“Thirty-seven years!” the judge barked in disgust. “You’ve gotten along this long, why do you want to start all over now?” My client turned in his chair and looked at me, his eyes wide in panic. We had met in my office the week before to prepare for how events might unfold in the courtroom. I reassured him that nothing bad would happen, while simultaneously cautioning him that any time you enter a courtroom there is a measure of unpredictability. This was it.
In a no-fault divorce state like ours, where a proclamation of “irreconcilable differences” is enough to grant the dissolution of a marriage, the judge’s question was a rhetorical one. But when I started my legal career in the 1980s, judges were often inclined to opine on wisdom of divorce between people in long term marriages.
Today we see far more couples divorcing at a time when they might otherwise be celebrating a milestone anniversary. Over the last two decades, the divorce rate has doubled among people 50 and older. For half of them, this is not their first divorce. In a law firm that does only divorce, this is what we often hear:
“I only stayed for the children.”
“We’ve grown apart.”
“I can no longer live with the drinking.”
“I’ve thought about this for years.”
Social scientists have examined the trend of the graying of divorce. Changing societal perceptions of divorce, women’s increased economic independence, and the baby boomers’ perspective on aging are cited as factors. As a woman with a few gray hairs of her own, I was married during a generation influenced by the second wave of feminism, and its mark remains with me. When I was divorcing, I knew all would be well, even though I was departing from the societal norm of being the primary care provider for my children and was going to be a single mom with joint custody. The influence of my generation reminded me of my strength.
Couples therapists say the same factors that lead to divorce in the young lead to divorce at later ages—-defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. No doubt the longer one has engaged in these behaviors, the greater the challenge to change them, and the lesser the hope that they will. For those who are in, or are facing retirement, the fear of being alone is compounded by questions of financial security and health.
When the older and wiser demonstrate to us the courage to seek out a revised version of life and move past the fear and excuses, they are an inspiration. Through their will to make change they demonstrate to us that we, too, will be alright.