The Real Reason For Divorce At Midlife

the real reason why gray divorceIt’s no secret that midlife or “gray” divorce is skyrocketing. And, according to the AARP, 66 percent of these divorces — which have doubled since 1990 — are initiated by women. But the numbers, without any narrative, are just numbers. They don’t tell us why so many women, seemingly in droves, are making this heartbreakingly difficult decision. My interest piqued, I designed and distributed a survey to find out more. Hundreds of women took the survey and told their stories. And I am very grateful they did.

Because I’m a psychotherapist who has worked with dozens of divorced and divorcing folks, I wasn’t prepared to be surprise by the results. As it turns out, I was both intrigued and enlightened by many of the findings. But the one piece of data that most surprised me was this: A whopping 53 percent of women said they divorced their spouses because of emotional or psychological abuse. This was the number one reason women gave for leaving their marriages.

What is emotional (or psychological) abuse exactly? It’s the systematic manipulation of one person by another — through intimidation, bullying and criticism— in order to gain control. Emotionally abusive partners do this by making their spouses feel inadequate, stupid, guilty, lazy or ugly. There’s practically nothing the victim can do to win the favor of the abusive partner. She may be on her best behavior (defined by him), cook his favorite food every night, or lose 20 pounds so he’ll find her more attractive. Newsflash: None of these things will make a whit of difference. It often takes time before the victim realizes the futility of her efforts, so she will continue to dance like a marionette to please her implacable spouse.

Emotional abuse is always present at the start of a relationship, despite how cleverly cloaked it may be in humor or concern or love. It never magically appears overnight. People with a propensity to emotionally abuse carefully select partners who seem susceptible. Emotional abuse can, at least initially, fly below the radar. And emotional abusers are so masterful at their insidious craft that they’re expert in not scaring potential victims away.

How do you know if you’re in — or heading into — an emotionally abusive marriage? Simply put, if you don’t have healthy autonomy –- in speaking or socializing or living –- then you’re already in a danger zone. Are you watching what you say, who you engage with, or how you dress in order to contain his reactions? Do you limit what you tell others about the relationship because it’s an unspoken rule you shouldn’t talk about it? Emotional abuse begins with rules put in place by your partner. Rules designed to ultimately diminish and control you.

For over 50 percent of the survey respondents, years of being chastised and belittled finally took their toll. Enough of a toll that they ended their marriages because of it. Here’s what some of the respondents had to say, post-divorce, about being free from the emotional abuse they endured in their marriages. Their relief is palpable:

“I am free to pursue my interests without being made to feel guilty.”

“The best thing is not having someone to say no to things you want to do.”

“Being able to be my own person with my own goals and dreams without being told I’m ‘silly and pointless’ for the first time since I was 16 years old.”

“Not feeling as if I have to live my life under someone else’s ‘rules’.”

And while we now know over half of women surveyed left their marriages because of emotional abuse, even more — a full 70 percent — said they had married because they were in love. But as sure as the love was there, so was the flagrant abuse, lying in wait until the unique insularity of marriage gave it license to show its full face.

The wise, insightful women who took my survey are no different from me, you, your daughter, your manicurist, your physician or your favorite actress. Emotionally abused women aren’t weak or stupid. Almost anyone can be a victim of emotional abuse at some point during her life. To be clear, there’s no shame in being vulnerable to your spouse or working hard on your marriage. But it is problematic when you flail away at improving an irretrievably broken relationship while watching any semblance of self-respect disappear in the rearview.

Change can’t happen without insight. And a victim of emotional abuse may temporarily lose her capacity for insight as everything she ever believed about herself — and basic human kindness and decency— becomes skewed and distorted as a result of the abuse. But the data here is hopeful. The numbers tell us that somehow, some way, victims of emotional abuse are finding their way back to health and self-love. More than ever before in history, women are making it abundantly clear they’re no longer willing to stay to married partners who abuse them.

Abby Rodman

Abby Rodman

Abby Rodman is a psychotherapist, relationship expert, author and speaker, renowned for her focus on midlife dating, marriage and divorce. She has appeared on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda, HuffPost Live, and is regularly sought out by print, broadcast and online media outlets for her expertise on relationship issues. Abby is a regular blogger on the Huffington Post, better-after-50.com and YourTango. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine. Her book, "Should You Marry Him?" is a must-read for both women and men at any stage of life who are considering tying the knot. Abby is currently at work on her second book -- based on research she conducted -- which explores women's experiences with midlife divorce. 

  8 comments for “The Real Reason For Divorce At Midlife

  1. May 29, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Thanks for sharing this information! After my abuse and midlife divorce I read an important book that changed everything for me: I Closed My Eyes, by Michele Weldon. No one will ever disrespect me again!

  2. C. Levinson
    May 29, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Very interesting. Are you planning to publish a more complete report of your method and findings?

  3. Janny
    May 29, 2014 at 10:26 am

    The best part of my separation and divorce was the peace when I walked through the door. I didn’t have to wait for the “other shoe to fall” anymore. I will always love my husband on some level, but I will never live with him again, and when he calls and starts in about anything I can quietly hang up. He’s lucky to have me as his ex. I was the glue that held the family tight and kept him in the family loop. A long time ago a behavioral therapist told me that men like him don’t get better with age; no amount of therapy works with “guys like him”.

  4. May 29, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Fascinating. Truly. I saw a story where the couple said, hey, why wait until one of us dies to look for love? So they divorced amicably, and hang out together a lot! I’ve not seen a follow up.

  5. Annette
    May 30, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    I divorced my spouse – my college sweetheart- after 26 years of marriage due to emotional and psychological abuse. I decided I would rather be alone than live with a person who has a hole in their soul. Six years later I am happily remarried to the love of my life. Had I not had the courage to walk away from my first spouse, I am convinced I would have died a sad and bitter woman with lots of regrets. Divorce is difficult, but escaping a life with a black cloud hanging over your head is a wonderful gift to give to yourself.

  6. melissa
    June 5, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    Abby
    Thank you so much for this article!! I am 52 and have been married 10 years to a man who has made me feel ‘less than’ in so any ways. I know I should get out but just can’t seem to do it. There is just enough good about the marriage to keep me here.
    If you ever do any more surveys or need to discuss this further, I would be happy to share my stories.
    Melissa

  7. Joe
    July 9, 2014 at 10:37 am

    It took me 25 years to figure out that I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. The unique thing about my situation is that I’m a man. I was never good enough, could never do enough to be worthy of love and respect. Personality disorder was at the root of the problem but knowing that doesn’t make it any less painful. I love her but she is unable to reciprocate love. Society would like us to believe that women are the only abused ones in marriages but trust me, men suffer from abuse as well.

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