Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Breaking Up Is Easy

A friend who is thinking of leaving her husband -- for the record, I wish she wouldn't -- asks why it is that married people in middle age split up. It seems true. Is it? If so, why?

It is true, at least in the United States, according to the Bureau of the Census.

Up through age 49, divorced men make up no more than 29.5 percent of their peers. This jumps to 40.8 percent in the ages of 50 to 59. Then it declines to 30.9 percent in the following age decade. For divorced women the same percentages are 35.4 percent, 38.9 percent, 28.4 percent. (See Kreider,Rose M., 2005. Number, Timing,and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001. Current Population Reports, P70-97. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington,D.C., which you can download here.)

So, Why?

A 2004 survey of matrimonial lawyers in Britain found as causes extra-marital affairs (27 percent), family strains (18 percent), emotional/physical abuse (17 percent), mid-life crisis (13 percent), addictions (6 percent), workaholism (6 percent). A study by a California State University professor based on the opinions of the individuals involved listed incompatibility, lack of emotional support, abuse, sexual problems and money.

Few surprises here for the general population.

But the Census tell us that marriages that last more than 20 years tend not to end in divorce. Yet those are the marriage breakups we're focusing on here. Married people in their first marriage by their fifties have usually been together a long time.

That's what my experience listening to stories as a volunteer discussion meeting facilitator in a support group for separated and divorced men and women (go here) tells me.

Many people, I think, want to break out of their lives at some point in middle age. Some men think that if they get a new young wife they will be young again. (Others sublimate with the purchase of a sports car or motorcycle.)

As to women, to my mind (I expect rotten tomatoes for this, but I will stand my ground), the dirty little secret no one talks about much is the M-word, menopause, which in my opinion exacerbates existing conflicts when the condition strikes and reduces the will to reconcile. When childrearing comes to an end, also, a number of changes bring about a reorientation of life.

There's also an intangible sense, I think, that if only you could get out of your marriage your life would be so much better. Something's missing that you think everyone else has.

What none of this takes into account is what happens after. Here my listening experience talks. For the first week or three there's an immediate release, for the leaver, from the affliction, real or imagined, that led to leaving.

For the leaved it's another story. One person I know attempted suicide. Many, many others fell into a deep sadness. There's an overwhelming sense of failure and doom hovers over everything when a marriage of X years (especially when X includes multiples of 10) seems to have ended for good.

When that realization hits the leaver, the same sadness seeps into his or her heart. (Unless the leaver has run off with someone ... that will happen when the infatuation fades away.)

People make it worse. Friends and family take sides. Many refuse to have anything to do with the two people breaking up, on grounds that it might be "catching." You learn how few friends you really have; how useless relatives are. Your kids have enough challenges with their own lives. If you are religious, you learn how little God intervenes.

Then comes the law to coldly divide possessions you jointly struggled to acquire.

Even if you then find a support group and go on a spree of dating, you find it doesn't ultimately solve anything. Your dates ultimately don't care about anything but themselves, just like the ex who left you or whom you left.

You are alone and you are fifty-something. You've done just about everything you put your mind to do since youth. Next stop is to become ashes in an urn ... and what a long way down that is!

Oh, you can find new friends and fill your life with busy-ness and travel and acquisition. (I have no idea what this thing about travel is: I've gone everywhere I ever want to go.)

Yet there will always remain the hole of the thing that fell apart, the other life you ended prematurely. But I stray from the topic, because that's why people don't break up. That's why people, deep down, wish they hadn't broken up.

As to breaking up, Neil Sedaka was right. It's not very easy to do.

Once it's done, all the king's horses and all the king's men will find well nigh impossible to put it together again.
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