Marriage can be tough. And some find that staying married for the long haul is even tougher.
Actor Kevin Costner and his wife Christine Baumgartner just announced they’re splitting after 18 years of marriage. And when high-profile couples split up decades after tying the knot, everyone wants to know how it can happen after all that time together.
Divorces like that of billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, married 27 years, or that of former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, married 40 years, can be shocking.
But midlife breakups are much more common than they were a generation ago.
“Older adults today are much less likely to be willing to remain in what we call ‘empty shell marriages,’ ” says Susan L. Brown, codirector of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
In fact, the divorce rate for people older than 50 doubled between 1990 and 2010. As of 2019, that’s 10 divorced people per 1,000 married folks 50 and older.
“Marriage now is more about self-fulfillment and personal happiness than it was decades ago,” Brown observes, “and we have very high expectations as to what constitutes marital success.”
So, what are some of the main culprits that lead to divorce after a long union?
Suzy Brown, 75, says she tried for “three long, agonizing years” to persuade her husband to break off an affair with somebody he’d met at work. But ultimately, after 33 years of marriage, she filed for divorce.
Brown, of Kansas City, Missouri, was devastated, hurt, sad and furious. She found herself doing things she never would have expected, such as hiding behind bushes in the parking lot across from her former spouse’s apartment — at 2 a.m. — to see if the woman was there.
Much has changed for Brown since then. As a self-identified midlife-divorce survivor, she started the website Midlife Divorce Recovery in 2007, after the release of her book, Radical Recovery: Transforming the Despair of Your Divorce Into an Unexpected Good. She offers programs for women and men, as well as one-on-one calls, to help with the painful, overwhelming feelings divorce often brings.
Brown, who remarried in 2004, has a lot of adjectives for her life these days: good, fun, adventurous, purposeful.
“One of my greatest defeats has turned into something that I feel proud of, because I’ve been able to help so many people,” she says. “Life happens, and we have to figure out how to move on.”