Is Divorce Inevitable in Midlife?

High profile separations and divorces of long-married couples, like the separation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced yesterday, can tap into a core of unease in many of us about loss of stability and change.

If it can happen to the “beautiful people,” will it happen to us? And if it did, would that be a good thing? A bad thing? In any event, it would be a different thing, and research shows that even good change is experienced as stressful.

I sit with a lot of people who are questioning the future of their marriages and their lives in middle age. For many of them, it seems as if life has been cruising along on automatic pilot for quite awhile. Decisions made one or two decades earlier – who to marry, whether to have children, what choice of a career – have just been assumed as part of the warp and weave of life.

Then something happens. Suddenly we become aware that we aren’t really piloting the plane, and may not have been for some time. Maybe we haven’t a clue where we are. Maybe the destination isn’t what we planned for. Maybe we didn’t plan: we just chose a course and hoped for the best.

I think that ideally, we make little course corrections throughout our lives and over the span of many years. We continually allow ourselves to bump up against our partners, our careers, our choices, and to recommit/fix/adjust their trajectories over and over again in little increments. We don’t let the plane fly on autopilot for too long a time.

The most difficult transitions seem to happen when we have let the autopilot fly the plane for years. Then one day we wake up, or the plane slams into a cliff side (think affairs, bankruptcy, job loss, depression) and we wonder where the hell we are.

Who is this person across from us at the breakfast table? And for that matter, who is the person staring back at us in the mirror? And do these two strangers understand who they are themselves? Or do they have anything in common with each other?

Some researchers hypothesize that the increase in middle age divorces is because we are living longer and healthier lives, and so we have time to create a true second chapter. Overall, longer and healthier lives sound like good news.

What’s most important, I believe, is putting your hands back on the controls and taking the plane off autopilot. Gather your supports. Ask the important questions. And listen to the answers with as much compassion and respect for yourself, and your spouse, as you can muster.

You’ve got a lot of flying years left. Choose your destination wisely. And if you need help adjusting your flight plan, feel free to give me a call.

Photo credit: David Armano via Flckr

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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