How to avoid divorce in your 40s
Brittan and I are one of the many couples whose marriage didn’t make it beyond their 40s; a decade where relationships seem to hit a romantic cul-de-sac and end up in divorce.
In the UK in 2019, 45 to 49 was the most popular age to divorce, with the average age being 46.4 for men and 43.9 for women, so clearly there’s a sea change of some sort happening in this fifth decade.
Recently, former S Club 7 singer Rachel Stevens, 44, announced she was splitting from her husband of 12 years, Alex Bourne, following in the celebrity footsteps of Gwyneth Paltrow, who divorced at 41 after 13 years of marriage, and Davina McCall, who ended her 17-year marriage at 49.
Each of these couples had successfully surmounted the hard baby years of sleepless nights and endless nappy changes, but ran aground when their children were in their tweens or early teens – an age when life should become easier, but when many marital differences surface.
“When you’re in the baby years as a couple, you’re often in fight or flight mode, building your career and raising your kids, and you’re just firefighting and trying to get through it as best you can with the relationship often falling to the bottom of the to-do list,” says couples psychotherapist Louise Tyler (personalresilience.co.uk). “It’s only when you emerge and the children are a bit older that you might look at your partner and feel completely disconnected or that you’ve sunk into familiarity and boredom. In the past, marriage was often a financial and legal arrangement and women had little choice but to stick with it, but nowadays women are financially independent and there’s a feeling we should be living our best life and shouldn’t stay in an unhappy relationship if we don’t want to.”
Relate counsellor Simone Bose comes across many couples experiencing this “midlife malaise” at her practice. “After 10-plus years of marriage, couples gradually make less effort and become complacent towards each other, and often the things they found attractive at the beginning can become what now annoys them. For example, relaxed becomes lazy, or assertive becomes bullying or controlling,” explains Bose. “It’s a crisis point because you see that life is passing you by and you wonder if you should settle or if you’re still young enough to have new adventures and even meet someone else.”
Michael Ross reached this crisis point when he was 42, divorcing his wife after 17 years of marriage. “I got married at 25 and I think you just don’t know yourself in your 20s; over time my wife and I became two different people and changed from who we were when we first met,” he explains.
The couple had three children under 12 when they split and it was the conflict in the home that propelled his decision. “There was a lot of arguing. It was draining all my emotional and physical energy. It was bad for the kids and terrible for me,” says Ross, 44, a financial adviser from Borehamwood in Hertfordshire. “I kept thinking of my life and the fact that I was half-way through and that time was finite. Did I really want to spend the rest of my life living in this situation? It felt unworkable and when I pushed the button I never looked back.”
It’s no coincidence that children reaching an impressionable age can trigger a decision to divorce. “Your children are getting older, seeing the arguments and asking questions, and it can feel quite shameful and toxic,” says Bose.
“It’s at this point when many couples think, ‘What kind of relationship do I want to give as a role model to my kids?’ and decide to leave the marriage.”
While many do jump ship at this pivotal point (42 per cent of marriages currently end in divorce), Tyler points out that relationship satisfaction is U-shaped, starting high after you get married before the responsibilities of children and career kick in, then sinking to a nadir, “most likely in your 30s and 40s with all the external stresses”, before rising again in your 50s – but only “if you work on it”.
Tyler adds: “If you don’t work through your differences in this stage of disharmony then it’s unlikely you’ll get through to the next stage, which is all about having synergy and working better together.”
But making it through this decade takes more effort than the odd clichéd candlelit dinner or child-free break. “You need a pretty strong foundation to survive these hardworking, responsible years when there’s little fun or sex,” says Marian O’Connor, psychoanalytic couples’ therapist at Tavistock Relationships. “You have to be able to stand outside yourselves and look at what you’re doing to each other, and think about how you can make your life fun and nurturing and not just a life of tasks.”
Going to counselling is a helpful first step. “Through therapy, couples can look at why they disconnected and ways they can be different. It gives them a space to really listen to each other and say, ‘this bothers me because …’ or ‘this is how I feel’,” says O’Connor. “Individual therapy can be good too, to find out what your triggers are, how much your background plays into what’s going on and to see if you’re curious enough to change and work on problems – after all, even in a couple, the only person you can change is yourself.”
Brittan is now a divorce coach, believing that couples who wish to divorce-proof their marriage should pay attention earlier to the little niggles that something’s not quite right. “Don’t let things slide at the time until they build up beyond help,” she says. “At the time you feel them, talk about it to your partner.”