One of Robert Frost’s most beloved poems recounts the romance of taking the road less traveled. In recent years, newly divorced baby boomers have been heeding Frost’s words, traveling the relatively uncharted territory of single life after 50.
New research presented in April by sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University revealed an unprecedented trend of Americans 50 and older splitting up.
According to the pair’s research, in 2009, people ages 50 and older were twice as likely to divorce as their counterparts in 1990.
In McHenry, the number of divorces has remained fairly steady during the past 10 years. In 2001, 1,255 divorces were filed in McHenry County. There were 1,217 divorces filed in 2011. These numbers include all divorces filed, even if a couple ultimately decided not to follow their cases through to the end. The numbers do not represent, however, the ages of those divorcing.
That doesn’t mean the trend isn’t alive and well locally, according to area therapists and counselors.
“I’m seeing it happen in our practice quite often,” said Sara Brandt, licensed marriage and family therapist, Ph.D. and owner of Brandt Therapy Clinics Inc. in Crystal Lake. “You have to understand the baby boomers’ mentality. Back when we died at 60, people that age only had 10 years to live after they raised their kids. Because we’re living longer, the mentality is totally different today. Baby boomers believe they can still seize the day, and they don’t want to settle.
“If their spouse isn’t meeting their needs, they go out and do it on their own.”
Common reasons people over 50 are divorcing include anger issues, abuse, infidelity and addiction, said licensed clinical professional counselor Dan Blair, owner of Blair Counseling in Crystal Lake. Many already are divorced or have waited for the kids to be on their own before making changes.
These changes stem from a mid-life crisis, or from postponing personal happiness for so long people find it an appropriate time to divorce. Plus, life expectancies are longer, he added, reiterating Brandt’s point.
“The forties, fifties and sixties is a time to redefine yourself after raising kids, settling in a career, or to confront dissatisfaction in life,” Blair said. “Your marriage is often re-evaluated during this time – it sinks or swims.”
For 60-year-old Mike, one of Brandt’s clients, this re-evaluation had been a long time coming. Mike met his wife when they were both 24 – it was love at first sight, he said. Their relationship moved fast, and quickly became fraught with jealousy and distrust.
“I think at the time I was not in the best place when I met her, and I think we sensed a certain energy of need for one another,” he said.
After a week of dating, his future wife moved in with him. Seventeen years into their marriage, things deteriorated. He had an affair, which he said started because of a need for escape.
For a long time, Mike stayed in the marriage for the sake of his three daughters – the loves of his life. Eventually, however, he tried to leave. It didn’t stick, and he ultimately rejoined his family.
“She never really forgave me for the affair,” Mike said. “The anger kept resurfacing and putting us back in the same spot. We were doing the same dance all the time. All our conversations would somehow get back to what I did.”
In August, Mike said he decided he finally needed to choose happiness.
“I’ve lost about 40 pounds since leaving,” he said. “Losing that weight was very symbolic for me of shedding the weight of the marriage. I’m much happier. I have my integrity back. I am being true to myself, not having to behave a certain way to make things right.”
Financially, Mike said the divorce hurt. Lawyers cost money, keeping up separate households costs money, and the leftover debts from his married life didn’t just disappear.
As they approach retirement age, many divorcees Mike’s age are making the frugal decision to downsize, which helps moneywise. This means giving up homes for condos, but for many it’s worth it to have freedom and independence.
But divorce is often much less financially daunting for baby boomers than it is for younger couples, said David Cook, a licensed marriage and family therapist with NewLife Counseling Center.
“The dilemma for younger couples is, they can’t afford to get divorced, to sell their homes,” he said. “They’re underwater or close to being underwater on their mortgage and they can’t sell their home and make any money off it right now. They don’t have money to pay attorneys. So a lot of younger couples stick it out.
“Many couples moving toward retirement age think, ‘Well, we’ve spent all those years together, why not enjoy retirement together?’ But a lot of the time there’s more of a sense of financial stability during those final years of work. I think that might even be a contributor to divorce in that age. Actually, they might have the financial resources to get divorced where they didn’t earlier.”
Even if the dollars and cents add up, however, Brandt says it’s important to stay away from the either/or syndrome many spouses fall into.
“The most important thing to recognize is that you can have it both ways,” Brandt said. “But people think they can either be happy or they can be married. The first thing I say is, ‘you don’t have to choose one or the other.’ They’ve got to get out of their thinking that it’s got to be their marriage or what they want.”
They also need to recognize what skills they don’t have. Many people aren’t equipped to have a successful marriage, Brandt said, because they aren’t able to assess their relationship skills and relational skill sets honestly.
This lack of communication skills stems from a fairly universal theme among baby boomer marriage structures.
“Baby boomers grew up in the era of functional marriage,” she said. “If you were a man, you needed a woman to take care of the house and kids. The woman needed a man to put a house over their heads. It wasn’t about companionship.”
To make things work, couples from this era need to think outside the box.
“We often find that our clients end up staying in marriages if they can figure out how to make some changes that make their spouse happier while also figuring out how to get what they want out of their life.”
The best way to relieve marital strife, according to Blair? Treat your spouse like a best friend. Overlook irritations. Create excitement in your life and share it with your partner. Create rituals and traditions, and support each other’s dreams.