Three years after her divorce, Karen, a vivacious 56-year-old, is happier than she’s ever been. However, the decision to walk away from her marriage of nearly 30 years was not an easy one. A stay-at-home mother of four, she describes a painful period of self-reflection when she vacillated between leaving her ex and staying for the sake of her children. “My husband and I had completely grown apart and were practically living separate lives. I eventually had to admit to myself that we had nothing in common except our children, and they were older and moving on. The glue that had held us together had become unstuck.”
These days a growing number of women in midlife are taking stock of their relationships and choosing to leave their marriages. According to analysis of census data by sociologists out of Bowling Green State University, divorce is on the rise for the present generation of empty nesters. What’s more, divorce has doubled over the past two decades among people 50 and older. Baby boomers are bucking the national trend of lower divorce rates and exiting marriages at a rate of one in four (in 1990, only one in 10 people over 50 got divorced). Additionally, a 2004 survey conducted by AARP found that women are the ones initiating most of the splits by people 40 to 69.
There is no simple answer to what causes the millions of breakups and divorces that occur each year. The usual suspects are infidelity, discrepancy over finances, divergent parenting styles, sexual and intimacy problems, communication difficulties, addictions and abuse. However, those aren’t necessarily the main incentives for departing a gray marriage. Sociologists speculate that the underpinning behind these intriguing new statistics appears to be the boomer’s quest for more satisfaction in her life: This “me generation” is in search of self-fulfillment.
Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. The boomer generation was the first age group ever to enjoy immense latitude in mate selection. Gone are the days of arranged nuptials, of unmarried women being referred to as spinsters and of divorce being considered immoral. As a result, it seems like a natural chain of events for a woman to leave a marriage should she be unhappy.
Frankly, I’m not at all surprised to read the data supporting a trend I’ve personally experienced. Over the past several years, I have witnessed the demise of lengthy marriages affecting clients, close female friends and relatives. I was moved by their difficulties and incredibly inspired by their strength as they eventually regained their lives. In fact, I was so impressed with what I saw that I set out to share their brave stories with the world by writing a book about it. I wanted to enlighten all women that life doesn’t need to stop when a relationship ends, and most women are extremely content once they have recovered.
Many people feel we are living in times when everything, including marriage, is too easily disposed of. Perhaps that sentiment is valid. Yet keeping a marriage strong and healthy is extremely hard work, and it takes time and commitment by both parties. Nonetheless, people are living much longer, and many are reluctant to stay in unhappy marriages for eternity. Also this is the first generation of women who have focused on their career, held jobs and built up their confidence to be financially independent. This independence has given them hope and assuaged their fears about being on their own. Today there is more opportunity to form new relationships through online dating, social networking and the many personal-interest options available for single women. Women are no longer aimlessly stuck at home after their children grow up and move away.
No matter what your age, gray or otherwise, the decision to leave a marriage is a significant one that should never be taken lightly. Whether one leaves or is left, divorce is serious business, and the road to full recovery isn’t necessarily an easy one. But that being the case, if a relationship is broken, women have more options than ever before. We are fortunate to live in a society where we can strike out on our own without the fear of being shunned. That is something to be very grateful for.
RACHEL A. SUSSMAN, LCSW, is the author of The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce and a New York City-based licensed psychotherapist specializing in treating couples and individuals with relationship dilemmas. For more information, visit www.rachelasussman.com.
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