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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? renegotiate marital contract

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).

Want to re-create your marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.


11 Responses to “How to avoid gray divorce”

  1. Hi Vicki,
    Excellent article addressing the rising grade of grey divorce and options that couples over age 50 might want to explore. I agree that there is a big difference between divorcing before middle age and younger. Also, adult children are greatly impacted by their parents’ divorce and this problem isn’t often discussed. Often, their children suffer if they no longer have regular access to grandparents as well. Consequently, adult children need to work to preserve these extended family ties when their parents’ split -which can be tricky when they are grieving and trying to adjust themselves.
    Thanks!
    Terry

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Vicky,

    “A financial hit” is a true consequence of divorce in the gray years. Yet, what is not taken into consideration is the financial hit of the man. Why is this important? Because what is taboo in discussing is the private welfare system for women (especially in Marin County – and I know this from the women I have had ONE date with) who do not or have no need to work yet live a comfortable life.

    Yet how is this possible? Because of the antiquated Spousal Support dependency still in existence to this day in response to the 1950s when women did not have the potential to earn money on their own. My kids are grown, my ex has two postgraduate degrees and works, yet, because her salary is less than mine, I am required to “equalize” our earnings and for the rest of my working life I will pay her up to 40 percent of my salary.

    Try living and working like this Vicki. Indentured Servitude? Peonage? Find a definition. This is the secret nobody talks about. I work seven days a week now to support the comfortable lifestyle of my ex. It’s a great deal if you can get it.

    Fortunately in the State of California, Spousal Support is not required to last until end of life. It does for many men who get in front of the wrong judge, but not required. Look up “Alimony Reform” in the State of Florida. Men are having their social security checks garnished to pay alimony to ex wives divorced 40 years earlier.

    An interesting subject if researched honestly.

    Cheers,

    Peter

    • Robert says:

      Peter wrote:
      “My kids are grown, my ex has two postgraduate degrees and works, yet, because her salary is less than mine, I am required to “equalize” our earnings and for the rest of my working life I will pay her up to 40 percent of my salary.”
      We’re twins Peter! But here in Ohio, I have to pay my ex for the rest of my life. She already has half my retirement fund, but I will have to pay her out of my half so that she ends up with three fourths.
      I live in the inner city in a high crime area with no cable and no pets. She lives in a luxury apartment in a fancy suburb with her cats and deluxe cable –all items approved by the judge as part of the lifestyle that must be maintained by me.
      Seeing what has happened to his dad, my son vows to never marry and many of his friends agree. He is estranged from his mother, not because of the divorce but because she was emotionally abusive to him and to me.

      • Nancy says:

        In terms of spousal support, there are plenty of women paying their ex-husbands because they made less money during the marriage than the wife.

        I had a marriage that was entirely about my ex’s career and as it went up, and then down, I was the one who kept our kids in a stable environment, good schools, emotionally and physically cared for while I also worked. At almost sixty, I’m rebuilding a career that pays me what I made back in the 80’s when I supported him. His poor judgment with female employees and the subsequent job terminations wrecked us financially. Let me tell you how much it bothers me that he has to pay me 40% until he no longer works…..that his younger girlfriend no longer receives Louis Vuitton handbags for her birthday or the “business trips” to resorts, like she did the years I was helping support our family? Nada.

        • Robert says:

          I’m sorry your ex was a cheating cad, but your facts are wrong. IRS statistics show that 96% of persons receiving alimony are female. Judges are far less likely to order women to pay, unless her pay exceeds his by a huge amount.
          You seem to believe that your ex’s cheating and his choice of a younger partner fully justifies the loss of 40% of his income for life. Why should a partner’s fault determine the outcome? We do not hear about cheating wives being forced to pay alimony. It seems that we have no-fault divorce for women and fault divorce for men.

  3. Peter says:

    Hi Vicky,

    “A financial hit” is a true consequence of divorce in the gray years. Yet, what is not taken into consideration is the financial hit of the man. Why is this important? Because what is taboo in discussing is the private welfare system for women.

    Yet how is this possible? Because of the antiquated Spousal Support dependency still in existence to this day in response to the 1950s when women did not have the potential to earn money on their own. My kids are grown, my ex has two postgraduate degrees and works, yet, because her salary is less than mine, I am required to “equalize” our earnings and for the rest of my working life I will pay her up to 40 percent of my salary.

    Try living and working like this Vicki. Indentured Servitude? Peonage? Find a definition. This is the secret nobody talks about. I work seven days a week now to support the comfortable lifestyle of my ex. It’s a great deal if you can get it.

    Fortunately in the State of California, Spousal Support is not required to last until end of life. It does for many men who get in front of the wrong judge, but not required. Look up “Alimony Reform” in the State of Florida. Men are having their social security checks garnished to pay alimony to ex wives divorced 40 years earlier.

    An interesting subject if researched honestly.

    Cheers,

    Peter

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles
      says:

      Peter, I agree that the system is not working for men and women; it probably was necessary when women were full-time homemakers and childcarers and gave up careers (which were low-paying anyway) to do that. That is rarely the case nowadays although I believe anyone, male or female, who stays home to care for kids should indeed be paid for those years in the event of a divorce. The economic cost to (mostly women) has been huge.
      All that said, it is unfair to expect/demand lifelong support. That is why no one should ever marry without a prenup (or a postnup) because the state has one for you, as you have discovered. It should be mandatory.

      • Peter says:

        Well said Vicky, “no one should ever marry without a prenup (or a postnup) because the state has one for you” You know, when you marry young and you both don’t have anything, the last thing you think about is a pre or postnup agreement. I wish it were a requirement, as I would never have thought this would have been an issue. I would have never thought my wife would have walked out on us (the kids and I). But after learning how much we (I) had saved, she learned that 1/2 would be hers, and her attorney and the mediator made it clear she was entitled to a portion of my salary until my retirement.

        Years after going through this, I have run into so many men in similar situations. I have run into so many women who are unemployed or underemployed met through dating websites living so well. I won’t date a woman whose source of income is from her ex. I’m polite, but I move on.

        You’re the perfect columnist/blogger to approach this subject fairly and surface it to protect newlyweds.

        I’ve brought this up to my gay friends as well now that they can legally marry, “careful for what you wish for guys”.

        Peter

  4. JoeX says:

    Here is the reality of my divorce: Despite the fact that the court appointed custody evaluator ruled parenting during the marriage was joint, a vocational evaluation that concluded my ex-wife could make just as much money as me, joint custody of the children post marriage (although in reality they were with me much more often), pretty good evidence my ex-wife committed fraud and perjury and absolute evidence her lawyer maliciously lied in court, I am required by the court to pay her a massive amount of alimony until he day I die. I can neither retire nor remarry as that would make my new wife liable for the alimony to my ex-wife should I become disabled.

    Oh yeah, my ex-wife divorced me (the marriage was less than 20 years) and has refused to use a penny of alimony or the money she received from me at the time of the divorce, let alone her own income, for the children. She didn’t even visit a single college with them. I could go on and on but you get the point. And to be clear, I have done absolutely nothing wrong.

    This is the reality in Minnesota. Our current alimony laws hurt the innocent, hurt children and it hurt women. it leads to suicides and a belief that the justice system is corrupt. Family Court has become the center of criminal activity here.

    • Roger says:

      JoeX,
      Wow, what state are you from that has such draconian laws?

    • Peter says:

      JoeX, Family Court has become a problem for years. There are areas where reform has been attempted (CA and FL). Marriage has become a system where the person who makes more money, shall pay the lesser earner enough so that incomes are rendered equal in the eyes of the state. When I sit with my friends, men AND women and I tell them exactly what I am paying, and they see how my ex lives, they are livid. THey cannot believe our laws are such that even following divorce, you aren’t really, you still must make payments for having had the privilege of having been married to the ex.

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