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Knowing When It's Time to End a Marriage

After making a difficult decision, many find happiness again

By Morgan Baker

When John White's wife told him their marriage was over, he wasn't sure how he would make it through. But now three years later, he is grateful she was the strong one.

Together for more than 30 years, they met in their early 20s. But after time, they grew apart as their two kids grew older. They saw each other less and started to resent each other.

"'Why are we still in this?,' I wondered. It's not fixable," White (not his real name), 59, says. They tried counseling at different times, but they couldn't understand why they couldn't fix the marriage. His wife finally moved out — and moved back in. Three weeks later, she said she was done.

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Divorce after 50 is on the rise. While divorce in general is declining, the numbers for dead-end marriages (those that have ended before the last kid has closed the front door) have doubled according to a study from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. Twenty-five percent of all divorces are people over 50, and 10% are people over 65.

Reflecting on the Future

Heidi Webb, of Consilium Divorce Consultations in Lincoln, Mass., says, "The longer we live, the more likely we have time to reflect on whether we have time for another career, or on what's next, and am I with the person I want to do that with?"

She says when the life span was in the 70s, people might have hung in for 10 years, but now that we're often living into our 80s and 90s, we're less likely to do so. People are looking at whether their partners are compatible with them.

"You can tolerate a lot when raising kids together, but when they're gone…either you'll be like newlyweds with money, or think 'Oh my God, this is who I'm looking at for the rest of my life,'" Webb says.

George Binder, 62, (not his real name) a writer in Oregon, who has been divorced for five years, says, "I left for irreconcilable differences. We had a good run. We loved each other at one point, but I moved out. Life became unmanageable. After I left, a great weight was lifted and I've never regretted it. I should have made [the decision] sooner."

Divorce isn't easy and there is never the right time to tell your partner you want out. There are, however, some steps to take to make sure this is the correct step. Because once you bring it up, there is no going back.

Everyone's Path Is Different

A recently divorced consultant in Boston, Bill Waters (not his real name), says divorce is painful. "Divorce really sucks. The process is bad. It's adversarial. The lawyers make a fortune. It breaks up friendships and families," he notes.

"Try to do everything you can to save your marriage, but if you've grown apart, then you need to be courageous," advises Waters, who at 63 says he feels like he's 30.

There is no need to suffer, he says, for the next 10 to 30 years. "I have a lot of runway left. I'd rather be lonely alone than really lonely in a bad marriage," he says.

Waters, who was married for four years to his second wife, says everyone's path is different, but that he just walked away from his marriage — something he wasn't proud of doing.

"Talk to your spouse the minute you have a negative feeling."

"I felt trapped. It was a primal feeling. Staying married wasn't fair to her or me. Life's pretty fragile," says Waters, who lost his first wife of 19 years to cancer.

Abigail Robins, 65, (not her real name) who lives outside of Boston, advises not to end your marriage the way she did: "I was passive-aggressive. I was conflict averse."

When she began to feel trapped and unhappy after 20 years of a happy marriage and felt she had nowhere to turn, she started to disappear – literally. Robins went away for weeks and then months at a time to visit friends and family. Her husband eventually got fed up, had an affair and left.

"Talk to your spouse the minute you have a negative feeling," Robins says. "If you're talking to your friends and not your spouse, that's a tip-off."

No Easy Fix

Michelle Klein, a certified divorce coach in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who works with individuals and couples who are at the beginning stages of thinking about divorce and those in the divorce proceedings, doesn't necessarily advocate for divorce.

She says you should try to take steps to work on your marriage and stay together first. Try therapy or marital resolution techniques, she suggests.

There is no easy fix. Those couples who have been communicating all along have a better chance at resolution than those who have let things fester and come to a boiling point.

A good marriage, according to Waters, allows for individual achievement and personal growth that promotes genuine synergistic connection. Without that foundation, you need to get out.

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Life After Divorce

Post-divorce life can be difficult. "The picture of what you had in mind is gone. There is loss," says Klein. Finances change and living arrangements shift.

"The first year was hard," says White, who owns a landscaping business outside of Boston. "It was painful, lonely. I felt like a failure. I was glad it was over, but I was in mourning, missing the person. The second year was better, and now in the third year, we're friends again. We rely on each other. We talk about the kids. We share the holidays. We went out to dinner with our son."

"I'm so glad she did it," Waters adds. "She's a strong woman. She set me free."

After they decided to go forward with their divorce, they agreed to take the high road, he says. They opted out of the "pitbull" lawyer strategy, did mediation and after three sessions, were done. They met with a judge in November and were divorced by January.

Webb encourages her clients to look at divorce as breaking up a marriage, not a family.

Webb, the author of "Dissolution to Evolution: Navigating Your Divorce Through the Consilium Process," established her practice as a way to help clients distill and understand the important factors they will face in divorce, and determine the best process (mediation, arbitration, litigation or collaborative law) for them to pursue to optimize their own results and those of their family.

Managing the financial end of the divorce is particularly challenging in an older divorce as pensions, health care, life insurance and new tax rules have to be taken into account, as well as savings and property.

'Own Your Own Part'

Experts say women often come out of divorce with their life styles compromised, while men come out socially challenged.

Webb encourages her clients to look at divorce as breaking up a marriage, but not a family.

"You've built a family. You either force a family to restructure or you come together and rebuild it in a different way, optimizing everyone's outcome…it's an opportunity for growth," she says. Historically, getting divorced was like setting up a war zone. Instead of thinking of dissolving a partnership, think of it as recreating.

"Be as honest as you can, be as giving and forgiving as you can."

She also encourages anyone thinking of getting divorced to talk it through. Having an affair or announcing you're leaving as you drop your child off at college are not necessarily appropriate ways to let your partner know you want out.

"Own your own part," Webb says. "Or you can't move on."

"There's no easy way to do it," says Binder. "Talk about it. Don't let it eat away at you. Listen to the voice in your head. Take action. Make your feelings known. Go to counseling. I wish I had done it sooner. I'm glad I did it."

He acknowledges that people do change in any marriage and go through different chapters, citing his parents' 65-year-long marriage. But, he reiterates, "don't be miserable. Be as honest as you can, be as giving and forgiving as you can. Acknowledge that you once loved each other and still do."

Being In Charge of Your Own Happiness

Once the split is done, White says, take care of yourself.

He got a dog immediately. He also employed services to do some of the jobs he was used to his wife doing. He sent his laundry out. Stocked up on toilet paper for a year. His friends recommended that he set his lights and radio on a timer so when he came home at night, it wasn't to a dark and quiet house.

White says, he's happy now. He's meeting new people. Making new friends.

"It's really fun, really nice. Dating is like high school," he says. "But instead of asking who's your favorite band, you're peeling the layers of an onion back."

People have lived and dealt with stuff – such as parents dying and mental health issues.

Binder started dating through Match.com and after a few false starts found a woman who enjoys the same outdoor activities he does. So much so, he's getting married again.

"There is life after marriage," Binder says. "I am happy and optimistic, and able to feel joy again."

"I'm so happy," says Robins. "It's unbelievable. I moved out of the suburbs. I have tons of friends. I'm finding myself, and developing my own interests."

"I'm not giving one day away," says Waters. "I'm in charge of my happiness. I can't rely on someone else. I have to take responsibilities for my actions and errors."

"I'm just enjoying my life, my family, friends. I don't need a woman to take care of me," says White. "We only have one life. If you can't make it work. Get happy. Try to get happy."

This story was originally published on The Bucket.

Morgan Baker 


Morgan Baker is the Managing Editor for the Bucket and teaches at Emerson College. What’s next? A move to Hawaii. Her work can be found in Cognoscenti, Motherwell, The Boston Globe and The Martha’s Vineyard Times, among other publications. She can be reached at [email protected]
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