July 23, 2024
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Motivating Empty-Nesters to Fix Their Marriages Before It’s Too Late

Why are so many empty-nesters divorcing after 30, even 40 years of marriage? In 2014, people aged 50 and above were twice as likely to go through a divorce than in 1990, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research.

 

The Gores

Back in 2010, much of the secular media was (sadly) excited about the separation of Vice President Al Gore and wife, Tipper, after 40 years of marriage. I was distraught. Deirdre Bair’s essay in The New York Times nearly brought my blood to a boil. She authored a book on late-life divorces and described a new term, “the third age” referring to life after divorce. Bair described the “courage” these divorcing couples show as they leave the supposed security of marriage. “To them,” she writes, “divorce meant, not failure and shame, but opportunity.” Most of the couples she interviewed mentioned the desire for freedom and control over themselves for the rest of their lives as reasons for their decision to divorce.

Bair contends that we leave the all-about-me phase of our youth to get married and raise children. Then, when our adult children leave the nest, we should seek the all-about-me time again. Women and men want time to find out who they are. Many of her interviews end with, “It’s my time, and if I don’t take it now I never will.” She concludes, “Let us not feel shocked or sad about the end of the Gores’ marriage. Instead let us wish them well and hope that they might enjoy their third age.”

Do you think adult children are happy to see their parents split up the family and pursue their third age? Well I don’t! In Bair’s all-about-me world, there is no consideration for the many stakeholders in each marriage such as parents, children and siblings. Their lives will never be the same when the patriarch and matriarch divorce. In fact, when parents divorce, they significantly increase the odds that their children’s marriages will end in divorce. Grandchildren are impacted as well.

 

Don’t I Deserve to Be Happy?

This scenario plays out in front of me often during couples’ sessions: The wife declares: “I am getting older and I have been in a miserable marriage for over 30 years with a man who doesn’t understand me or respect my needs. Why shouldn’t I be happy for the final 30 years of my life … don’t I deserve that?” My response is often: “Why are you bailing out of your marriage commitment to search for happiness before searching for happiness within your 30-year marriage?”

We know that we reap what we invest, and using the word “deserve” implies that someone walks around gifting healthy marriages to random people. Tragically, less than 10% of divorcing couples speak to anyone about their marital difficulties. If a couple decides to work on repairing their marriage, I ask them for this commitment: two to three months of weekly therapy sessions where the “D” word is off the table.

 

Consequences of a
Child-Centered Marriage

What contributed to this regrettable trend? I believe that many couples put their marriage on the back burner for decades while child-rearing gets placed on the front burner as top priority. When children are primary and marriage is secondary, marital dissatisfaction can skyrocket. Researchers have also shown a higher risk of infidelity in child-centered marriages.

A child-centered marriage is exactly what it sounds like: Everything revolves around the children. Dr. Bill Doherty of the University of Minnesota explains: “There is a difference between adjusting your marriage to meet your children’s needs and losing your marriage to parenthood. The parental marriage is the foundation of the family: the base of the family superstructure. Setting limits on how much time and attention we give children, and how many activities we provide, is not stressed in our culture. Children too often own their parents.”

Doherty maintains, “The greatest danger of having a child-centered family is that when the children leave home, so does your marriage. The second danger is that, even if we stayed together after the children leave home, we are permanently diminished as couples. We choose vital parenthood, but we devitalized marriage. The third danger is the most benign, but still regrettable. We can restore our marriage after our children leave home and the light shines bright again. It is sad for two reasons: many years of unmet marital potential and the lack of good marital role models for our children.”

If you feel that I have been describing your marriage or the marriage of someone you care about, here are some practical steps that can help to bring your empty-nester marriage back from the brink:

  1. Daven for Your Marriage: Enlist divine assistance from the Almighty.
  2. Men: Ask your rabbi to recommend a text that you can learn with your wife to strengthen your relationship. The idea of the Michtav M’eLiyahu: the root of ahavah (love) is hav (to give). We love when we give.
  3. Seek professional help early from a religiously observant marriage therapist. This is the specific advice of the revered rabbinic authority of our generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.
  4. Seek help from your village. Ask your siblings and closest friends what helps them nurture their relationship.
  5. Appreciation < Admiration < Affection. When your car engine won’t start, call AAA for road assistance. When your marriage needs a jump start, utilize the three good A’s.

 

Closing Thought

Let’s teach our children that we value our marriage without devaluing them, that more for us means more for them, that we were mates before we were parents, and that in the solar system of our family, our marriage is the sun, and the children are the planets, rather than the other way around.


Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New York and New Jersey since 1980, with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He serves as an adjunct professor for the Touro University Graduate School of Social Work. He is a certified discernment counselor, coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book “Creating Your Perfect Family Size” (Wiley). All counseling sessions use Zoom. His mantra: “I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage.” [email protected]; (732) 572-2707.

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