It’s an all too common scenario—an epidemic of sorts. Midlife women who seem to wake up one morning and decide they are miserable in their marriages. In weeks, they are off to see an attorney about ending their long-term marriages (I’m referring to the twenty-plus years of marriage, marriages).
No, not so fast! It isn’t quite like that although when I hear some people weigh in on it you could easily mistake that for what’s happening.
I was 27 the evening my husband came home from having an after work drink with our next-door neighbor. “You are not going to believe what Suzanne (not her real name) did to Jim (not his real name either).” He went on to tell me that Suzanne had come home from work and scrambled some eggs in the kichen (I believe this piece of the story). At the time Jim was sitting in his chair, reading the newspaper. Out of nowhere (really?) Suzanne said, “I’m feeling really good about my life. I have my Ph.D. and I just got a good job. The only thing that would make it better is if you moved out!”
The way my husband told it Jim responded to this announcement with total shock and was caught totally unaware by Suzanne’s announcement. He had grabbed his coat and without saying a word had walked out the door. Do you hear the marriage in big trouble alarm going off?
At 27, I already knew that a lot was missing from this story but what really perplexed me was that my husband was clueless. He had actually taken the story word for word (I’m sure the events he described did happen) and that he was shocked by Suzanne’s “surprise” behavior. The fact that he didn't question any of it really surprised me. He couldn’t imagine how anyone could do something like that to someone they supposedly loved. Suzanne was immediately labeled “that evil woman".
The true story: Suzanne had tried to get her “nice” but totally disconnected husband to counseling. He had refused to go. According to him their relationship was fine and he wasn’t discussing his personal life with a stranger. Suzanne wanted to talk but Jim said his days in the office were really stressful and all he wanted to do when he came home was unwind and read the paper. “Could they talk over the weekend?” He asked. 260 weekends passed— still no conversation, no plan, and no change.
Suzanne had begun a new career at 40 and was soaring in it by 50. Jim was sitting in the family room watching a lot of TV. Often she would look over the kitchen island at the man sitting on his chair reading or watching TV with total despair. This was the man she had married and had spent the last 5 years trying to connect with. Confused, miserable and feeling guilty as hell, she finally made the decision to leave the marriage.
But Jim is a good guy. He’s essentially a good husband (an astonishingly good one if we were living in the 50’s). He's a good father and a success in business. There was no other man in the picture. In fact as it turns out Suzanne had committed to not pursuing any type of romantic relationship for at least a year. The thing was, Jim wasn’t ever really present in the relationship, not in the way that Suzanne needed. She had spent years developing herself into the person she wanted to be and now wanted an energetic, curious and engaged partner. Or she wanted to be alone.
Joanne was judged mercilessly for her actions. It seemed so spontaneous and so selfish. She heard words like unappreciative and self-involved. The message was: You are supposed to stay in a marriage as long as that marriage isn’t deemed "bad" or abusive. Wanting more is just not an acceptable reason for leaving a marriage.
Women like this are arriving in my office in very large numbers. Women 50 plus are divorcing at a rate that is double what it was 20 years ago.
They are not doing this lightly. They are not selfish. They aren’t heartless. Many, many go to a therapist to help them in their decision-making. They make lists of the positives and negatives. And then they make more lists and then some more. Just because we speak about being true to yourself, write tons of articles on it and hold workshops on this very subject, in reality ending a so-so marriage (which is very right for some people) isn’t often celebrated.
Let me be really clear that I don’t make judgments or have opinions on what a woman does or doesn’t do with regards to the ending of her marriage. What I do is try to help each woman make the right decision for herself. I try to prepare her for the tears, the wrath and the potential for harsh judgment. I make sure she understands that some people won’t applaud her decision but that no one really knows what’s happening inside another person's marriage.
Doing what is right for ourselves often comes with the price of disapproval—and a lot of guilt. But that price is often far less than the one that includes waking up to a life you dread on a daily basis.
Marcia R. Reich, MA, LPC Midlife Coaching & Counseling
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