Is the Road to Happiness...Divorce?

Sure, it takes guts to end a decades-long marriage, but more and more women in midlife are deciding to get divorced and fly solo.
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The New Face of Divorce

Kelley Alexander will never forget the night she met Chris Waynick. It was August 1993 and she was working the graveyard shift at a factory in French Lick, Indiana. Chris, who worked in the warehouse, invited her to breakfast at a local diner. "He was handsome and charming," Kelley recalls. "We had similar interests and wanted the same things -- a happy, passionate marriage and a houseful of kids." Chris proposed after just five weeks of dating; a week after that they were married. He was 21; she was 24. The following July Kelley gave birth to twin girls.

A year later, already pregnant again, Kelley discovered that Chris was having an affair. "He said stress drove him to it," Kelley recalls. "Financial and otherwise. We'd started a family before we really knew each other."

Chris seemed genuinely remorseful, and with her pastor's help, Kelley managed to forgive him. They had two more daughters and the marriage settled into a smooth rhythm. Chris, who'd become a classroom aide, was the main breadwinner, while Kelley worked part-time and ran the household. And then, a decade after his first affair, Chris strayed again.

This time Kelley found it harder to forgive him. She asked Chris to go into couples counseling, but he refused; he'd never been much of a talker. The two agreed to continue living together for the children's sake, and to avoid arguing in front of them. But in 2009, when their youngest reached middle school, Kelley finally decided she wanted a divorce.

"I was close to 40," she says. "My life was half over. It was time for me to do something for myself."

According to conventional wisdom, the longer a couple is married, the less likely they are to split up. It seems counterintuitive that, after weathering early storms, a marriage would fail as a couple enters middle age. The poster couple for this phenomenon, Al and Tipper Gore, shocked millions of Americans two years ago when they announced their separation after 40 years of a seemingly perfect marriage. But the Gores' situation is an increasingly common one. While half of all divorces occur at around a marriage's eight-year mark, a recent survey turned up an intriguing statistic: One of four couples divorcing these days have been married for at least two decades. Even more intriguing: Two-thirds of the time, it's the wife who pulls the plug.

Thirty years ago the notion of going solo in middle age would have horrified most women. "They used to say, 'You're fat at 40, finished at 50,'" says historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. "Today we have a longer active lifespan, more economic independence, and more opportunities for finding new partners after divorce. Women are less willing to put up with an unsatisfactory marriage."

"A lot of later-stage divorces happen in what I call semi-happy marriages," says social historian Pamela Haag, author of Marriage Confidential: Love in the Post-Romantic Age. "These relationships aren't terrible, but they're not fulfilling. Once the central function of raising children is taken care of, women often feel the marriage has become obsolete."

Indeed, "because of the children" is the most commonly cited reason for staying in one of those marriages, according to a study conducted by AARP. It's not merely that mothers want to shield their kids from the trauma of a broken home -- it's that childrearing consumes so much time and energy. Suzy Stauffer, 48, a mother of three in suburban Philadelphia, first began considering divorce when her youngest child was a baby. The former full-time mom had recently begun a career in TV production, which she loved. But her husband, Tom Slook, an IT manager, wasn't happy with her long hours and the way their roles and responsibilities shifted. "He was like, 'I didn't sign up for this,'" she recalls. Suzy insisted they go into counseling but after five years of sincere effort, they both knew it wasn't working.

"Each of us was trying to be what the other person wanted, and we were both miserable," she says. Their divorce was amicable, and became official shortly before their 20th anniversary. "I was the first to take action," Suzy says, "but it became a mutual decision. Neither of us wanted to drag each other through 20 more years."

Continued on page 2:  A Last Chance for a Happier Life


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