Why do people get divorced after many, many years together?
February 19, 2013 12:25 PM   Subscribe

It seems to me that if you've been fairly happy for many (10 - 25) years, this trend would continue. For many people that doesn't seem to be the case. I am interested in hearing theories or experiences regarding that. How can something that worked for so long cease to work so suddenly?
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night to Human Relations (71 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe they weren't happy, just busy= getting married, building a home, raising kids. Once all that work was done, they didn't have anything keeping them together.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2013 [30 favorites]

As Louis C.K. has said: "Nobody leaves a good marriage."
posted by amanda at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2013 [11 favorites]

Perhaps because it wasn't working, or wasn't working as well as they wanted, even if the people were happy or seemed happy otherwise.
posted by zippy at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2013

I don't think it *is* sudden for most of them. I think a lot of couples who divorce after 10 or 25 years are unhappy or at least deeply unsatisfied for a large proportion of those years. Then maybe there's a straw that breaks the camel's back or maybe a change in circumstances that makes divorce a more palatable option (change in financial circumstances, kids grow up, whatever) or maybe just the accumulation of lots of unhappiness.

I'm not divorced (or indeed married) but I've stuck around in situations that didn't make me happy for much longer than I should have.
posted by mskyle at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2013 [18 favorites]

In other words, while the decision may have seemed sudden to you, it may not have to them.
posted by zippy at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

Well, first, you haven't a clue as to what two people -- neither of whom are you -- experience in their marriage. People are absolute pros at keeping up appearances if need be. So you need to reconsider the idea that you're witnessing a sea change when you think you do.
posted by griphus at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

My parents got divorced after 13 years together. When they got together they were both young partiers, and my mom overlooked my dad's obvious alcoholism. As time went on, my mom came to resent and despise my dad's behavior and refusal to address it - she had changed but he hadn't, and his drinking was harmful to their lifestyle and family, so she divorced him. People obviously change a lot in 10 - 25 years, and sometimes they grow apart, or more dissimilar, rather than growing together.
posted by Safiya at 12:30 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents got divorced after 25 years together.

No one was surprised when they split.
posted by JPD at 12:31 PM on February 19, 2013

My parents divorced after 20 years.

I was a kid, so I don't have all the facts obviously. But the impression I have is that their marriage was never that great. They fought a lot, and they were even separated for a few months when I was little. I got the impression that they might have stayed together "for the kids" (they split up right before I graduated from high school, though I'm the eldest and my brothers were still very young). Or just because trying to make it work is what you do.

At a certain point they stopped being interested in that tug of war and split up for good.

I'm not sure if there was some specific event that set them off or what. From things my mom has said to me, it sounds like she realized she was deeply unhappy and getting older and "you only get one life" and things like that. I've never talked much with my dad about it.
posted by Sara C. at 12:31 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that if you've been fairly happy for many (10 - 25) years, this trend would continue.

People stay together for all kinds of reasons, including the grim determination to do so, inertia, kids, religion, and so on. What makes you think the couples you're thinking of were happy?
posted by Wordwoman at 12:33 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

My aunt and uncle just split after 25ish years - they'd been unhappy for a long time, I gather, but finally pulled the trigger after the last of the kids was out of undergrad. (I don't know for sure if that was their logic or just coincidence, though.)
posted by restless_nomad at 12:33 PM on February 19, 2013

Kids and other big life changes can exacerbate existing problems to the point where they're no longer manageable.

My parents had been married for more than 10 years when they had my sister and I, and divorced when I was about 8. They stayed together that long because of a desire to provide some kind of stability for us, but ultimately the strain was too much and they parted ways. My dad had always been kind of a kook, but that went from feeling "fun and spontaneous" to more like "erratic and unreliable" when he had real responsibilities to deal with. Suddenly his random decisions to purchase vacations homes or disappear for a week weren't something to indulge and roll your eyes at -- they were BIG problems that caused disruption in a household with two small children in it. And of course, the stress of his new responsibilities only made him act out even more than he had previously.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:33 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives is a great artistic meditation on the question you are asking. It is a movie and not a psychological/sociological study by any means, but it has some worthwhile things to say.
posted by griphus at 12:34 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents separated after about 15-20 years of marriage (and almost a decade later are still not divorced yet, although reconciliation is certainly out of the question). Their marriage was really, really unhappy for as far back as I can remember. I'm not sure why they stayed together for so long, but I'm guessing they (mistakenly, IMO) thought it would be better for us kids to witness an unhappy marriage than a broken one.

So yeah, going with the consensus that many of these marriages are not as happy as they may appear to outsiders.
posted by randomnity at 12:36 PM on February 19, 2013

I've known a whole crap-ton of people who've done the proverbial "staying together for the kids" thing - or who've at least attempted to hang on until their kids were teenagers, or went to college, or whatever. I think that's the case a lot of the time. With other couples, I think this sometimes happens when mortality starts breathing down one/both partner's neck(s)... what was a pretty-agreeable partnership starts seeming claustrophobic when the thought that it might REALLY AND TRULY be "forever" is added to the equation.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:38 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if I had to get all amateur-psych about my example, I'd say suddenly not having the distraction of kids around the house made it really clear that living together was not a good thing for either of them any more. There wasn't a precipitating event other than that, that I'm aware of.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:42 PM on February 19, 2013

Also if you are looking at retirement, you're going to be seeing a lot more of each other. You look at 20-30 more years of that and say no. I don't think my parents' marriage would have lasted had my mom not died around the time my father retired.
posted by BibiRose at 12:44 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Midlife crisises and mistaken ideas on what a relationship should be like. (i.e. always a cakewalk).
posted by entropicamericana at 12:44 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Assuming they had a good relationship is one thing. Maybe it wasn't so good from the inside. Maybe they stayed together for financial reasons, religion, the sake of the kids, social stigma, etc.

Sometimes people retire, look at each other, and just think it's too much togetherness. US marriages, in which one partner is supposed to be all things to the other, often fail because that's unrealistic.

And people change. Oh ho, do they change. IME, men don't change as much as women do, and men can't adapt to that as well as a woman can.

With older generations, some of the prohibition against divorce still shadowed their marriages up into the late nineties. I know some women who say it finally dawned on them the world wouldn't end if they divorced their spouse. One said she waited till her parents had passed.

As a women, I know how much my world view differs now from when I was 20-25 years old. Now that my kids are gone, I'd like to do different things. My husband, who has worked all his life, just wants to do the things he hasn't had a chance to do, not necessarily anything different. We both like more space. We won't be divorcing any time soon, but we have made, and will be making adjustments to deal with who we are now. We're friends, which makes things easier. We also have things we are planning to do together when he retires--sometimes having a life plan helps with the transition from being parents/job holders to being retirees.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:45 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

My parents split around the 20 year mark. My mother's theory (which is admittedly a bit crackpot, like my mother) is that people didn't used to live to be 80 and were liable to be dead after 20 or 25 years and therefore marriages are liable to run their course in that amount of time.
posted by hoyland at 12:49 PM on February 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

I'll give another direction: I've gone through a number of distinct personality phases in my life, comprising things like many years of calling myself an Objectivist and reading everything Ayn Rand ever wrote, or delving heavily into some of the "New Age" self-improvement ritual-as-tool-for-personal-hackery, and spending a few years delving deep into giving to my community, and now I'm swinging back in a few other directions that are kind of hard to quantify, but...

I've had two long-term romantic relationships, the first lasted 7 or 8 years, the second is coming up in 14, and I've noticed similar changes in my partners. In some cases those changes have left us compatible, in the first one they didn't.

Looking back it's easy to see those changes as long-term continuum kinds of things, but I'd guess they really happen over the course of six months or a year: Some set of experiences sets off a new way of thinking, I start to try out that belief set, and it reinforces itself and less than a year later the new me is a previous me that I couldn't have imagined.

Right now I'm going through what looks from inside it to be a fairly large sea change in how I view and interact with my community. Luckily, my partner is changing in similar ways, but it's entirely conceivable to me that we could change in a way that would leave us both happier outside the relationship.
posted by straw at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing the "it may not be as sudden as you think." I have come close to asking for a divorce a couple of times in the not-so-distant past. We just hit our 19th year anniversary. Things can build up over time in a relationship and may or may not reach the point where one person wants out.
posted by michellenoel at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2013

In my mom's case it was Catholic guilt*. Basically every priest she went to reminded her of her vows. Eventually after 17 years of being in an awful marriage one priest told her if she needed to get out to maintain her sanity, maybe she should. She still doesn't have an annulment, but she is divorced. I don't think she's ever forgiven herself for her "sin."

*Don't get me started.
posted by bondcliff at 12:52 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

A former boss of mine married a man she didn't love because to her that meant he didn't have the power to hurt her. Of course that turned out to not be the case, so after several years of marriage and two kids she considered leaving him. For some reason, she decided to solicit the input of her ten-year-old on the matter, and the ten-year-old said she'd rather have the parents stay together. So, to the boss, it was settled: she would stay with the husband until the younger of her children turned 18. This meant a joyless marriage for both of them - she once had me buy an anniversary card from her to the husband, and instructed me to "try to find one that doesn't say 'love' or whatever". Because her ten-year-old daughter got to decide if mom and dad stayed living together or not.

The younger kid turned 18 about a year ago, and the boss left the husband and last I heard she was dating an old flame and visibly happy for the first time in memory.
posted by SeedStitch at 12:54 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: This is an answer from an anonymous commenter.
In my case my divorce, after over 30 years of marriage, was directly related to the manner in which I handled (or didn't handle, as the case may be) the death of a child.

I spent 10 years protecting my ex wife from the tragedy of our loss, or, at least I thought that was what I was doing. I doubt that I could put together the route my own grief and later decision to become involved with another woman took, it is just too convoluted. But, in the end my choices destroyed a marriage.

Would I have done something differently knowing what I know today? Of course. My choices hurt a lot of people who didn't deserve it.

And, Louis C.K. was wrong (as most generalizations like that are).
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:59 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

My folks split after 30 years. It felt sudden (and pretty gut wrenching) at the time. But after a lot of self reflection, therapy, and well, growing up, I know now it wasn't sudden. They weren't happy and weren't a good match for each other from the beginning. Life, kids, work and circumstances kept them together when they wanted very different things. So they (mostly my father) got the kids to adulthood with relatively minor damage and then split. It wasn't sudden. It will always FEEL sudden, though.
posted by picklesthezombie at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember a scene in The United States of Tara where a woman describes to Tara how her marriage ended after 20 years:

"After the kids left, we looked around and said, 'well, the audience has gone home, time to close up the show.'"

I have a friend who is married with a 6-ish year old daughter. From an admittedly outside perspective, the marriage never seemed liked a good fit to me. My friend had hinted she had come to feel the same way. Last summer, she tells me they're separated. When I saw her in the fall, she said her husband had just moved back in. The reason: divorce is expensive and painful under amicable circumstances (which hers weren't). They're in counselling and working at it, but she took a frank look at the choices, and decided the best option (for now) was to stay married. I'm pretty sure she'll get divorced sometime in the future.

Point being, people make choices all through their marriage, and stay together for all kinds of reasons not solely related to happiness. Many people will prioritize other things before their own happiness. The ones that are happy over long periods of time are usually that way because the couple allows both members to evolve (as we all do) and grow (as we all must) in a way that strengthens their connection to each other. Or they decide to find a way to be happy together.

But sometimes it's just not a fit.
posted by dry white toast at 1:01 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

There are several big, dislocating life changes that people go through between 45 and 65 or so -- becoming empty-nesters, retirement of one or both partners, menopause. Very happy marriages often go through a period of struggle and adjustment as the partners move out of the work-and-parenting mode into a different life phase. Sometimes people just find they aren't compatible any longer, or that while they were a good parenting team, they don't really enjoy each other that much as full-time companions, or that they have very different visions for what their old ages will look like.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:01 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

there's always a few little things that are problems...and those can turn into big things, growth spurred by denial and avoidance and lack of communication and subtle distrust and resentment and contempt and little unresolved fights. until it's been twenty years and you have no idea what you have in common with the other person. and by then the kids are out of the house, perhaps the mortgage is paid off, and either the husband or wife or both starts to wonder what if anything keeps them there.
posted by zdravo at 1:04 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Excerpt from a survey: The Divorce Experience A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond.

"Deciding to Divorce
While their marriages were long term, divorcees 40 to 79 years old generally contemplated getting a divorce for a short time before deciding to take the plunge.  This is partly because one in five of them were surprised by their spouses (20%).   Wives surprised their husbands more often (26% versus 14%).  In addition to the surprise from spouses, an additional third (32%) contemplated their divorce for less than a year before taking action.

Children a Major Factor in Divorce Decision, Plus Economics among Women
Only 17 percent strung out their decision to divorce for five years or longer.   Children were the major factor for the delay.  Of those who took five years or longer to decide, 43 percent of the total reported they stayed married because of the children, while the second reason was that they had to prepare financially or could not afford the divorce (21%).   

Many more men than women say they stayed married because of the children (58% versus 37%).  Women, on the other hand, are several times more likely to say they had to prepare financially (27% women versus 6% men).  An additional ten percent more women (and less than 1% of men) say that their financial dependence on their spouse was the reason.  Thus, a total of 37 percent of women divorcees mulled over having a divorce for five years or longer and postponed it for financial reasons.  This is equal to the percentage of women who postponed divorce because of their children."

Figure 3 in the report has more details, but generally, it was children, money, or trying (hoping) to make it work.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:15 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

People change.
Despite 25 years together. Especially after 25 years together.
People change.
They may have stayed together for the sake of the kids. They may have stayed together because they were used to each other, but then something happened.
People change.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:17 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents split after almost 30 years. My dad claims he thought it would be worse for me if they split when I was a kid (note to anyone who wants to "stay together for the kids": DON'T). Also I think my dad had a little bit of a mid-life crisis following a health scare and wanted to make some changes in his life. My parents never got along super well, but it was nonetheless a big shock to me when they split.

My fiance's parents got divorced when he was older as well, and he says it had to do with his mother gaining independence. His parents had a horrible marriage and his mom probably wanted out a long time earlier, but she didn't have a college degree and worked as a waitress. She managed to climb her way up from an admin position at a big Silicon Valley tech firm, go back to school, and started a career in marketing, and then she felt independent enough to leave the marriage.
posted by radioamy at 1:17 PM on February 19, 2013

My mother's theory (which is admittedly a bit crackpot, like my mother) is that people didn't used to live to be 80 and were liable to be dead after 20 or 25 years and therefore marriages are liable to run their course in that amount of time.

I don't think this is entirely crackpot at all. I don't know that it's anything specific, but the reality (for Western society at least) is that people did not use to live this long, and in practice, marriages were more like our notion of serial monogamy. You would marry. Your spouse would die. You would marry again. Possibly several times, possibly with children resulting from multiple marriages.

The Greatest Generation probably got the worst of it, what with the post-WW2 trend of marrying extremely young (in past centuries it was not unusual for a woman to marry at 25+) and having very long lifespans.
posted by Sara C. at 1:23 PM on February 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

People, at best, grow over time and a couple works best when they grow together rather than apart. This isn't a given, especially if they marry young and aren't quite sure who they want to be yet. The worst is when one wants to grow and the other wants nothing to ever change.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:28 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, you have no idea what is going on inside a marriage. Whether it's a long deliberation or a sudden decision, you can't tell from the outside. Sometimes, things that were tolerable eventually become intolerable, or circumstances change and it's just different.

If you're a Downton Abbey fan, I think the relationship between Shrimpy and Susan seen in the last episode has a good explanation of this from the inside.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 1:30 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents split after 21 years. I was 13 at the time, so it seemed pretty sudden to me. I'm 40 now, and in the past few years I have had the time and opportunity to talk to my father about what happened.

Turns out it was anything but sudden. They had gotten married right out of high school, and were both academically-inclined. So they carried on getting their degrees and having kids and getting jobs and moving from one country to another and before they knew it they'd been together for a long time. My dad told me that before he divorced my mother he'd known that things hadn't been working for a couple of years. The two of them even tried moving to Fetlar, a small island in Shetland, where they thought the pastoral tranquility and slow pace of life might bring them closer together. Turns out they were wrong about that.

I'm sure there are all kinds of details my dad isn't comfortable sharing with me, and I haven't heard my mother's side of things*, but my dad still gets a sort of misty, far-away look in his eyes when he talks about it. I don't think he gave up on it easily, or suddenly.

*Not entirely true - I haven't spoken to my mother since 1997, but I did get her side of it in a way; I lived through it. She got custody of the kids, but was so over-the-top bitter about things that she quickly sank into a morass of drunken one-night stands, self-pity and abuse of my sister and I. I think her propensity to erratic behavior was part of the problem.
posted by Pecinpah at 1:33 PM on February 19, 2013

As Thorzdad said, people change, and in ways that, for whatever reason, they might not be able to express within their marriage. I knew a couple that had been married for decades; the wife passed away, and the husband shortly afterwards started building computers and writing science fiction stories. Their kids were mystified, since he had never shown even the slightest interest in these things while his wife was alive.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:33 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents divorced when I was 6. Then remarried when I was 14. My mom was an alcoholic, and my dad divorced her because she wouldn't get sober. It took her a while to get there, but once she did, they got back together, and stayed together until she died just a few years ago. As far as I know, they were pretty happy in their second marriage to each other.

I think there are always going to be reasons, and it's always going to boil down to "irreconcilable differences."
posted by kythuen at 1:41 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Brief gscholar search came up with: VanLaningham who found a slightly curvilinear relationship between marital happiness and marital duration with steep declines in marital happiness occurring in the earliest and latest years of marriage. This may be caused by the fact that Umberson* (free!) etal findings that many couples increased negative interaction (as measured by frequencies of feeling “bothered or upset” by one’s marriage and of “unpleasant disagreements or conflicts”) across an 8 year study.

More info is available here: Trajectories of Marital Conflict Across the Life Course (free)

Longitudinal studies on this subject remain relatively rare- and post divorce surveys show that infidelity, different/poor money management, addictions, and mid-life crisis are the most commonly cited causes/crises that prompted the separation - and these can become factors at any point in a relationship.

*best article title goes to: You Make Me Sick: Marital Quality and Health Over the Life Course
posted by zenon at 1:48 PM on February 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

My parents separated a few years ago after 35 years of marriage. At first it was surprising but looking back they were very unhappy and very incompatible for a long, long time. Probably since I was a young child. I had been out of the house for over 15 years, so they weren't necessarily staying together for me, but I do think not wanting to upset or disappoint me was part of it for my Mom. I'm an only child and I think she was really invested in the idea of me having a happy childhood, even though I wasn't a kid anymore.
posted by apricot at 1:54 PM on February 19, 2013

Strangely, I'm at twice 13 years right now.
My first relationship lasted 13 years, and during those years we were married and had a child. We only speak when forced to. It was a dramatic 13 years, with not one day of peace, but the drama seemed like love. I hated it from day one, but was unable to state a clear alternative.
My second relationship lasted a year, and during that year, we had a child, but didn't get married. On the other hand, we are still very close, 13 years on, in our own crooked ways, so I suppose this is for life, even as we both have other life partners. We've never had big fights, and maybe that is part of the problem, because we were too respectful of one another. But we had better sex than anyone I've ever known, so it's not the classical dichotomy of sex vs culture.
Maybe what I am saying here is, there is no sense. For every couple, what fires and what goes is different.
posted by mumimor at 1:54 PM on February 19, 2013

Without reading any of the above answers, consider that people learn pretty quickly what the relationship is and what it isn't, but then fail to do anything about it, just out of laziness, or inertia, or children, or because of community standards. There are many, many long marriages where the people in them are little more than glorified roommates.

Breaking away from a long marriage may just be the culmination of a long, long time of unhappiness. It may actually be a relief (for both parties) to suddenly come to this understanding. "Hey, we can actually just get divorced ... and it's not that bad ... this changes everything!"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:55 PM on February 19, 2013

Don't underestimate external stressors: financial problems (esp. with the spender/saver dichotomy where with joint finances the saver will never get ahead), negative advocates (a family memeber or friend who runs down one half to the other), mental illness that tips from quirk to dysfunctional, someone trying to break up the marriage to "steal" a spouse, somebody's wandering eyes (...or hands).

It may be that the external problems are no one's "fault" but stress after stress means less energy for working on the relationship, like struggling financially so one person works a lot and the date nights are unaffordable and every conversation seems to revolve around how to prioritise the bills and hey, did you know my sibling just got a new car as a birthday present from their spouse...must love them a lot...
posted by saucysault at 1:57 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Because they live longer than the relationship.

Serial monogamy is the norm. All else is societal fiction... kind of a hoped-for groupthink.

A marriage may start as drunken infatuation, but it's a political institution long term, and most decline to functional optimums, where the stresses are insufficient to break the bonds. When enough change accumulates to increase the stresses, or the bonds weaken, the union dissolves.

Once you try one for 20 or 30 years, and observe a bunch with a critical eye and not buy into the myth of permanence of ANYTHING, you'll come to your own explanations. (I am probably wrong about my conclusions, but it's based on a lot of study and experience.)
posted by FauxScot at 1:58 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mother left my father after thirty years and eleven children. He was shocked, as were many of their friends, who looked at it much the way your question does. The truth is that it didn't "work for so long", and the break was anything but sudden. My mother spent years struggling with feelings of dissatisfaction, struggling to convince my father to drop his shield of authoritarianism and compromise with her; the calm of their last year or two came not because they'd worked things out, but because she'd given up trying to reach him.

It's also worth observing that her youngest was ten when she left. Perhaps she'd simply never seen striking out on her own as a possibility before.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:07 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

We've in the middle of this in my own family right now: my brother-in-law, after almost 34 years of marriage, has suddenly decided he's in love with someone else. This came out of the blue for my sister; she thought they had a stable, happy marriage and had zero warning right up to the day he walked out of the house. It seems to be a combo of him looking for his lost youth plus "proving" he's still a man a woman, any woman, finds attractive. (In this case, the woman involved is recently widowed, and seems to be the sort who needs a man, no matter who he might be or if he was already married or single, in her life) --- call the whole mess a midlife crisis if you want.

The sad part, beyond my sister being basically shell-shocked by this, is that BIL is now estranged entirely from their grown children, who are disgusted by his behavior towards their mother, and refuse to listen to any of his justifications: BIL is having to face that choosing to have an affair and leave his wife for 'the other woman' has cost him all contact with his children and grandchildren. He didn't foresee how his actions impacted others, but he's had his face rubbed in it now. He's also discovered that the grass isn't entirely greener on the other side of the fence: 'the other woman' refuses to cook for him, she won't let his friends anywhere near her house, she won't even let him have his own siblings over, and generally keeps him on a very short financial leash. My sister is still hopefull that he'll come home, but who knows?
posted by easily confused at 2:20 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My observation is that things that bring extra stress or deeper reflection on a marriage, from the female side are:
  • reaching the age of 40 and suffering a mini-mid life crisis especially if you married real young and never got to "sow" your oats or have a distinct life before marriage
  • death of a parent, especially the mother
  • empty nesting
  • menopause
  • death of a child
  • health crisis
As others have mentioned above, people are very good at putting a good face on things before it becomes untenable. I remember this piece of wisdom, "only the people in the marriage know what is happening in the marriage" and the addenda to that wisdom is "and you know what, they are unreliable witnesses!"

People do change and what they want, or think they want changes too. Sometimes it works, other times, not so much.
posted by jadepearl at 2:26 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

As my lawyer said to me when I asked why it took me so many years to get divorced:
You get divorced when you are ready to get divorced.
posted by Postroad at 2:38 PM on February 19, 2013

Mod note: This is a reply from another anonymous commenter.
This question cuts me to the bone. It is not that I have divorced after 30+ years but that I anticipate divorcing in the 32nd year of my marriage, when my last child leaves for college. Why do I anticipate divorce? I will have fulfilled a promise to care for my children; I will have anticipated the divorce and be financially prepared and in the end, I will have returned to loving my freedom more than my husband.

The irony is that my husband and I do not place all our love, hopes and aspirations upon each other, far from it. However, I would like, before Alzheimer's claims me (family history) to be alone, untethered and leave my isolating marriage. I know that this is muddled, but really, divorce is rarely a surprise. It is just a question on who is prepared and can pull the trigger.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:40 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

It seems to me that if you've been fairly happy for many (10 - 25) years, this trend would continue

I think if you actually looked at a graph of happiness in a relationship it would have all sorts of peaks and valleys. Early on in a relationship, if the happiness graph takes a nosedive, it's easy for the couple to just move on and break up. If instead a major lowpoint of a relationship happens when the couple is already married with kids and a mortgage and all sorts of entanglements, then they might stay together just because it's much harder to end things. Whereas when the kids are older and the couple has more freedom to do what they want, they might be more likely to end things again. So it's less that they had been happy for so long and then things suddenly got bad, and more that the unhappiness level finally reached the breakup threshold.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:00 PM on February 19, 2013

It seems to me that if you've been fairly happy for many (10 - 25) years, this trend would continue.

You've summed it up right there. People get complacent in a relationship, and yet, people change on a regular basis, and so if you make assumptions that happiness will continue (and fail to work at it), then happiness might not continue.
posted by davejay at 3:40 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

this looks past issues involving a lack of happiness from the get-go, of course
posted by davejay at 3:40 PM on February 19, 2013

Sometimes the thing that makes them happy might change.

A couple who has a strong sexual bond might part after their sex drives are no longer in sync, and the more libidinous partner cheats.

I knew one woman who told me that she discovered her husband canoodling with another woman when she was pregnant with their second child. She realized this was not the marriage that she wanted but stuck it out for the sake of the children and filed for divorce after the youngest finished high school.

And sometimes people are feeling stuck and bland but the emotional, social and financial cost of divorce seems too formidable - until the motivation to leave becomes more intense - either because the relationship disintegrates further or one of them meets someone new.

You never know what's really going on in someone else's relationship. Abuse, lack of attraction, sexual incompatibility, disrespect contempt, refusal to compromise ... those are things that most people don't talk about openly.
posted by bunderful at 3:45 PM on February 19, 2013

For my parents, they were married 21 years before my dad moved out. They weren't happy and hadn't been for a VERY long time (although I don't think anyone outside our immediate family really suspected that or gave it much thought), but were complacent and too afraid/depressed to do anything about it. 21 years into the marriage was the time when I, the oldest child, graduated high school, and when my dad's father died, in the same summer. From what my dad said, it was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back for him.
posted by agress at 3:46 PM on February 19, 2013

People change, people grow, people move apart. If you don't actively nurture the relationship, it withers into 'companionship' or 'just together for the kids' and 'comfort zone' and such.

In my line of work I see a lot of unresolved issues pop up around the 40's when people start to feel old and wonder what they are doing with their life. Not too coincidentally, this is when they have been married long enough for the love to fade into... well, routine and even tedium, and they start looking for something more exciting.

Also, I find people get married too young/before they know themselves and/or what they are really looking for.
posted by Jacen at 3:46 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

my parents divorced after being together for nearly thirty years. They were highschool sweethearts, got married right after college, had three kids and escaped their dying mining town.

They had rough years and really good years. In the end they were happier after the dust settled. It was ugly in the dying days.

Just because something ends doesn't mean it was all bad, or even bad for a long time. Maybe some people would be better off if they got out early- but that is so so so far out of the business of anyone watching on the outside.

I think about it now, and I'm glad I got to see a lot of what i did. My parents had this crazy honeymoon period when I was in my teens. They worked hard together to make the other person happy. They made each other THE priority in their lives and even had kind of a race between them to see who could get healthier for each other.

It fell away when that kind of interest stopped. It seemed like they were just... tired. They didn't want to do the shit the other person needed anymore. Their interests had diverged so greatly and their family was moving on- the people that they were in high school, the people that their were as young parents, the people they were as professionals just coming into their careers - those were very different people from the empty nesters that suddenly existed. those empty-nesters just really really didn't like each other.

Every marriage is different, and every divorce is different. I think the real answer as to why people get divorced after so many years is actually kind of simple: it's because they can.
posted by Blisterlips at 4:26 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

A friend's parents divorced when he was in his 20s... I thought this was quite surprising. I didn't know them extremely well but it apparently turned out that his mom had been having an affair for many years. Somehow despite that they are still on amicable terms and spend holidays together (and she is now married to the other man). Sometimes it can be very difficult to understand the ways of the heart from outside the relationship.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:38 PM on February 19, 2013

The marriage I am in is 20 years old.
20 years may be the lifespan of my marriage.
I am curious myself, to see what the next year brings.
I have been very devoted to my marriage over the years that have transpired; I believed it necessary to it's ongoing preservation (as in, "it is SO EASY to divorce when times are hard, since I care about this commitment I have made, I therefore must take divorce completely off the table").
In some ways, we enjoy a compatibility that is uncanny. In others, we are so mismatched it's ... well, gross (to me).
I was step-mom to his toddler kids, we had a couple kids of our own (the baby of them all is 15 now). Spouse has changed in ways I don't think I could have predicted, I have changed too. Most of the time, my boundaries are at least cursorially respected, but not always.
I have less money/resources than he does, but I have recently (within the last 5 years) begun to broach the topic of divorce. As in: Yes you are a control-freak, but you are not running the Pentagon here. May I remind you I do not need your consent for a divorce?!
It has "worked" to a point. But the spell has broken for me. As for him, he is probably only afraid of the shitstorm of the process, and of being adrift without a wife.
Our kids would not be shocked.
posted by Bob-cat Sock at 5:53 PM on February 19, 2013

People change and grow. Sometimes in different directions.

(As for gender .. men can change quite thoroughly too.)
posted by ead at 6:43 PM on February 19, 2013

From an anonymous commenter:
My marriage hasn't lasted that long, but I can say I'm currently still in it for financial reasons, and because I can't yet bear to pull the trigger, because I can't stand how much it will hurt him. I still love him as a person and as a friend, but not romantically. I met someone last year with whom I was certainly not in love, but oh my GOD the lust. I had forgotten about lust. My sex drive is dead in my marriage, and, though my husband is attractive and I recognize this, I am not attracted to him anymore. The other guy sort of woke me up and reminded me of what is possible. And I want that again. And I need it. And I begin to think that I deserve it.

My friends don't know about this. They think we're fine. My husband doesn't know about this, somehow, despite the complete lack of sex and the lack of things to talk about and the recent spate of fighting. He knows I never kiss him anymore, but somehow he hasn't figured out what it means. I've been thinking about divorce for almost year and a half, and I realized I was going to do it on December 31st. But it's something it takes a while to get used to. As I said, I do still love him, but not in a way that means I can stay with him for the rest of my life. And I think it was kind of always that way. But I planned on forever, and it's really, really hard to skip out on that. There are practical considerations too, but I think even if there weren't, I'd still be here because I just can't let go yet, even though I know I have to.

I am desperately hoping he'll fall in love with someone else during the next year or so so this won't be so hard. It won't happen, of course. But it would be nice.

And we don't even have kids, or own a house, or even have pets in common. I can't imagine how hard it would be if we did. I would probably be one of your ten-to-twenty-five-year people in that case.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:06 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents divorced after more than 30 years. They had not been happy for some time - at least in my lifetime I can't really remember a time when they were happy - but were able to put up with each other because my father worked on board a cargo ship which meant he was living on board ship an equal amount of time to what he spent at home, and they could muddle along in the meantime. They split up a month after Dad's retirement.
posted by andraste at 7:24 PM on February 19, 2013

I work as a couples counsellor and although my clients are all completely unique I certainly see patterns in the reasons people choose to end their marriages/partnerships. Obviously, I only see those who are trying (to very varying degrees) to heal their relationships but I think they are pretty typical of most struggling marriages. The main themes I see which prompt crisis, and possibly separation or divorce, after a long relationship are:

Recent or impending major changes in the life cycle (marriage, arrival of kids, death of a parent, kids leaving home). Even when positive these often prompt personal reflection and when negative they can add extreme stress to what may be a fragile bond.

Wounded attachment in the relationship. This may date back to something seeminlgy quite small and may have happened years earlier but the wound has undermined one partner's faith in the relationship/their partner and they cannot move on or forgive unaided.

Unresolved issues from one or both partner's childhoods. This may always have played a role in their couple fit but for some reason has come to the fore. Difficult for couples to address by themselves.

Some sort of external crisis (work, family, illness), which again adds stress to a bond which can be fragile or taken for granted after time.

Growing apart not together. All individuals change over time and relationships have different tolerance levels for how much change can be accepted and how well their bond can adapt.

Obviously these are all big generalisations and it's amazing how every unhappy couple is unique. Generally though, I am endlessly amazed by the bravery and tenacity my clients show in trying to address their problems and heal their relationships. Most people don't walk away without trying their best (whatever that may be). I am careful not to encourage people to stay or to go and sadly, even people who's problems seem resolvable simply leave it to late to get help.

If you're as interested in all this as I am I recommend you do some reading on systemic theory and possibly psychodynamic theory. Happy to recommend some texts if you memail me.
posted by Dorothia at 1:20 AM on February 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

I was married for 20 years, we were together for 24 total. After five years of marriage my husband had a very public and hurtful affair that came along with a cocaine addiction that left us bankrupt. We had a three year old child. We separated for the better part of a year, with me in another country because I was afraid of the people he owed money to. We reconciled, but for the next ten years, I struggled not just with trusting him but also with trying not to ever bring it up. I asked several times for an honest apology, with admission and ownership of the things he had done and the way it had hurt me. I never got one.

No one in the town we lived in knew our history; they were shocked because we 'seemed so happy'. You never know the history behind other people's marriages or why they fail. In a lot of ways, we WERE happy, we were never abusive or intentionally unkind to one another, we rarely fought, we were affectionate, respectful to each other. We had fun, we laughed, we raised our daughter.

But there was always going to be this festering thing at the centre of our relationship. I forgave him, but I never forgot what had happened. When I would run into anyone who knew me from the city we had lived in at the time, I would be totally consumed with anxiety, and wonder how many horrible details they knew. I was not happy.

As I approached my 40th birthday I said I wanted to go to university, something I had wanted to do in the past and been told 'it's not a good time right now'. He said 'it's not a good time right now'. I said indeed it was. The split was amicable. We've been kind to each other since. I'm about to graduate with a degree in philosophy. I am happy.

So, no, you never know the things that may be at the dark heart of someone's seemingly happy marriage. But for me, the impetus to leave was when I realized I had a finite amount of time to live a happy life and do the things I wanted to do and it wasn't going to happen if I did not make it happen.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 1:32 AM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

There are tons of reasons that marriages just don't work out. My folks are pushing at 40 plus years together and goodness knows there have been lots of close calls. Looking at it from out here as their kid, those close calls happened for the simple reason that people change - which in itself is never a simple thing.

People change whether you're ready for them to change or not. People change whether they realize they are changing or not. Sometimes people change and they don't talk about it because they don't think their partner is ready to hear it. All kinds of stuff happens in life, and every individual person handles it in their own way. Some couples lose their babies, and the grief rips them up so bad that it even hurts to lean on each other, or they don't want to lean on anything because even the leaning hurts.

Some people lose people that mean lots to them, and their partner never liked that person for reasons of their own, and then the grieving person doesn't feel supported, so they go someplace else for that support.

Sometimes sexytimes get boring when a couple always does the exact same thing every single time, so sexytime isn't fun anymore. Then a person goes looking and finds sexytime that they don't find boring at all and they get scared that their partner will either not want to try new sexytime stuff, or that the partner won't find it exciting, so they go do it with somebody else and then oh boy there's trouble.

Wow. There are so many reasons that people split up.
posted by empatterson at 3:18 AM on February 20, 2013

Small disclaimer for clarity: My folks and their close calls were luckily never made my business.

They didn't (as far as I know) ever almost split up for any of the reasons I mentioned above. Everything I wrote after people change was based on what I know of other break-ups.
posted by empatterson at 3:27 AM on February 20, 2013

My 9-and-a-half-year marriage ended recently. We were both pretty happy, aside from the fact that I'm a giant homo.
posted by sugarbomb at 11:33 AM on February 20, 2013

My husband and I have been together 17 years, married for 12. Our friends and family all comment on how happy and devoted we appear to be to one another - and we are, generally. Yet at the same time, we've had two close calls. The first was due to his unemployment, his mental health issues (spiraling depression, in part due to the job loss) and my inability to deal with my family moving several states away. The other was due to his infatuation with another woman, and my near-complete-breakdown over my work situation. In both cases, we found that although we love one another and generally treat one another well, we can also be really selfish and hurtful towards one another. This last time, we both got a lot of therapy and learned how to deal with all sorts of things in much healthier ways. The highs aren't nearly as high, but the lows will hopefully not be so low, either. And in both cases, oddly enough, the few people I confided in during the worst of the times were shocked to find out I was so close to leaving. As others have said, people are good at putting on a good face in public.

I still can't tell you why I didn't leave the second time. I just .... didn't. We do both admit that in the bad times, we're not together for the good, noble reasons - not for love, or for vows, or because we see the goodness in the other person's soul. We stay together because of our flaws - our stubbornness, our inability to let go of something far beyond when it should be released, because we're both deeply flawed and goddammit, you're going to be the one to pull the trigger and take the blame, not me. It's worked for us, and we're in a good place now - we generally have several years of good, interspersed with a year or two of WTF. And generally after the dust has settled we're in a better place than we started. But as much as I love my husband, and as much as I love having him in my life, I wouldn't recommend our methods to anyone. You know the people you read on AskMeFi who seem to know how to do communication right? We're just learning how to be like those people, and although we're both committed and actively working on it, it's a long uphill walk to get there.

I'm glad we don't have kids.
posted by RogueTech at 9:10 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

And, Louis C.K. was wrong (as most generalizations like that are).

I don't think Louis C.K. was wrong. I think that in that case, if someone leaves what you perceive to be a "good marriage," it wasn't a good marriage for the other person.
posted by blazingunicorn at 11:27 AM on February 22, 2013

Whew...this is an interesting one. I'm asking myself the same question only reversed...why are we still together?

I'm in the 15th year of marriage, but we lived together for ten years before we got to the alter. He's seventeen years older than I am and I met him when I was 29. (I'm 55, he's 71). We don't love each other, and that's been clear for a long time.

Here's the thing though, we like each other most of the time. We've had our dramatic moments and we've had the same recurring disagreement forever, but we've also built a really nice life in a beautiful part of the world. We're financially secure enough that I don't need to work, which, because I have a health issue, was getting harder for me anyway.

The dynamics between us did change dramatically when he retired 3 years ago. He's around ALL THE TIME and its obvious that our interests are widely different. I'm perfectly happy with my own things to do and places to go, but he feels we should be doing more together. I feel bad about that and want him to be happy, but neither of us is willing to meet halfway. So we muddle on.

I think about divorcing because we both deserve loving partners, but what are the chances of finding our "true love"? There's a lot to be said for simple companionship.

I think I'm in the older generation of Mefites, but things, and people change. Is it so terrible to stay?
posted by Gusaroo at 5:15 PM on March 8, 2013

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