fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


3563154055_6eef3fd771_zImage by Jo Christian Oterhals via Flickr

There’s a very old joke that goes like this: a bent old man and his wife, using canes, hobble into a lawyer’s office. They are each over 90. They take their seats and the lawyer asks them why they have come. “We want a divorce!” shouts old Mr. Smith. “Well, all right, I can help you,” says the lawyer. “But do you mind if I ask, since you’ve been married 70 years, why now, after all this time?” Mr. Smith replies, “We wanted to wait until the children were dead!”

Conventions in marriage have changed a lot in the past few decades and they have changed in the realm of divorce as well. It used to be that if they made it past the first few years, unhappily married couples might hang on until the children were grown up but after that they were free to split up. But if they didn’t do it then, they rarely divorced later on. An article in The New York Times on Sunday reports that more couples are splitting in middle life regardless of whether or not they have hit that “marker.” Twice as many people over the age of 50 are now likely to divorce as were apt to do so in 1990, for example, and “silver” or “gray” divorce, as this phenomenon is sometimes referred to, is more and more acceptable.

Sociologists point to several explanations, including that older people are more likely to be in second marriages, which have a higher risk of failure due to the greater stressors second marriages are usually subject to: blended families, financial pressures, etc.

Another factor is that women no longer feel the same financial dependence they once did. More and more women are financially independent, or at least they are empowered in a way their mothers were not. Most do not feel helplessly dependent on their husbands for support.

Another factor is the ever increasing acceptance of divorce as a choice. More people who would have felt a “responsibility” to others in their social network to remain married now find that many people around them either don’t care or don’t object to divorce. In the case of adult children who, as the Times points out, may want their parents to stay married, many parents reason that staying together for their sake may be modeling the wrong kind of behavior.

In another article last week, the Times reported on research at Brigham Young University that revealed that being in a bad marriage may be actually “bad” for you. While study after study over the years has supported the idea that overall, married people are healthier than their single counterparts, these researchers have failed to distinguish between the quality of the marriages studied. The new study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, revealed that people who are in “ambivalent” marriages, that is, relationships in which their partner cannot always be counted on for positive support or who may be unpredictable, do not show the robust health effects of people in positive marriages. Other studies have supported this, for example, “a University of Utah study found that a marital fight that lacked warmth or was controlling in tone could be just as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol.”

While some of this effect may come from the unpredictability of an ambivalent marriage—not knowing what partner you are going to get from one day, or even one hour to the next, there’s no question that living in a war zone, even one where the hostilities are intermittent, is extremely stressful. The connection between stress and poor health is undeniable, and has been well documented in countless studies. Now that people are living longer and enjoying more years of relatively youthful vigor they are questioning the wisdom of staying in partnerships that are unhappy or even merely unsatisfying.

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  • Roz Warren November 5, 2015 at 8:48 am

    Amen, sister. Divorce is awful, but my ex and I are both much happier now that we’ve split.