I had lunch with my friend Carrie yesterday. She’d just gotten back from a ladies’ weekend with 3 college friends. “They’re all divorcing! All 3 of them - right now. What’s going on?!”
I was less shocked. Carrie and her friends are in the 40s, which seems to be a tumultuous time for a lot of marriages. It’s an age when the likelihood of separating appears to be growing. According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate for adults ages 40 - 49 has risen by 14% since 1990 (significant, though not quite to the extent as those ages 50+)
But why do so many women divorce in their 40s? I have a theory. Admittedly it’s not scientifically tested. But my experience as a family lawyer, common sense, and being in my 40s myself all tell me I might be right. If you’re a woman in your 40s thinking about divorce, ask yourself if one of these might be contributing to your unhappiness:*
Raising kids is really hard.
Women in their 40s are often smack dab in the middle of the child-raising years. Many of us are doing it while balancing careers. The 40s are prime earning years. So on top of being a mom, you might be feeling pressure to build wealth, get out of debt, and save for the future. But whether you’re working outside the home or not, raising kids is just hard. With all the sleep-deprived nights, driving kids all over town, worrying, not to mention barely having a minute to yourself, it’s no wonder your marriage might take a hit.
Plus, with many couples having babies through fertility treatment, that often means multiples. I’ve known a surprising number of women with 3 or more kids under the age of 5 to throw in the towel on their marriages. On the one hand, it seems like the worst time to separate. Raising all those littles is hard enough with help, but on your own? 👩👧👦 😬 Then again, I think because it’s so hard is the reason why these women walk away from their marriages. If you’re saddled down with kids and have a spouse you don’t feel is pulling their fair share at home, it might just feel easier to do it on your own. The sentiment seems to be “I’m doing the lion’s share of it anyway. My spouse feels like another child I have to manage. Why do I need to be married?” I feel for these women.
I wish women in their 40s could just push pause for a minute to catch their breath. Maybe in 5 years this won’t all seem so hard.
You’ve been living your life for everyone else for too long.
In Carrie’s case, all 3 of her divorcing friends have been with their spouses since college. That’s a really long time to be together, yet these women have so much more life ahead of them. And our needs change - who we were and what we wanted in our 20s usually isn’t the same by the time you hit 40.
When we’re in our 20s, it feels like we can do anything. We can be “selfish” because we don’t have anyone else to be responsible for. Going to the gym after work. Eating dinner at 9 p.m. Sleeping in both weekend days. Then our 30s roll around. Our careers are picking up steam, we’re getting married, and probably having babies. By the time we get to our 40s, we’ve been at it for a while. The frustrating 40s can feel all about carpool, laundry, cooking, cleaning, working, trying to please spouses, and maybe, just maybe, find a little “me” time. I think many women are just exhausted.
Marriage isn’t light and fun anymore. You don’t just pick up on a moment’s notice to go on a road trip. And if you feel like you’re doing more than your share of it all, it might just be too much. Many working women are self-sufficient financially. The kids might be less needy (at least in the “I have to keep them alive” sense). And in your 40s it still feels like there’s plenty of time to find happiness again. So if you’re less than happy, this might feel like the right time to leave (if there is a “right” time).
You might be influenced by your friends.
By the time you’re in your 40s, you probably know a handful of women who’ve already separated. There’s something comforting about not being the ‘first’ to do something.
But there might be something more going on than just “if she survived it, so can I.” We’ve always known that women like doing things together. We go to the bathroom together. We shop together. We move cities, change jobs, and have babies together. It’s not a huge stretch to suggest that we might also like to divorce together. In their article Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample, researchers Rose McDermott, Ph.D., James Fowler, Ph.D., and Nicholas Christtakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H, found that divorce can “spread among friends.” According to their study, a person’s tendency to divorce depends not only on her friends’ divorce status, but even on her friends’ friends’ status. So if you’re a woman in her 40s with divorcing friends, some of that desire to be free might subconsciously rub off on you too.
If you’ve identified with any of this, and it’s making you wonder if separating really is right for you, what can you do? There are many things to do to try to improve your marriage. Here are just a few:
Be a little “selfish” again. Get back to doing some of the things you love. You deserve it, and truth is everything in your life will benefit from you being happier. Stop saying you don’t have the time. You find time to do the things that everyone else needs; you can eek out an hour or two a week for you, too. A weekly tennis match, training for a 10K, a weekend away with friends. All these things can help restore a little “you” to you (just as long as those trips with the gals don’t turn into vent sessions about your spouses).
Tell your spouse you feel overburdened. If you’re pulling more than your share, you’ve got to let your spouse know. At least give them a chance to make adjustments, pick up the slack, or stop doing whatever it is you feel is making you so unhappy. I’m not saying it will solve the problem. But I do know that saying nothing will keep you exactly where you are.
Dig in and push through. Almost all marriages go through rough seasons. When life feels at its most hectic - when you feel like throwing in the towel - might actually be the time when you need to dig your heels in and stay. If you knew that things would be better down the road - when the kids are a little older, when your finances seemed less strained - would you stay?
Go to counseling early. If you want to improve your marriage, be really proactive about counseling. Go on your own, and go as a couple. Stop viewing counseling as something you only should do when something is wrong. You might benefit from it at any time. Don’t wait until things feel bad or it might be too late.
Work on your marriage at least as hard as you do at your job. Think about how much effort you put into your work. How many hours will you stay up toiling over an unfinished project? How many times have you written and re-written a report to get it just right? Now compare that to the effort you put into your marriage. Do you think about the words you use with your spouse as much as the words you choose to put on paper at work? When you’re struggling with something, do you try harder, read books, seek a mentor, do all the things to improve your marriage that you do to improve your career? Remember that no marriage is perfect and every marriage takes effort to keep it going.
Ask yourself how you’d feel if all your single friends were coupled off. If your friends are newly separated, it could feel like being single might actually be - exciting. Be careful you don’t have a case of the ‘grass is always greener.’ Ask yourself if you’d still be considering separation if your friends were still married (or remarried). Would you still be as inclined to split from your spouse? Sometimes the notion of being single and hanging out with your single girlfriends is more of a fantasy than reality.
Cut yourself a break. If you’ve tried everything and it’s still not working, accept that you did your best. Resolve to have as amicable a separation as possible. Decide to be a good co-parent to your children (I don’t mean lip service. I mean really commit to it). Work to forgive your spouse for their wrongdoing and forgive yourself for yours. Accept that not every relationship is meant to last forever, and that has little to do with whether it was a success. Keep going to counseling to work on yourself.
* Nothing in this article is meant to suggest you stay in a bad marriage or to endure any kind of abuse. If you are the victim of physical, emotional or financial abuse, know that you are not alone and help is available.