Nothing will make you think more about what marriage is about than a divorce. But there’s divorce and then there’s divorce. When I divorced in my 20s and we had nothing — no property, no savings, no kids — it was emotionally challenging, true, but that’s about it. If someone presented me a way to make the marriage work, I probably would have said, Why? We made a mistake; it’s over!
But when I divorced at midlife with stuff (a house, a car, a dog and, most important, young kids) it was much more complicated. While many people argue about the stuff and money, the bigger issue — to me, anyway — is the kids: How will we raise them until they can be self-sufficient?
Now a friend is in the midst of a divorce and her kids, at 21 and 25, are no longer “kids;” they’re self-sufficient adults. What does divorce mean at this point?
While I am absolutely not against divorce, I like to explore alternatives that might be available for couples who are struggling as I once was. Which is the conversation I had recently with two family law attorneys who know all too well what isn’t working in our traditional marital model, San Francisco Bay Area attorney Mark Ressa and Minneapolis, Minnesota, attorney Mark Boulette.
While my conversation with them a few months ago was about the importance of marital contracts for newlyweds, my more recent conversations were about midlife couples, the ones who are driving the so-called gray divorce — those 50 and older — which is growing. While most divorces are initiated by women, it hurts us more than the men — 27 percent of gray divorced women live in poverty compared with 11 percent of gray divorced men, according to a recent Bowling Green State University study.
While those kinds of numbers made some sort of sense for me when talking about women of my mother’s generation, 1950s housewives who had few choices, I was somewhat surprised that those numbers were still true for boomers — my generation! While boomer women were renegades and feminists, and many of us had full-time careers while raising kids, we are still paid less than men are and many of us still resorted to traditional male breadwinner-female housekeeping roles when we married, which inevitably hurt us in the event of a divorce (a model that, despite all our progress, still seems to be the default for Gen-Yers and millennials). Plus, we live longer than men.
Knowing that, is there something else we could be doing?
In some instances, yes. Even if you didn’t create a contract at the onset of your marriage, you can certainly create one after the fact.
My second marriage fell apart after the discovery of a long-term affair as well as other issues. My initial reaction was to save the marriage because my kids were young, 9 and 12, and I was scared. I’d only worked part time since they were born, and we weren’t a wealthy family to begin with.
We could have transformed our marriage into a parenting marriage, giving our kids the consistency and stability they needed while separating the sexual/romantic aspect of our relationship from our parenting relationship, which my The New I Do co-author Susan Pease Gadoua has been helping couples do for the past few years. Would that have worked? In the aftermath of a long-term affair, I don’t know. Would I have considered it if it had been presented to me by one of our several marriage counselors? Absolutely, especially since my first reaction was to save the marriage (which, granted, may not be everyone’s reaction).
Sadly, you are not going to hear about parenting marriages from marriage counselors because it’s not in their frame of reference. Same with renegotiating the marital contract. Which is why Susan and I have been presenting before local therapists, helping them help their clients.
A blog post from more than a year ago on The New I Do website has a life of its own, with couples in a sexless marriage (by their definition) exploring the many ways they have tried to cope — suffer, divorce or cheat. The option of opening up their marriage will never come up in a therapy session because traditionally, therapists don’t think that way. What we need is therapists who are not only able to consider suggesting an open marriage, but also knowledgeable enough to offer support and information to help those who may be see it as an option.
But, let’s say there hasn’t been an affair or any sort of major dysfunction. Let’s consider middle-aged empty-nesters, suddenly staring at each across the breakfast table without the distraction of children for the first time in decades. Many couples might discover they have little in common with their spouse anymore, and any conversation that doesn’t involve the kids or household issues feels strained. This is especially true when husbands retire and they’re around 24/7. Which is why many older couples are willing to call it quits and move on.
Given the economic hit they’ll take, they could find other ways to be connected to each other while also creating space that honors their individual needs and “me” time. They could consider living apart together, which is what my mother did when my sister and I were out of the house.
None of this is to say I’m for or against divorce or marital longevity; most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to be in love with for the rest of our life — if we even want that — and many people are much happier after divorcing.
But I am for letting people know that they have options. Your marriage is yours to create and re-create (and next week I’ll write about some couples who had marital contracts that I just discovered).