In the August 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic, Wendy Donahue has an article: The 25-year itch: Empty nesters and the second half of marriage. Ms Donahue cites a paper, “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” co-authored by Susan Brown. She quotes:
“Brown and her colleague I-Fen Lin crunched marriage data from the American Community Survey and were shocked to find that of all those who divorced in 2009, one in four was age 50 or older, compared with one in 10 in 1990.”
The U.S. Catholic article focuses primarily on the possibilities for rebuilding marriages that have deteriorated over many years, and stories of couples who have turned their marriages around. It includes a list of resources, including Marriage Encounter and Retrovaille, which can set a couple on the path to a marriage that will thrive through the rest of their lives.
We think Ms Donahue’s article can be of help to many couples, but we have decided to focus on some of the circumstances and events of the first half of the marriage that lead to later divorce and some possibilities to help ward off the 25-year itch altogether.
There have always been pressures on marriages from jobs, children, finances, extended family and other areas of life. In the early years of our marriage Rita worked while I pursued a degree. After three years we had our first child and Rita stayed home to care for him. By year seven we had another child and I was teaching full-time while still hoping to complete my degree. All of these things created many pressures that interfered with our time together and our ability to spend time for us. At that time we had the good fortune to participate in a Marriage Encounter weekend retreat. There we learned communication techniques that helped us to speak openly with each other. With the encouragement of the retreat team, we left with a determination to keep our communication open. We also stayed involved with follow-up activities that kept us in touch with other couples who shared the same kinds of pressures we felt and supported us, as we supported them, in keeping us close to each other. The key to our growth was the daily communications that never let us drift too far apart. We had times that were difficult, but were always able to pull ourselves back together. We have watched marriages deteriorate as couples’ poor communications skills failed them in difficult times. We also see younger couples who have a determination to face issues, set priorities and keep their relationship strong. We’re pretty sure that they will not be among couples divorcing after 25 years. Regular, productive communication is the most important requirement for keeping a marriage healthy through all stages.
Priority setting seems to be a big issue. This culture offers many things that couples find attractive and even “necessary” to have the life they want. Among them are demanding and high-paying jobs, children, exercise programs, friends, and a large, well-furnished house.
Helicopter parents have to be available to their children twenty-four hours a day, every day. The kids must have every opportunity to participate in sports or dance, including summer camps and sometimes trips across country. And parents must be present for every event. Giving children material things requires spending money, whether or not the family budget can afford it.
Jobs seem to be more demanding than they have ever been. The pressures are great and the hours long. Two jobs have often been merged into one. Success requires long hours and makes it difficult to turn down any request for extra duties or hours on the job.
Health is certainly important to a good life and we are bombarded with information about the need for an exercise program and close attention to eating healthy foods. That makes feeding the family a more demanding activity
A nice home where one can rest, visit with family and friends and provide for children is a wonderful part of a good life, but homes, too, are demanding of time and money and sometimes lead to large unexpected demands on the budget.
All of these things are good, but for many couples the priority of each of them is higher than priority given to their couple relationship, leaving it at the bottom of the list. Everything else comes first and the relationship gets little attention.
We believe that a marriage that lasts a whole lifetime must put a higher priority on the couple relationship. Children can survive quite well with a sitter while you go out to dinner and talk about the two of you. They can grow up healthy and happy without being constantly involved in activities or having every material advantage.
Employers will own your soul, if you let them. Sometimes it is necessary to pass on an opportunity in order to avoid stress and greater demands on your time – for the sake of your relationship. We have even known couples who found it better for them and their families to take a job with lesser opportunities to advance or higher income.
Being “house poor” or unable to handle the demands it creates for time and maintenance creates budget demands and stress that impacts your relationship. Something smaller and more manageable might make sense.
At different times different parts of our lives have top priority. When the roof leaks, the house gets attention. When a child is ill and, sometimes, has a game or concert, that’s at the top of the list. The important question is: how often does your relationship, your time with each other, get to the top of the list? It needs to happen at least a couple of times a week.
We can’t make any decisions for anyone but ourselves, but we offer these ideas to help you start thinking about the place of your couple relationship in your life. I believe that our ability to communicate and our constant practice of daily communication have been most influential in our years together. It has been emotionally and intellectually satisfying and has greatly helped us to set priorities in the rest of our busy lives. We have reached retirement, with challenges of its own, still best friends and enjoying our time together. Rita still challenges me to be a better person and that still makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes she frustrates me, but she makes me laugh and is my best travel companion. I can’t imagine living separately from her. As we approach our 46th wedding anniversary I look forward to what I hope are many more years to laugh, cry, tease and sit quietly together.
As I looked at the magazine article several things came to my mind. One is the little quip that frequently goes around on Facebook and has been there recently about what it was like as a child when we grew up. Perhaps we should think about what marriage was like when we were growing up. The expectations of marriage were certainly different. Might we learn something from our grandparents or parents and how they lived their marriages? The second thought that came to my mind is, are we reaping the results of being raised in the “me” generation. We have been taught that we are number one, to look out for our self, to ask what’s in it for me. Marriage can’t be about “me.” We promised in our vows to focus on the other. That doesn’t discount that we have to care for ourselves but we can’t have as our focus to just “get.” Marriage requires giving by both people. The third thought that came to mind is that people in their tween years of marriage are often referred to as the sandwich generation. They take care of aging parents and the needs of their children and do little to tend to their marriage relationship. When parents die and children have lives of their own they look at each other and realize that they are living with a stranger and recognize that they have no real way of communicating, have lost much of what they have in common, no longer find the other interesting and have lost much of the passion they once had for each other and the person they nominally share their life with. Maybe all of this was there in marriages in the past but people didn’t think about ending the commitment. Today, rather than working things through with a sense of purpose of living out the marriage vows, couples often spilt; doing so later and later in life.
We have never been perfect at any stage of our marriage. We found every stage to be demanding and rewarding. While we were sometimes overwhelmed by raising of children, seeing to the needs of parents, responding to the demands of our jobs, finding alone time and time with friends, for some reason we never lost sight of the one permanent relationship in our lives, our marriage. Our children are grown with lives of their own. We’ve tried to give them roots and wings and yet still be part of their lives when they need us. We have learned to enjoy them as adults and spend time with their children our grandchildren. Our parents have passed on to be with the Lord. We miss their presence and wisdom in our lives but recognize that we were blessed to have had them. Our jobs were wonderful and fulfilling and likely helped us to develop and use many of the gifts that God gave us. But we no longer need those jobs to find fulfillment in our lives. God continues to introduce us to new ways to use those gifts. We spend time with friends but they too have to deal with many of the same issues that we do. Sadly, some of our friends now also rest with the Lord. Once again we have to look at how we live with each other each day. What is the meaning of those vows I spoke 46 years ago? It is not always easy, but I don’t ever regret the effort it takes to live the promises I made. Yesterday I was cleaning out a box of things we’ve saved through the years. While some of you may recall that I asked Bob for our first date, I came across the letter that I wrote to him to invite him to a family wedding. He had saved it for over 50 years. It was a wonderful find and lifted my heart and spirit as I recalled writing it and what has happened in my life because I did. I wouldn’t trade one year, day, hour or minute. What joy has come to my life because I had the courage to write that note! It is wonderfully uplifting as we look at celebrating our 46th anniversary next week.
We need to ask, over and over again, what we meant by the vows we spoke. We also need to recognize that the vows are organic; they are alive and must be lived out in ways that are supportive of the current stage of our marriage. What do you need to do this day, this week, this year to safeguard the wonderful gifts you have been given—your spouse and your marriage? We’d appreciate your thoughts.
Learn more about the Forever and a Day Workshop and other programs offered by Bob & Rita.
Bob & Rita’s book: Forever and a Day: An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime, is available on Amazon.com. Also available for Kindle and Nook. Check out our Marriage Enrichment Programs at readabookpress.com.