Why Long-Term Marriages End in Divorce

long-term marriage divorce

It  often comes as a shock when people find themselves facing divorce at any age or life stage.  Because divorce is sometimes more commonly seen as something happening primarily to younger people, couples divorcing later in life after a long-term marriage can experience feelings of shame, failure, and depression connected with their divorce.

The divorce rate among older couples has risen significantly in recent decades. Since 1990, divorces doubled among couples over 50. Perhaps even more surprising, divorces tripled amongst adults 65 and up. Why are so many long-term marriages ending in divorce?

First, not all divorces among older couples are long-term marriages; some divorces in couples over 50 are second or subsequent marriages, long known to be more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. That said, many older divorcing couples have been married for twenty, thirty, even forty or more years.

Reasons Long-Term Marriages End

1. Divorce Has Become More Acceptable.

It’s not necessarily that older couples have become more unhappy in marriage than they were in previous generations. They may simply feel less compelled now than previously to remain married because of the stigma that used to be attached to divorce. Divorce becoming more commonplace and accepted over time means that for many people, the unhappiness of staying in a marriage outweighs the unhappiness involved in ending it.

2. The Empty Nest.

The departure of grown children from the home can lead to divorce after a long-term marriage. The couple may have previously recognized their unhappiness or issues earlier in the marriage, but decided to stick it out “for the sake of the children.” With the children grown and gone, however, such couples often decided there is no longer any reason to delay a divorce. They have no choice to confront those problems, and may decide they are too significant to overcome.

3. Retirement.

Like parenting, work gives many people purpose and structure, and limits the amount of free time they spend with a spouse. After work ends, the couple may discover they lack common interests, have grown apart, or simply no longer enjoy each other’s company.

For individuals who have built their identity on their career rather than their role in the family, retirement may lead to an identity crisis and depression. For spouses who tended the home while the other spouse worked out of the home, the sudden constant presence of the other spouse may feel like an intrusion on their routine and space. Either or both of these situations can lead to conflict and divorce.

4. Infidelity.

Older couples may also experience infidelity leading to the end of their marriage. Sometimes it is a long-term pattern of infidelity ignored by one spouse or the other while the children were in the home. Sometimes infidelity stems from a mid-life crisis, growing incompatibility, or another reason. Whatever the reason, infidelity can be just as devastating to an older marriage as to a younger one—perhaps more so.

5. Illness.

The illness of one spouse can contribute to the demise of a long-term marriage in multiple ways. It may be that one spouse who agreed to “in sickness and in health” decides they are not willing to bear the burden of caring for a gravely ill spouse. A spouse who recovers from a serious illness such as cancer or a heart attack may become acutely aware that life is short, and decide that how they have been living is not how they want to live the rest of their life. Illness may not break an otherwise strong marriage, but it can be an inflection point in an already shaky one.

6. Simply Growing Apart.

It may seem trite to say, but over the decades of a marriage, people may simply grow apart. They may once have had common goals and values, but people grow and change, and not always in the same direction. Without the distractions of children and work, the widening gap between them may not be able to be bridged, and divorce is the result.

7. Finances and Spending Habits.

Like infidelity, financial issues can cause problems in marriages at all stages. As couples get older, financial differences can become more pronounced. Earlier in the marriage, one or both spouses are working, and differences in money styles and spending habits may not be as pronounced with steady paychecks coming in and the prospect of raises on the horizon. As couples approach or enter retirement, one spouse may continue to spend freely as they always did, while the other sees the prospect of a comfortable retirement evaporating before their eyes. The conflict this causes can lead a couple to divorce after decades of marriage.

Why Divorce After Long-Term Marriage is Different

There are some unique issues that can arise in divorce after a long-term marriage. While most older couples typically need not contend with issues of child custody and child support, other aspects of the divorce may be present and more complicated. Older couples typically have more assets,  such as sizable retirement funds, subject to equitable distribution.

Sometimes, one spouse was a stay-at-home spouse or homemaker for years or decades. At the time of the divorce, that spouse is 50 or older (sometimes much older) with little ability to obtain a job enabling them to become self-supporting. Accordingly, alimony is often an issue. 

There is a great deal at stake in divorce after a long-term marriage. To ensure that you have what you need to move forward with your life, it is essential to have the guidance of an experienced family law attorney. Located in Fargo, ND, we invite you to contact Fremstad Law to schedule a consultation to discuss your situation.