Who celebrates her 52nd wedding anniversary and then, six months later, files for divorce? Me, it seems.
And I’m not alone. Divorce rates for people 50 and above have doubled over the past few decades and more than doubled for those 65 and above. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: “gray divorce.”
My husband and I were then in our 70s, living in Jackson, Wyoming, where we had made a life together. Our split was set into motion one Saturday evening when he and I were out at dinner.
The night had started well: We were in a different environment, dressed up and feeling especially pleased with our plans, so it felt like a good time for me to ask, “Are you happy these days?” “What’s important to you lately?”
I’d come prepared to keep the conversation flowing, because I knew that old joke: “How can you tell it’s a married couple dining out?” “They have nothing to say to each other.”
My husband was happy, he reported, yet what was important to him turned out to cancel much of what remained of our common ground. Our lives held little togetherness other than love of our family and trading talk about our day. And talk was getting increasingly frustrating for us because of my husband’s difficulty in hearing.
He had planned for a couple of years to sell his motorcycle and use the money for hearing aids, but despite not riding it the past two summers, he hadn’t followed through.
That night I ran out of questions before our salads had even arrived. And I was dismayed with how many times I’d had to repeat myself. I finally said, “Which would you rather have: hearing aids or a motorcycle?”
“A motorcycle, definitely.”
An answer I already knew, even if I’d been in denial about it. But I was surprised by what happened next: An awareness rose within me that we had come to the end of this phase of our relationship. We had completed our marriage, gone as far as we ever would in our partnering. And I understood with fresh clarity how resistant I had been to this truth.
My feeling was hard to find words for because words weren’t involved — no weighing of pros and cons, no argument, no anger. Just the full-body sensation of: Oh, we’re done.
It choked me up. I had known this man since I was 17, a freshman in college wearing knee socks and plaid skirts. He was the mystery man on campus, an artist, a sport parachute jumper, a few years older than my friends and me.
Our start also had taken place in a dining room. While sitting at a table with my girlfriends, I stared at his reflection in a window across the room. It took me a minute to realize that he was staring at me in the window’s reflection too. We smiled at each other.
Decades later and thousands of miles away from our college flirtation, our dinners arrived, and I could barely swallow my food past the lump in my throat. There was a moment when I had to restrain myself from throwing my face down on the table sobbing, smearing mascara and pink lipstick on the white linens. I was saddened by all that I had hoped for this marriage, all the intimacy and sharing I had imagined could be possible and we hadn’t achieved, and that I now understood we never would.
I remembered another restaurant meal 20 years earlier, dining in Florida with my parents, who at the time also had been married more than 50 years. My mother was quite deep into Alzheimer’s disease and yet my father had rouged her cheeks and combed her hair for our evening out. I sat beside my mother in the booth, my father across from us. He reached for my mother’s hand and said, “We’re partners, aren’t we?”
My mother was incapable of responding, but I teared up.
I saw a truth in his remark that went far deeper than my father had intended, though it wasn’t an insight I was comfortable saying out loud. My mother had wanted my father’s undivided attention more than anything else in life, and she never felt she had received it. And my father, who viewed his breadwinner role as his entire reason for being, had rarely given her his undivided attention.
Now she received it from the moment he brushed her teeth in the morning until he tucked her into bed at night. My father was affected so deeply by my mother’s condition that he freely wept and often hugged her and me. Where he once used to leave the room in a huff if I became emotional and thump me on the back as his way of demonstrating physical affection, he now overflowed with emotion and had no trouble showing it.
So, yes, they were partners in marriage. They helped each other in some mysterious way to each receive what completed them. This was my role model of what a marriage meant in its most mystical sense. Partners meant two people who shared the experience of becoming their full selves.
I had hoped to hear from my husband an answer that would bond us. Instead I got: “A motorcycle, definitely.”
As I sat across from him, poking around my food, I wondered if partnering was what I had experienced in my marriage. I definitely had come into a sense of my full self from that knee-socked girl. Through our early years, I had leaned on my husband as a man far more experienced in the world than I.
And despite some challenges, I had matured, become a mother, an entrepreneur, a writer, all within the companionship of our relationship and with this man’s support. In return I had supported him artistically and in the small business we had run together, a retail shop at the base of the ski resort here.
Now we had completed all we were going to in the way of that exchange.
I didn’t talk about my new understanding of the state of our union that evening, nor did I for the following few days. I decided I would live with this new awareness as I watched my thoughts and emotions. I would talk to my husband about it on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, I called to make an appointment with a lawyer, because I knew if I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t follow through at all. Almost waiting too long, I called just before closing time.
The office paralegal answered. “What would you like to discuss with the lawyer?” she said.
Now I had to say “divorce” out loud. I stuttered.
“How long have you been married?”
She gasped, then recovered. My spirit had gasped with her.
Before Wednesday, I also had imagined what a caring and thoughtful separation might look like. Although we had completed the marriage part of our relationship, I intended to honor and love him until death do us part, so I approached the subject from that perspective.
Later he and I sat together, his arm around my shoulders, my hand tucked into his, as we worked out the practicalities. I suggested we keep our house and live in it together, which made perfect sense. We both loved our home and neighborhood, so we decided we would split the house into two apartments and rearrange the uses of certain rooms. We would call a contractor to make the necessary adjustments and divide the dishes and silverware.
Three years later, we had separate bedrooms, baths, kitchens, living spaces, studios, garden areas and porches. One of my friends called it “an elegant solution.” It felt good to us. Once in a while we walk our pups together along the Snake River. Occasionally, we go out to breakfast. We share newspapers and melons and celebrate birthdays and holidays.
People have wondered out loud: Why divorce?
For me, it felt honest to call our arrangement what it was. It was no longer a marriage or a partnership. Divorce allowed needed boundaries to be built and expectations of each other to be razed. Minimizing discord and maximizing harmony had been my intention throughout our relationship, and the new physical arrangement and legal structure enhanced the chances for this success.
Though I experienced pools of sadness during the days following our decision, I also felt great washes of relief. I was no longer acting in resistance to the disparate realities of loving a life partner while not partnering together in life.
More than a friendly divorce, ours was a loving divorce. Liberated from the expectations, routines and baggage of marriage, we can be friends. And if we ever need each other, all we have to do is walk next door and knock.
Tina Welling, who lives in Jackson, Wyoming, is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book, “Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature.”
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