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How to Get Over Your Ex

In your 50s and after, a breakup is a whole different thing

graphic of a man climbing a ladder out of a deep empty heart shape
Rob Dobi

Florence Williams was 50 when her husband told her he wanted a divorce. They’d been together for 32 years, and for Williams, the breakup was devastating. “I’d never been an adult without him,” recalls the Washington, D.C., science writer.

While getting dumped is always painful, it can be particularly wrenching in your 50s, experts say. “When you’re younger, you are surrounded by people getting together and breaking up,” says Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. But long-settled friends and colleagues don’t always know how to support a peer whose relationship gets yanked out from under them. “They’re, like, ‘Oh, you’ll find someone else,’ ” Gottlieb observes. “They just don’t understand the pain and the uncertainty.”

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“The 50s are a huge marker,” adds Jane Greer, a New York City–based marriage and family therapist and the author of How Could You Do This to Me? Learning to Trust After Betrayal. ​“Suddenly you’re at the point in your life where you take stock, and life is either working the way you’d imagined … or it’s not.”

Brett Bender, an artist in Philadelphia whose boyfriend of two decades left him when he was 57, agrees: “You think this is your person and you will grow old together. And then you don’t.”

Breakups By the Numbers

  • 57% of divorced or widowed people remarry
  • 25% of people in their 50s have been married at least twice
  • 22% more people ages 55 to 64 remarry today than in 1960

More at stake in older heartbreak

While people in their 50s are more vulnerable to heartbreak than one might expect, they may also be more resourceful in their healing. Marjorie, an IT professional in New York City who asked to be identified by her first name only, has been divorced twice—once at 25 and once at 54. The first time, Marjorie did everything you’d expect a heartbroken 25-year-old to do. “I bought a red car. I slept around. I drank,” she remembers.

When Marjorie’s second marriage crumbled, “the stakes were higher: more money, shared real estate, two kids,” she says. “I didn’t drink. I didn’t sleep around. I just had too many responsibilities.”

Such responsibilities — plus changed priorities — tend to make a heartbroken person more resilient, Greer notes: “A man or woman in their 50s is more likely to bend, not break,” under the stress of a shattered relationship than someone younger is.

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That’s how it worked for Joe Casale, a former sports agent in Delray Beach, Florida. “Heartbreak in my 20s: devastated, but time is on my side,” he wrote in a Facebook message. “Heartbreak in my 50s: more devastated, realizing time is not on my side. Then, you realize it’s not about how much time you have, but what you do with the time you have. That’s when the light bulb goes on. You realize that, like fine wine, you are better with age.”

Take stock and heal

Therapists who work with newly single people may suggest a three-pronged strategy for healing. Still, all the self-knowledge in the world can’t eliminate the pain of rejection by a life partner — or the need to take stock and heal.

1. Take in the full picture. “Recognize that this loss is layered upon other losses,” Gottlieb advises. “Usually you’re not just grieving a particular person — you’re grieving the accumulation of losses over the years,” including compromises made and opportunities forgone to make the relationship work.

2. Disconnect from your ex. “If you’re still caught up in the anger, the rejection or abandonment, you are unwittingly connected to that person,” Greer says. Letting go means minimizing contact if you have kids together or cutting off contact if you don’t. It can be excruciating, but it works. “Recently I had a birthday, and I ended up getting a text from my ex,” Bender says. “Not answering it was one of the best things I’ve done.”

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3. Reconnect with the world. The way we get over loss and move on is replacement, Greer explains. That doesn’t have to mean jumping back into the dating pool before you’re ready. But anything that gets you out of your sorrow and excited about something is worth trying. If it’s not romantic, so much the better.

Gottlieb is a big fan of meetups. “Do you like art, hiking, birding, investments?” she asks. “These days there are meetups for everything. There will be married people and single people in these groups, and you may very quickly realize that you’re not alone.”

To cope with her breakup, Williams, the science writer, decided to research romantic loss. The result is her recently published book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey. Critical to moving on in your 50s, she found, is learning to quell the anxiety about the future that a sudden rupture is likely to create. You may be worried not just about yourself  but about your children — who, for many at this time, are vulnerable teens and young adults. “It’s really important to calm down the anxiety, because no real healing can happen until you can get out of that,” she says.

Five years out from her split, Williams has been surprised to discover she feels better than ever: “I’m a more openhearted, empathetic and compassionate person, more comfortable with myself.” Though there is a new boyfriend, she says she’s “definitely more cautious” than before. Nevertheless, she adds quietly, “I still believe in love of all kinds.”

Collage of four celebs who went through breakups after 50: Sir Paul Mc Cartney,  MacKenzie Scott, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jennifer Lopez
From left: Paul McCartney, MacKenzie Scott, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jennifer Lopez
from left: Karwai Tang/WireImage; PA Images/Alamy; Lemouton/SIPA/AP Images; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Heartbreak Heroes

These icons lost love at midlife and ended up better for it:

Paul McCartney
At 63, he split from his second wife. Happily remarried, he packs gigs at 80.

MacKenzie Scott
Divorced by multibillionaire Jeff Bezos at 49, Scott is giving her record settlement away.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Messily divorced at 52, while president of France, he soon met his next first lady, Carla Bruni.

Jennifer Lopez
At 51, she ended her engagement to A-Rod … and soon bounced back as half of Bennifer 2.0.

—Niamh Rowe

Judith Newman is a columnist for The New York Times and author of To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines.