Deb and Don* were both in their early 60’s when Deb informed Don that she didn’t want to have sex with him anymore.

This did not go over well with Don.

For decades, Deb had complied with Don’s way of having sex. Actually, she had complied with a whole lot of things, year in and year out. This wasn’t just about sex. Consequently, she woke up one morning and decided that she was done feeling invisible and voiceless in the relationship.

For a year, Don tried to reverse her decision without success. At first Deb couldn’t tell Don what she was unhappy about. But she began to find her voice in therapy and articulated how she felt. As he had done for decades, Don forcefully declared that how she was feeling and what she was doing were all wrong.

Thinking he could bring Deb around, Don moved out, announcing he would not live in a sexless marriage. Deb suddenly found herself enjoying the freedom of life on her own. The kids are out of the house, she reasoned. I’ve only got so many years left in this life. So I’d like to take a shot at being happy, and that won’t happen with Don.

Who is at risk for grey divorce?

Could this happen to you and your spouse? You may be cruising along in what seems to be a stable, amicable partnership. But you may in fact have what affair-prevention expert Dave Carder calls a “windshield wiper” marriage — one in which you are both getting the job done but never interacting with each other. Or you may feel too busy and exhausted to address some hurt or dissatisfaction that is festering below the surface of polite but shallow conversation.

Because Deb and Don had ignored the sources of their conflict for so long, my job to help them heal their marriage was all that more difficult. Here’s what you need to know about creating healthy relationship dynamics in your marriage so that you don’t face a situation like Deb and Don’s.

Why do grey divorces occur?

In the past several years, you may have heard the phrase grey divorce. It refers to marriages ending among people age 50 and over. The divorce rate in this age group doubled between 1990 and 2015, according to a Pew Research Centre article that cites the National Centre for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Of these, 34% involved marriages of 30 or more years, and 12% occurred in marriages of longer than 40 years.

A number of reasons and contributing factors have been proposed for this trend. In my counselling office, I’ve heard variations on all of them. Understanding the reasons can help you identify areas in your own marriage that may need attention.

The first and foremost reason couples in their later years divorce is that they have, over time, become disconnected. This results from couples being busy with the daily stuff of life: kids, careers, church and other volunteer activities.

In all of these arenas, husband and wife can easily find themselves on parallel or diverging tracks. After the nest empties, they often look at each other and ask, “Who are you?”

Unresolved conflict
Right on the heels of disconnection, and far more dangerous, is years of unresolved conflict, resentment and smouldering anger. Everyone has been too busy, distracted or exhausted to address these, let alone settle them. Doing so requires considerable focus, energy and courage. “Who are you?” can easily morph into “I really don’t like you, and I haven’t for quite a while.”

Ticking clock
The third reason is that some people in this age group have a gnawing sense that the number of good years remaining is limited. Disgruntled spouses may say to themselves: I don’t want to spend the last 25 years of my life dissatisfied. And I can’t see myself happy in this marriage, and it’ll take way too much effort to unpack all of the baggage.

Three additional factors can also lower a couple’s commitment to staying together after decades of marriage:

  • The kids are now adults and have their own lives and often their own families to attend to. One or both spouses may believe that their children won’t be affected if they divorce. (This is a major miscalculation.)
  • If some assets have been accumulated, the idea of splitting up may not sound quite as dangerous from a financial standpoint as it would have earlier, especially if both spouses have retirement benefits.
  • If someone else is in the picture and the spouse won’t terminate the emotional or physical affair, my task as a counsellor virtually becomes that of a marriage funeral director.

Reasons to think twice about grey divorce

Despite the temptation to ditch an unsatisfying marriage, divorce is not a ticket to happiness. Here are just a few of the reasons to rethink the decision to sign those divorce papers:

God doesn’t like it
Actually, He said that He hates it. “ ’For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously’ ” (Malachi 2:16, NASB).

A grey divorce represents the end of a civilisation
Like it or not, there will be fallout. Your children, grown or otherwise, will definitely be affected. Their confidence in the idea of marriage will be shaken. Jen Abbas de Jong, who wrote Generation Ex: Adult children of divorce and the healing of our pain, explained it this way:

If you’ve almost completed your jigsaw puzzle so that there are only a few pieces left and someone comes in and turns the table over, tearing your puzzle apart, do you feel better or worse that the puzzle was almost finished? You feel worse, don’t you? … Part of the reason the divorce is so painful is that everything you were raised to believe about marriage — and perhaps used as the basis of your marriage — has changed.

Invariably, all family relationships get a lot more complicated. When Grandpa and Grandma split up, interacting with grandchildren is likely to be hindered, if not completely derailed. This is especially true if your kids blame one of you for the breakup and resent it. Losing your relationship with one or more grandchildren is a big price to pay.

Additionally, relationships outside the family change, too. Spending time with friends with whom you socialised as a married couple is likely to become more awkward. Or the friendships will dissolve altogether.

Finances are rearranged
Resources and assets (including your home) that have been hard-earned over decades of effort invariably take a hit, especially after paying the lawyers’ fees.

Get your relational priorities straight

Here are a number of action items that I prescribe for my clients to help them prevent their marriage from ending in divorce.

  • God, being the Creator of the universe and of both you and your spouse, needs to be given first priority in your life. If you and your spouse both make this commitment and actually pray together regularly and transparently, your risk of divorce will be drastically reduced.

  • Your spouse needs to become the priority human relationship in your life — not your parents, your kids, your siblings, your employer, your customers, your friends or someone you met on Facebook.

  • Don’t let your conflicts smoulder or erupt without figuring out how to deal with them. Learning how to talk about core issues without criticism or contempt is a skill that can be learned from a counsellor, pastor or seasoned mentor couple.

  • Get to know, and be known by, your spouse. I stress to my clients the critical importance of keeping up to date with what is going on in your spouse’s mind and heart, and I routinely give them a set of “checking in” questions to help with this process.

  • Deb and Don arrived at my office three months after their separation. Don told me several times why he thought Deb’s opinions were wrong. I was able to explain to Don how hurtful his domineering style was to Deb. For fear that they will divorce, Don is now going through the motions of listening to her — a big step for him. Deb may or may not respond to his overtures.

What about your marriage?

Don’t let your conflicts smoulder or erupt without figuring out how to deal with them. Instead, learn how to talk about core issues with compassion and respect.

Here’s some really good news: Just as a healthy lifestyle not only prevents disease but also helps you enjoy life to the fullest, so these various preventive measures can head off divorce and help you cultivate a deeply satisfying marriage.

Check in with your spouse to avoid grey divorce

This process involves listening to your spouse without giving any negative feedback, advice or problem-solving (unless your partner specifically asks for it).

Accordingly, this is an intentional, weekly appointment that involves these questions:

  • What was the best and worst thing that happened to you this week?

  • How did I best meet your needs this week?

  • How did I least meet your needs this week?

  • What are you feeling right now?

  • Is there something I could have done differently that would’ve been more helpful for us?

  • What are you most worried about right now? (This is the single most important question you can ask.)

  • Is there any way I can help you with that concern?

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

© 2019 Teri Reisser. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.

Dr. Paul and Teri Reisser

Dr. Paul Reisser is a private practice family physician in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Since earning his M.D. from the UCLA School of Medicine and completing his residency at Santa Monica Hospital, Dr. Reisser has accumulated more than 30 years of experience in the area of primary care medicine.

Teri K. Reisser, M.S., M.F.T., is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been counselling couples and post-abortive women since 1984.

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