Updated: Sep 27, 2021
by Robin L. Flanigan, AARP, May 27, 2021
Ever since Bill and Melinda Gates announced that their 27-year marriage was over, one question has been on the lips of many talk show hosts and everyday folks: How can this be, after all that time together?
The billionaire philanthropists aren't the first high-profile couple to split up decades after tying the knot. Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, ended their marriage after 40 years. Though not divorced, actors Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman separated after 30 years together.
Midlife breakups are much more common than a generation ago. "Older adults today are much less likely to be willing to remain in what we call ‘empty shell marriages,’ “ says Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
In fact, the divorce rate for people older than 50 doubled between 1990 and 2010, though it has remained stable since then, according to Brown's research. As of 2019, that's 10 divorced people per 1,000 married folks 50 and older.
"Marriage now is more about self-fulfillment and personal happiness than it was decades ago,” Brown observes, “and we have very high expectations as to what constitutes marital success."
So what are some of the main culprits that lead to divorce after a long union?
Suzy Brown, 74, says she tried for “three long, agonizing years” to persuade her husband to break off an affair with somebody he met at work. But, ultimately, after 33 years of marriage, she filed for divorce.
Brown, of Kansas City, Missouri, was devastated, hurt, sad and furious. She found herself doing things she never would have expected, such as hiding behind bushes in the parking lot across from her former spouse's apartment — at 2 a.m. — to see if the woman was there.
Much has changed for Brown since then. As a self-identified midlife-divorce survivor, she started the website Midlife Divorce Recovery in 2007, after the release of her book, Radical Recovery: Transforming the Despair of Your Divorce into an Unexpected Good. She offers programs for women and men as well as one-on-one calls, to help with the painful, overwhelming feelings divorce often brings.
Brown, who remarried in 2004, has a lot of adjectives for her life these days: good, fun, adventurous, purposeful.
"One of my greatest defeats has turned into something that I feel proud of, because I've been able to help so many people,” she says. “Life happens, and we have to figure out how to move on."
2. Money issues
In the American Psychological Association’s 2020 “Stress in America” survey, 64 percent of adults said money is a significant source of stress in their lives. And because different people often manage money in different ways, conflicts easily arise.
It’s not always about how much money a couple has, says Karen Covy, a divorce coach and divorce attorney in Chicago. People “want what money means to them. There’s a whole emotional component to it.”
A classic example of marital tension over money is the spender versus the saver. For the spender, money equals freedom; for the saver, it represents security. Spenders may view savers as frugal or miserly, and savers may view spenders as frivolous or wasteful.
Another common source of conflict is when one partner agrees to stay home with the kids while the other supports the family financially. After the children are grown, though, the financial supporter often wants the stay-at-home spouse to enter or return to the workforce, but that spouse may be unable or unwilling to find outside work.
“Both spouses have different perspectives about the deal and who broke it,” Covy says. “This is why you have to deal with issues as they come up because the longer you let them go, the more resentment builds. There comes a tipping point, and if one spouse lets the other go over their tipping point, game over.”
3. Lack of communication There's poor communication, and then there's harmful communication. The Gottman Institute, which has studied couples’ behavior since the mid-1990s, uses the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a metaphor for the communication styles that, according to the institute's research, can predict the end of a relationship. The four styles are criticism, contempt (the number one predictor of divorce), defensiveness, and stonewalling.
"Contempt severs us from our pack,” institute cofounder Julie Gottman has said. “It leads us to cut ourselves off from others, pull inwards, and end up alone."
4. Empty nest In the summer of 2019, once his two daughters were grown, Dan Tricarico realized that he and his wife had been living separate lives long enough, focusing more on raising their children than on connecting with each other. And so he decided to end his 24-year marriage.
"I said, ‘I've been reflecting, and what we're doing here is not how I want to spend the last third of my life,’ “ recalls Tricarico, 57, of San Diego. “When you're staring down the barrel at 60, you start to think about those things."
The coronavirus pandemic hit before the couple were able to divide the household, so the newly split husband and wife wound up quarantining with their children, a situation that Tricarico hoped would bring them closer. But he moved out in January 2021, and the divorce proceedings are ongoing.
Although he'd always considered himself “a mate-for-life kind of guy,” Tricarico doesn't think the decision — or his marriage — was a mistake. “Sometimes you just move in different directions and have different priorities and don't have that shared path anymore,” he says.
5. Unresolved issues of the past For Bernadette Murphy, 58, the unraveling of her 25-year marriage revealed that she and her partner “had always been a poor fit for each other.”
Murphy's mother had severe mental health issues and was in and out of institutions, leaving Murphy to raise her three younger siblings. What's more, being named after St. Bernadette, who was known to heal people, Murphy thought it was her responsibility to heal her mother.
Meanwhile, Murphy believed that her husband had an unresolved issue with his mother, who had passed away. Murphy sought therapy and felt herself growing as a person. Her husband, however, not only eschewed individual therapy but, she says, liked the way she was — “a quiet person who stuffed everything down” — and wanted her to stay the same.
And though everyone in their inner circle was shocked the pair were splitting, the decision had been brewing in Murphy's mind for nearly 15 years. Couples counseling didn't help. "I would've gone to the mat if there was a way to salvage [the
relationship],” she says, “but it had become clear it was either me or the marriage."
When you have to spread the news… If you and your spouse find yourselves going separate ways after decades of marriage, do what celebrities do, Covy advises. Come up with a prepared statement, one that succinctly explains that the split was a tough decision and that you are moving on to the next phase of your lives.
Bill and Melinda Gates released their four-sentence statement — touching on both of those points — in a tweet, but a simple email will do the trick.
It also doesn't hurt to memorize the statement, in case you find yourself cornered in the grocery store by an inquisitive acquaintance. Says Covy: “Just say, ‘Thank you for respecting my privacy’ or ‘Thank you for understanding.’ Something that makes the other person feel like a jerk if they keep going on."
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, she has also had her work appear in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M is for Mindful.