No-Fault divorce was supposed to calm the storm of marital dissolution; well, it didn't. States that adopted no-fault divorce experienced a decrease of eight to sixteen percent of wives' suicide rates and a thirty percent decline in domestic violence. That is encouraging data.
The Two Types of Marriages that End
Some statistics are welcome news, but the “thirty three percent and sixty six percent” are not good news. Of the 800,000 divorces each year in the United States, one third of the divorces end marriages that are “high conflict” and defined as abuse, addictions, and affairs. Those marriages should surely end, and children of the one third have better outcomes when they no longer experience the bitter fighting, cursing, and abusive behavior. But two thirds of divorces in this country end “low conflict” marriages. Low conflict marriages end because the sparks of romance and passion are no longer present or because “I love him, but I'm no longer in love with him” (whatever that means). The children are brought to the living room couch for a family meeting. The father begins, "Your mother and I have issues and have decided to separate and likely divorce. We wanted to tell you all together and to tell you first". The children are devastated. Divorce involves one million children in the United States each year. They never saw fighting, insulting, or eye-rolling between their parents. Perhaps, most importantly, they never saw their parents trying to fix what was broken by attending couples therapy sessions consistently. As Professor Bill Doherty states, “Marriage is a counter-cultural act in a throwaway society.”
Two Types of Commitment
Furthermore, Doherty describes the two important types of commitment:
“Tentative commitment” means couples that are connected as long as they make each other happy…as long as they get along…as long as intimacy is good…and as long as the relationship meets their needs. It is summed up as commitment-as-long-as.
But type two, “permanent commitment,” takes the long-term view of marriage, in which you don't balance the ledgers every month to see if you are getting an adequate return on your investment. You are there to stay, which is called commitment-no-matter-what.
The Third Age
Do you remember back to when Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper's marriage fell apart in complete public view? When a high-profile couple like the Gores separate from each other, we feel sadness that a forty year marriage has failed. After thirty nine years of working in family therapy, nothing shocks me; but I, too, was saddened by their separation. I recall Deirdre Bair’s column in the New York Times bringing my blood to a boil. She used a term that I was not aware of, “the third age,” referring to life after divorce.
Bair described the “courage” that these divorcing couples show as they leave the supposed security of marriage. “To them,” she wrote, “divorce meant, not failure and shame, but opportunity.” Bair described that most of the couples she interviewed for her book did not divorce “impulsively.” They mentioned freedom and control for themselves for the rest of their lives. True to our consumer-oriented society, these long-time married couples now want “someone new and exciting.”
She added the idea that we leave the “it’s-all-about-me” phase of our youth to get married and raise children. Then, when our adult children leave the nest, she suggested that we seek out that all-about-me time again. “Women and men alike want time to find out who they are.” Many of her interviewees concluded, “It’s my time, and if I don’t take it now, I never will.” She finished by commenting, “Let us not feel shocked or sad about the end of Al and Tipper Gore’s marriage. Let us, instead, wish them well and hope that they might enjoy their third age.”
In response to Bair’s column, John W. Curtis commented, “There is no mention of the effect on the children, albeit adult. One wonders if the children are, in fact, happy to see their parents pursuing their third age. And there is the clear implication that those who remain married for life are benighted, craven losers without the guts to pursue their Zen, rather than those whose love and devotion deserve our respect.” In Bair’s all-about-me world, there is also no consideration for the many stakeholders in each marriage: parents, children, siblings, and even grandchildren. Their lives, I believe, will never be the same when the patriarch and matriarch go their separate ways and the family scatters.
Another respondent to Bair’s column, Susan Stern, explained, “The assumption here is that one comes to self-discovery in something approaching a vacuum. Free of responsibility, we finally managed to understand ourselves. There are sound reasons for ending a marriage at any time of life, but those Ms. Bair acknowledges, seem both misguided and shallow.”
Now that I understand the third age, it baffles and nauseates me as much as another term that has been popularized, the starter marriage. That’s when you give marriage a try and hope for the best, similar to a starter house which, presumably, you will quickly outgrow. When marrying, couples stand before their family, friends, and God to pledge a commitment. We all need to take steps to ensure that our marital commitment doesn’t simply fade like the furniture. Tara Parker-Pope’s take-away message is, “If there is a lesson from the Gore break-up, it’s that with marriage, you’re never done working on it.”
Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in NJ & NY since 1980 with an eighty percent success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He counsels via Zoom & Skype, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and authored the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. email@example.com