries include the prospect of living alone, possibly for the first time in decades, coping with illness, facing dashed retirement hopes, upending the lives of adult kids and grandkids and shouldering the burden of care for elderly parents.

Add to that list making decisions about how to divide retirement savings, pensions, company benefits, property and so on – if such assets exist to divide – and bearing the heavy-duty emotional freight associated with leaving or being left by a partner of many years. Then frame it all with the knowledge that you have fewer years ahead of you than in your rear-view mirror. This is your last hurrah.

Once you come out the other end, however – and the consensus is that it takes anywhere from three to five years to make it through – if the divorce was your idea, unless you end up living in a bus shelter or become seriously ill, you’re overwhelmingly likely to feel you made a sound decision and to relish life more.

But even if you were dragged kicking and screaming into the Third Age, your long-term prospects for happiness are extremely rosy (80 per cent of the AARP respondents reported having either a somewhat or very positive outlook on their post-divorce lives). And the good news for those interested in finding another relationship is that most people who are interested in finding one eventually do – a development in no small measure abetted by the fact that in recent years the number of baby boomers 50 or older using online dating sites has grown twice as fast as any other age group.

Men tend to re-partner more frequently afterwards, mainly because they need to: they typically have a much harder time than women being alone. One woman in her late 50s who has been married for decades and whose divorced friend was busy Internet dating, told me that her husband was a “great guy”; if he died, she’d “get a dog, not another man.”

Another long-married woman said she’d replace hers with a body pillow. All the divorce mediators Bair spoke to, however, told her that at least 70 to 80 per cent of the men that consulted them already had a new partner waiting in the wings. And as Pepper Schwartz told the Ventura County Star in 2011, “Women say ‘I’ve got my friends. I go to the theatre. I don’t know if I want to be married again.’ I think men believe it’s either a woman or the abyss.”

And what of the adult children of late-life divorces? How do they fare?

We already know from the landmark work of Judith Wallerstein (and our own experience, if we divorced when our kids were young) that it was delusional for us to assume “kids are resilient” and would bounce back from the trauma unscarred – as many of us did assume back in the day. In fact, Wallerstein discovered that the children of the first divorce revolution suffered well into adulthood.

When couples divorce, it sets off a land mine in their children’s lives. That’s not a judgment; it’s a fact. Kids suffer collateral damage in a divorce, and the hope of mitigating it is why many people hold off divorcing until their kids have grown. While that seems like a reasonable assumption, one of the more surprising discoveries I made writing this story was that the adult children of divorce take the news personally and hard. They feel as if a fault line has opened in their lives, mourn the loss of the family home, fear for the constancy of their own marriages, worry about their inheritances if their parents re-partner and resent them for not making the marriage work. If one of their parents falls ill and they have to pick up the caregiving slack, they resent them for that, too.

Even if they know their parents’ marriage was a horror show, even if they rarely visit or call, some adult children want their parents and family home to remain frozen in time. If they’ve been telling a happily-ever-after narrative about their parents’ marriage for years, they feel cheated.

And it’s not necessarily predictable how your kids will react, since everyone walks away from a divorce with their own truth. Twenty years ago, Walter Kirn wrote an essay entitled “My Parents’ Bust-Up and Mine.” He was 27, newly married and about to publish his first book when his parents divorced.

Here’s the truth he walked away with: “My parents stayed together for the sake of the children. When the children were grown and settled, my parents divorced – for their own sake. Because Mom and Dad had decided to tough it out (29 years in all), we faced their breakup not as vulnerable kids but as self-sufficient adults. You’d think it would have been easier that way: no custody battle, no child-support brouhaha, no change of schools, no teenage identity crises. You’d think I’d thank my parents for their decision. Here is what I learned, though: when the rug is pulled out from under you emotionally, it isn’t necessarily an advantage to be standing on your own two feet.”

In Kirn’s case, the “all-consuming desire to keep the family whole” came roaring back, precipitating a descent into self-destruction that destroyed his marriage and nearly killed him. Six years later, his parents’ breakup still gnawed at him: “No more holiday feasts. A host of lingering squabbles, a brain that seems irreparably torn between Mom’s side and Dad’s side.”

Meanwhile, the question of whether he was thankful that his parents had “held on long enough to undermine [him] as a man rather than wound [him] as a boy” remained insoluble.

I know of great marriages. I love being around them. I also know such marriages are rare and that all marriages, no matter how great, go through dark times. I know, as well, that you can never know the truth of anyone’s marriage, including your own, as Nora Ephron once observed.

But one of the things I didn’t know and that leaped out at me when I read Bair’s book was how many truly awful marriages there are out there, how many of them go on for decades and how much misery people are prepared to endure out of complacency and fear. The more I read, I more I kept thinking that the central question we should be asking here is not why so many long-term marriages are breaking up but why a lot more aren’t.

That’s not just an anecdotal impression, by the way. In The Science of Happily Ever After, published in 2014, psychologist Ty Tashiro actually runs the numbers and concludes that of those people who marry, only three in 10 ultimately find lasting love; the other seven end up separated, divorced or mired in resentment. Seven out of 10 married couples wind up miserable. Think about that.

Still, the longing for a marriage to endure continues to have a powerful hold on our imaginations. I could trot out the gazillion-dollar wedding industry to prove my point but, for me, a more telling signal of the force of that psychic pull is how sad I feel when long-term partnerships I admire (and onto which I’ve clearly been doing some serious projecting) break up. Hearing the Gores’ news was tough, but when Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon split, I was positively stricken and I couldn’t even talk about Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange.

Given the realities of marriage in our time, how do we resolve such contradictions?

One answer may simply be to acknowledge what many millennials already have: the marriage model with a lifetime guarantee has officially been phased out. It’s no longer realistic to expect to live a lifetime with the same person – at least not if you’re aiming for a marriage where you marry your soul mate, best friend, co-pilot, playmate and f*** buddy – which is the kind everybody seems to want these days.

A new model of a successful marriage is emerging defined more by quality than endurance, and it makes more sense to think about an intimate partnership lasting for shorter bursts of time – one for the starting-out years, another for the career-building and/or child-raising years and another for the last lap.

As one woman whose two-decades-long marriage ended told “Unhitched”: “Do you even have a friend you would want to talk to for say 70, 80 years? Maybe it’s more realistic to have several long, happy relationships. If that’s the case, we need to work out the painful transitions between them.”

Viewed from that perspective, late-life divorces aren’t failures; they’re organic endings signalling the shift from one life stage to the next. And the Gores and their counterparts aren’t disappointments; they’re the canaries in the coal mine and the standard-bearers for a profound attitudinal shift.

Or maybe we simply acknowledge what a lot of people, younger and older, already know: there are many other fulfilling ways to live today besides in married pairs.

We’re in the midst of a major global demographic shift at the moment. For the first time ever, in Canada and the U.S., married couples are no longer in the majority. According to Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing.

Between 1996 and 2011, the number increased by approximately 80 per cent. That’s a startling development because, despite Justice Kennedy’s eloquent and soaring tribute to the union’s profundity in his majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage decision, it means that marriage – at least in its traditional heterosexual incarnation – has officially become passé.

Or, as my 23-year-old niece likes to put it, “Marriage is so last century.” (If you somehow missed this seismic demographic shift and still ask your friends if their single adult children have “met anyone yet,” pick up Eric Klinenberg’s 2012 Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, which tracks this increasing trend, or Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own.)

Meanwhile, just as the first divorce revolution sparked innovative thinking about marriage and family, so, too, is this one transforming our ideas about what both can be later in life.

Indeed, new configurations are emerging: couples who couldn’t find a way to remain spouses are figuring out ways to remain parents, companions and friends, coming together around kids and shared interests. Ex-wives who couldn’t bear to live under the same roof with their husbands are caring for them when they ail, refusing to let them die alone. And both sexes are creating alternative, often inspired living arrangements that hearken back to the commune days, like home-sharing and co- and inter-generational housing.

You can thank baby boomers for stirring the pot again or you can blame them, but whatever your point of view, I think we can pretty much agree that they started a discussion about marriage that’s still going on today.

What’s more, you can’t really talk about why they’re splitting up in record numbers now without acknowledging that they’ve always been inclined to cast a skeptical eye on the status quo, ignore rules they found pointless, invent paradigms they preferred, and view marriage less as a set-in-stone affair than an opportunity to improvise. As they navigate this third act of their lives, their values continue to define their choices about and aspirations for what a relationship and stage of life can be.

It’s been more than 10 years since I split up.

I’ve known marriage’s pleasures as well as its pains, but I like my life, cherish my independence and have no interest in re-partnering. Like many of my friends, single and coupled, I worry about money. I have no idea what the future holds. Still, I’ve never regretted my decision to leave. Most days, I look forward to tomorrow in a way it’s impossible to do when a marriage hits a wall.

As for the Gores, in 2014 Al Gore confirmed to Politico that they had not yet divorced and that he was in a long-term relationship with environmentalist Elizabeth Keadle. For her part, Tipper was dividing her time between Virginia and California, embracing a gentler pace and her passion for photography. In 2012, The Washington Post reported that she, too, was dating.