For baby boomers, divorce has almost become, like marriage, another rite of passage. The post-World War II generation is setting new records for divorce: Americans over 50 are twice as likely to get divorced as people of that age were 20 years ago.
But just because it’s more common, doesn’t mean it’s not still painful.
Jim Campbell, 55, of Boulder, Colo., says he and his wife grew apart after 34 years together. “The No. 1 best thing in common that my ex-wife and I had was raising kids,” Campbell says. When their two sons grew up, he says, “we just didn’t have enough activities, passions, interests that were in common. And when the boys were gone, that just became more and more — to me — obvious.”
He felt lonely. In 2012, he decided he had to leave. He told his wife while they were out for a walk. “And she was incredibly upset. And I left,” he says. “And we haven’t talked about emotions much since then.”
But just because it was Campbell’s decision to dissolve the marriage, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough. “It would be a tragedy if 34 years was not incredibly painful to get over,” he says. “It hurt a lot.”
He knew he needed to heal, so he went to a 10-week program called the Rebuilding Seminar in downtown Boulder. Thirty-five newly separated people meet on Sunday nights in a bland conference room, well-stocked with boxes of Kleenex. Judging by appearances, a majority of the participants seem to be boomers.
Therapist Norm Gibson founded the seminar in the 1990s. There can be a little bit of nervousness at the beginning of a session, so Gibson lightens the mood by naming each meeting for a country and western song. On this night, the guiding song is “My wife left town with my best friend and I miss him.”
It gets a laugh, but that doesn’t last long. Everybody knows what’s coming. The topic for this evening is grief. Mary Harbison, a therapist and life coach who leads the seminar with Gibson, tells the group that often patients who are divorcing will ask her if they’re clinically depressed. Her answer is that “it’s part of our nature as human beings to experience grief, and so we want to make space for it and not pathologize that.”
And grief can linger. You just learn to deal with it. At least that’s Harbison’s own experience. During an interview, she recalls the breakup of her own marriage when she was about 50. She and her husband had been going through a rough patch. He was due to return home from a successful business trip, and she thought they would celebrate and turn over a new leaf.
“I was so excited,” she recalls. “I had arranged child care, and I was going to take him away for an overnight [trip]. And he didn’t want to go.” Her voice breaks, but she continues. “He just wouldn’t speak to me. I said, ‘You just really seem shut down and angry,’ and he just kind of blew up and said, ‘I am out of here, and I am not coming back.’ ” And that was the end.
Harbison says at the time, it felt like she was the only one in the world going through this. Not these days, says sociologist Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University. She co-authored a study called Gray Divorce.
“Back in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 persons who got divorced was over the age of 50,” says Brown. But today, “1 in 4 people getting divorced is 50 or older.”
Brown says one reason for this is the increasing economic independence of women. Many no longer have to choose between a bad marriage and poverty. Also, she says, divorce can be the collateral damage from increased lifespans.
“When you retire and you no longer have any children at home and you’re spending 24/7 with your spouse, if this is someone that you’re not too fond of anymore, you might want to get divorced,” Brown says, “because you realize, hey, I could spend another 20, 25 years with this person.”
Whatever the reason for a breakup, there’s a lot that must be left behind. At the Rebuilding Seminar, sad, soft music plays as participants quietly write goodbye letters to their former lives and loves. Then they split up into small groups and read them aloud.
A 58-year-old man named Chris says goodbye to the love and laughter he shared with his ex-wife of 18 years. He asked us not to use his last name to protect her privacy and his daughter’s. His daughter is the one he really misses. He weeps as he reads his goodbyes to the little ordinary things they shared: Putting you to bed every night and greeting you in the morning. Sitting in the easy chair together and watching TV.
Then again, there will be things about his marriage he definitely won’t miss such as his wife’s family or that she drank herself to sleep on the couch at night.
Before the meeting breaks up, Gibson makes sure everyone knows they don’t have to be alone until next week’s session. He tells them to look out for emailed announcements about upcoming events. There’s meditation on Wednesday. On Fridays, people meet for dinner and a movie.
There’s really no reason for these new divorcees to be alone. There are so many of them these days.