It’s all a natural by-product of the anti-status-quo Boomer mentality. So it’s no surprise that the most sweeping reinventions are coming closest to home: their marriages.
The old paradigm: find a mate, procreate, and raise what at least appears to be a happy family. Then, regardless of what’s left of your relationship, stick together until the (sometimes-bitter) end. Phew. But now there’s a whole new reality: Put that midlife union under an electron microscope, figure out what makes the molecules collide and dance, and then do whatever it takes to live your next decades in true happiness. It may mean finding new ways to rekindle the initial points of combustion. Or, just as likely, it may mean ditching a lost cause of a marriage or finding highly creative ways to keep a troubled one going.
“When couples are first married, they still believe the other person has the potential for dramatic change,” says professor Deborah Carr, chair of the sociology department at Rutgers University and an expert on midlife development. “But by 50, couples today think: ‘He or she is not really going to change. But I’ll be living another 30 years.’ That’s why so many couples now feel they owe it to themselves to bring real happiness and excitement into their lives, not passivity.”
He asked if I wanted a divorce, and I said, ‘No, I want to see if we can reinvent our relationship. I want to see if we can make it work.’
LISE STOESSEL, AUTHOR OF LIVING HAPPILY EVER AFTER — SEPARATELY
The statistics help tell the tale: Divorce rates for people 50 and over doubled from 1990 to 2010 according to a landmark study by Bowling Green State University in 2013. It’s the highest split-up rate of any age group. But the same study found that the number of unmarried people 50-plus living together tripled between 2000 and 2013—also the highest gains of any group. Translation: People are doing what it takes to be happy, regardless of preconceived notions or traditional rules.
“We’ve never had such high expectations of marriage before,” says Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Marriage, a History. ”There is much more potential for people—women especially—to reinvent their long-term relationships. Or to choose not to.”
One option gaining traction among midlife couples is to stay married but live separately—what experts refer to as LAT (living apart together). Lise Stoessel and her husband, Emil, are practically poster children for this trend, and she chronicled their story in her book Living Happily Ever After — Separately.
So many couples now feel they owe it to themselves to bring real happiness and excitement into their lives, not passivity.
DEBORAH CARR, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY
Their unconventional arrangement began the way most marital problems do, with an unhappy wife ready for change. After 23 years, Stoessel had reached the point where she felt she could no longer live with her husband. Their daily interactions had become laced with bitterness. Emil was a pack rat who worked from home; Lise felt crowded out. So with their kids grown and out of the house, she secretly began looking for a house of her own. In the process, she came to a realization.