More and more couples are splitting up as they grow older. In fact, a quarter of all divorces now involve those over 50. Reflecting this trend, the New York Times began a new feature on their Sunday Vows page called ‘Unhitched-Lessons Learned When It’s All Over’. Divorced couples are asked to look back at their life together, reflect on its unraveling, and try to understand why their marriage could not be saved.
The trend is puzzling. Many people spend years looking forward to this season of life. They imagine the peace and quiet, lovely dinners in restaurants without tantrums, and trips and vacations to far off places they’ve only dreamed of for years. No more frenzied carpools, no more orthodontist appointments, PTA’s and nights spent chasing the kids to do homework and take baths are but a distant memory. Sounds awesome, so what went wrong?
Our sages advise: "Who is wise? The one who is able to foresee the future” (Talmud Tamid 32a). You can strengthen your marriages now by contemplating about the life that awaits you down the road. Prepare and invest in your tomorrow as you live today.
Lonely in the Empty Test
Couples who have spent years parenting and working hard on their careers through their 20’s and 30’s surprisingly discover that they are not the same people they were when they began their journey together. Over the newly quiet dinner table they find awkwardness. Husband and wife realize that the person sitting across from them seems unfamiliar. Through all the chaos of the ‘wonder years’ we sometimes evolve into different people. We wake up one morning, the kids are gone, and we don’t recognize the intimate stranger with whom we share our life.
Researchers tracking divorce rates wrote about this in a paper called The Grey Divorce. They report that in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 individuals who divorced were 50 or older. Almost 20 years later, the number jumped to 1 in 4. In 2009, more than 600,000 people ages 50 and over got divorced. If we pay attention to the warning signals, we can try to ensure that we do not become part of these statistics.
There are signs that we ignore as we go on living ‘the same old same old’. Usually, it is not one devastating emotional earthquake that suddenly rocks a marriage. Instead, there are small cracks along the fault line that ultimately push a husband and wife away from each other. The craters formed become too big a divide. The marriage is now beyond repair. What are some warning bells?
A husband or wife tries to reach out and signals a desire to spend more time together. He wants to go out more often. She says she’s too tired and besides, she can’t leave the kids at night. She asks to talk together more and tries to communicate her fears or frustrations. He says ‘it’s all good, stop worrying so much’ and does not give her the feeling that he is listening. These are missed cues that keep repeating themselves until a person just grows too weary and stops trying.
When asked to extend oneself physically or emotionally, some individuals withdraw instead. Both men and women find it easy to discover different avenues where they seek a safe haven. Here are some to watch out for: long nights on work projects, after office get-togethers, being consumed with a hobby or leisure activity, child rearing responsibilities, caring for aging parents, too many hours in the gym, community events or intense social friendships. Of course we all need outlets and personal space. But once we use these outlets as means of retreat from a spouse, the danger to future stability becomes obvious.
Loss of romance
With all the stress of daily living, it becomes easy to put off intimacy and romance. Long discussions about paying bills, school issues, and difficulties with the children overtake our conversations. Sentimental walks and sweet talk between husband and wife seem to be part of a past life. Faced with new couple time after years of living all about the kids, this time together can feel strange. It becomes easy for husband and wife to lead separate lives each on their own laptop or iPhone. The empty nest is filled with silence; there is barely what to say to one another. Passion must be rediscovered.
3 Solutions to Protect Your Marriage
I read about one couple whose kids had moved on and now they were on the verge of divorce. They each felt in the other’s way. Their solution was to stay married but live in two separate homes and schedule weekly time together. After putting decades into a marriage, there must be better ways to spend our remaining years together.
Here are three solutions to incorporate into our lives right now:
1. Constantly get to know your partner
Ask questions about his world, evolving likes and dislikes, nourish her hopes and dreams. Don’t assume that your spouse is not changing or growing. Talk about where you see yourselves down the road. Share your visions for the future. Take the time to listen to each other’s desires and fears.
2. Create time for romance
Be sure not to neglect your intimate life, both emotional and physical. Of course we are all aware of the importance of date night. But how many of us really make it happen? And once we do, how do we make the night come alive?
Is the time spent together having conversations about the kids or rehashing old disagreements? Besides enjoying a couple’s dinner together, nurture your inner selves. Break out of the old routine. Visit a different part of town, take a class together, try a novel cuisine. Don’t live passively. Find ways to explore new roads and ignite a zeal for living. And while you do, don’t forget to speak lovingly and give each other words of gratitude each day. I have found that showing sensitivity and saying ‘I love you’ is the crazy glue that keeps us together.
3. Include your spouse in your life
When you find an activity that inspires you, share your enthusiasm with your partner. Talk about your interests. Explain why this is important to you. Find a way to include your spouse. If you’ve taken up running or tennis, or if art has now captured your attention, ask yourself how you can help your partner feel involved. I have met many couples who have grown closer after one invited the other to attend a Torah class that had sparked a spiritual awakening. The point is to share your passion.
When we care for the garden of young love, the fruits of our efforts will bring us joy and contentment long after our youngest child bids us farewell and we are able to share our lives together with blessing.