Why Do Older Married Couples Get Divorced? (And What You Can Do so It Won’t Happen to You)

It can be quite shocking and discouraging to hear that apparently happy old married partners have chosen to divorce. Moreover, when a well-liked, celebrity couple like the Gores announce they are ending their 40-year-old marriage for no apparent reason it can make us quake in our boots. Could such a disaster happen in your marriage? How could such a tragic ending occur out of the blue? Well, the reality is that long-term marriages are less likely to end in divorce. Sure, some endings in long-term relationships are positive. Dissolving a long-term marriage is fraught with chronic problems—persistent alcoholism, repeated emotional cruelty and unending disregard for a partner—may in fact be a step in the right direction. However in general such breakups are tragic. They’re fraught with heartache and irreparable grief for all family members. Unexpected divorces shake the foundation of family life and make family members worry a lot more when older married people don’t have each other to rely on. We expect older parents to be there for each other. When they’re not, such endings are deeply sad.

But they don’t occur out of the blue. Some unique emotional challenges in later, long-term marriages may considerably contribute to unexpected endings. But these challenges can be anticipated and often dealt with before heartache strikes. There’s a lot that older partners can do to see that their marriages are vigorous well into old age. It’s never too late.

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“After I retired at age 68 my marriage went to pot. Here I was looking forward to spending more time traveling the world with my wife and seeing the grand kids a lot more and the bottom fell out of our togetherness. Martha had always been a great homemaker and was incredibly supportive of me in my career. We’ve always had a fantastic life together. But she turned into a person I didn’t know. She became a witch. She’d sneer at me for spending time around the house. She told me she wished she had married someone else. She accused me of stealing money from our accounts. I just didn’t know what got into her. We got into some terrible fights. Yet I loved her as much as I always had. So I tried to get out with golfing buddies, got more affectionate with her and had her keep the books on our accounts. Nothing helped. I got worried about our marriage as Martha was talking about leaving me. Finally I discussed our woes with our eldest daughter, Kitty, something I never did before as I didn’t want to burden our kids with our problems. Kitty volunteered to take mom to her doctor. Eventually Martha saw a psycho-neurologist  and was diagnosed as having had a mini-stroke which affected the right side of her brain and caused her to be unstable in relationships. Just knowing that, although sad to hear, brought a huge sigh of relief. At least it wasn’t all my fault. I had never been the most talkative guy, so I blamed myself for my wife’s moods. Eventually Martha was put on medication and an exercise routine. Now there are many more good days than bad days. I love Martha and I couldn’t imagine life without her.”

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“My husband Gene spends all his time in the garage. He hangs his head and just putters around in his shop area but really doesn’t do very much. He snarls at me if I ask how he is doing. Most wives might say, “Oh good. Now I can go off and do my thing with my friends.” Sure I have a mind to do that but that’s not me. My beloved husband of 55 years has been a good man to me but lately he is not himself. I’m worried about him. He doesn’t respond to old friends who want to go golfing with him. It’s not like he ever talked but now he really is shut down. One day last week I wandered into the shop area when Gene was eating lunch in the house. I saw a yellowish document on the work table. It was a birth certificate with his name listed as the father. I wasn’t surprised to see it. Gene had hinted at having a son before he met me that he gave up for adoption. He said he was too young to be a father. I wonder if his never having seen his son is haunting him now. He never speaks about his lost son. I feel like I have already lost my husband. Yet there he is in the garage. I wish he would let me help him.”

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Why do older couples split up?

Generally older partners stay together through hell and high-water simply because they need each other in old age. Health problems, declining mental functioning, access to extended family and financial reasons all keep people together even when there is emotional distance between partners. However, sometimes compelling emotional problems arise between married people in old age that threaten everything. These problems may have been simmering for years but come to a head in later years.

They may be a recent occurrence due to some hidden medical issue. Later years for couples is not dead time. It is a time when people wish to summarize their entire life experiences and feel a sense of meaning.

To understand this idea we need to realize what’s at stake as we age in a marriage. In the late 1950’s, Erik Erikson, a famous psychoanalyst, developed a respected model of human development that essentially said the most important human need is the need to be emotionally connected. He posited that we humans become intimate with each other through eight stages of human growth based on certain distinct challenges. The final stage of human growth is the Integrity stage. It’s a time when older people look back on their lives and see if their lives have had value and meaning. Those that do feel serene fear death much less. Those that feel their lives have been less purposeful worry more about dying and experience despair. Old age is a time that people look back on their lives and ask, “What’s this all been about?”

In an older marriage partners feel more free to be brutally honest with themselves and each other since they feel they don’t have all the time in the world to accomplish a sense of Integrity to their lives. They may be more unwilling to take care of a dysfunctional partner and more impatient with getting what they feel has been missing in their lives. Aging for long-married couples is a hotbed of emotional challenges.

This passionate analysis stirs up long-term married people. Hence, older couples may succumb to divorce due to undiagnosed cognitive impairment, unwillingness to cope with a partner’s medical condition, long-standing repressed emotional business that is unresolved, mismatching between partners as one spouse embraces life meaning and the other spouse disavows it, untreated medical problems that masquerade as psychological symptoms and excess apathy that is the accumulation of chronic couple dysfunction. We don’t think that much goes on in the lives of older married people but just the opposite is true.

Warning signs: maybe not “until death do us part”

The following signs may indicate that older couples are at risk for divorce and ought to get help for their dilemmas:

  • persistent blaming and vilification of a partner
  • disinterest and apathy regarding couple issues in later years
  • unwillingness to do estate planning and death preparation
  • turning to third parties to alleviate what is missing in the marriage
  • repeated hostile accusations and shaming between partners
  • threats of suicide or marital separation
  • over preoccupation with or inattention to financial matters
  • sudden change of behavior that is atypical in a partner and goes undiagnosed
  • keeping secrets from adult children

Reinventing love with a partner in later years

One of the most loving thing we can do for our aging partners is to be less sure of who they really are and trust them to go where they need to go in their life journeys as we do the same for ourselves. This is easier said than done. The more we do it, the more secure our later relationships. Unfortunately, too many of us older married people gets stuck in routines and ruts, so much so, that we fail to see the bigger picture in what is going on with our beloved partners. We see our partners as they always were rather than who they are now in a critical life period. Personally, we may be threatened by unknown possibilities in our partner’s lives mirroring a lack of control in our own aging lives. We may need to focus on what we can do to accept change rather than block change in our partners. After all, change is inevitable as we grow old together and it’s particularly vital to accept change as a normal part of life. All of life is a rehearsal for death. There is a natural urgency in aging couples. It is our last hurrah. It is our last chance to get it right. Aging with a loved one needs to be flexible.

To that end its’ best to focus on yourself and your own unfinished business. We make a pest of ourselves around our spouse when we don’t attend to our own unfinished business. Perhaps there are adult children or friends we need to make amends to or reveal parts of ourselves that have been hidden. Perhaps we have not planned our own funerals, arranged for our burials, completed a living will or done sufficient estate planning with an attorney. Perhaps we’ve hidden behind our busy lives and haven’t developed deeper parts of ourselves that comes with knowing our grandchildren, getting a spiritual advisor, volunteering our time or reading great books we’ve always wanted to read. Possibly the flaws we see in our partner is a mirror to those in ourselves. It’s not our partner that is holding us back.

Finally the other way to really love our partner is to listen to our body, respect its wisdom and be in our body. I can recommend Growing Old Together by Barbara Silverstone and Helen Kandel Human (Pantheon Books, 1993). Physical fitness, good nutrition, regular physicals and some form of body awareness practice, like therapeutic massage, is relevant now more than ever. Inevitably we all face aging issues with aches and pains, illness and physical decline and eventually our final end. However we don’t need to be older before our time and our declining capacities are way more tolerable if we’ve been taking care of our bodies. Small amounts of time—30 minutes a day of exercise—is all it takes to be in our body. For direction we may need to consult a fitness trainer. So much of the useless complaining that older people do about their health with each other is a distraction from heeding the wisdom of our bodies. Even the physical suffering we do with our partners can bring us closer to each other and our Higher Power if we don’t make a nuisance of ourselves. Our bodies always take us where we need to go.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article was first published in the August/September 2010 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions on any purchases you make through purchases on this page – at no cost to you

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