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Are relationships doomed to die?

Being of a certain age, I and a whole generation of young women who have been married a decade or more have come to the rocky stage of our romantic relationships.  The honeymoon phase is not only a memory, it’s beginning to fade.  Most of us have children and some grown children.  Except for a few exceptions, say 2, the majority of my married friends are from dissatisfied to miserable in their marriages.  The rest are just hanging in there for the sake of the children.  As a result, many have kicked their husbands out of the house or are living in roommate arrangements with them.

While the statistic that divorce hovers at 50% for first time marriages is common in the US (while there might be contention in statistical methods placing it more at 43%), what people don’t realize is that it is over 60% for middle age. Research shows the divorce rate among middle-aged and older adults has doubled over the past two decades.  In Greece, the divorce rate has stayed relatively fixed at 15% or so, one of the lowest in Europe. But, the satisfaction for women in marriages in Greece tells a different story.  Getting divorced or staying in a marriage by themselves do not show whether a person is satisfied with their relationship.

Here are some interesting stats gleaned from a quick scan of the web:

  • 13 divorces an hour are currently granted in the UK, according to the ONS. The average age for a man to divorce is 45; for a woman 42. And there has been a 0.5 per cent increase in divorce for 40- to 44-year-olds between 2011 and 2012, when 22,506 people called time on their marriages.
  • In a study titled “The Gray Divorce Revolution,”  the proportions ever divorced, currently divorced, and married at least twice are highest among individuals aged 50 and older (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). Specifically, the weakening norm of marriage as a lifelong institution coupled with a heightened emphasis on individual fulfillment and satisfaction through marriage may contribute to an increase in divorce among older adults, including those in long-term first marriages. Marriages change and evolve over the life course and thus may no longer meet one’s needs at later life stages. Qualitative research indicates that many older couples that divorce simply have grown apart (Bair, 2007). Lifelong marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies; older adults are more reluctant now to remain in empty shell marriages (Wu & Schimmele, 2007).
  • Authors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers find that it’s time to reassess our views of “the American family” given the relatively new and still evolving conditions that now determine whether people marry, stay single, or break-up.  These forces include the aforementioned rise of the birth control pill; higher incomes for women and greater access to education; and new household labor-saving technologies that make it more likely a marriage today will involve people with “similar incomes and interests” as opposed to individuals with clearly defined and distinctly different domestic and wage earning roles. In particular, they argue that marriages can no longer be characterized as having household specialization and children as the central tenet. These changes mean that couples today have different expectations about the benefits of both forming a union and formalizing that union through marriage. (Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Driving Forces (NBER Working Paper No. 12944).


Given the readings and observations I make outside myself and my own internal reflections, I have come to the conclusion that love does not last.  As Erich Fromm (1956, cf. Dwyer, 2000) pointed out, there is hardly any activity or enterprise that starts with such tremendous hopes and expectations and yet fails so frequently as love does.  This realization is neither a rant, nor a cause to fall into deep depression.  It is what it is.  It is inevitable that relationships like people evolve.  Just like any living thing has an organic process of birth, growth, decay and death, so does a relationship.

Just because a relationship is doomed to die does not mean that it is not worth it.  Just like death cannot make living not worth it.  The beauty of first love, the passionate connection between two strangers who become the most intimate of soulmates is so moving, so powerful that that force will never cease to awe and inspire generation after generation of singers, poets, filmmakers and the like.  When I look back, falling in love with my husband was one of the most potent and precious moments of my life.  Nothing can take away the ecstasy and the bliss of knowing that you can love once again and that you are loved back.  It is from this embrace of love that souls are born.   That love bore fruit, and such sweet beautiful fruit it is.

But with time, stress, and distance, relationships change.  The rough weather of tending to the many details of everyday life, the work-life conflicts, the tensions of raising turbulent teenagers, the tug of mortality–they have all conspired to slowly kill the easy flow of passion.  Now love and relationships are hard things.  You have to sweat, to struggle, to juggle through them.  Things have a tendency of drifting and falling apart if you do not actively work to keep them together.  It’s hard to keep loving someone who has deliberately hurt you, who refuses to pick up their dirty socks even after repeated reminders, who prefers to text and write to his people on Facebook rather than hold an honest intimate conversation with you.

I think many women (and men) stuck in marriages that are starting to rot prefer to separate than live lives of “quiet desperation.”  Unlike my mother’s generation who kept together no matter what (infidelity, abuse, incompatibility), our generation has more choice and freedom.  But along with this freedom comes the increase of divorce.  We would prefer to live life on our own terms than to stay shackled in marriages that frustrate, repress and dissatisfy us.  Which is why just looking at divorce and marriage statistics does not warrant a raising of the alarum bell that the family is going to pieces, that the traditional family is threatened by feminism, modernism, consumerism, etc.  No, dear friends, our mothers and grandmothers did not have a better marriage life just because they stayed married.

The couples I know who have been able to stick it out even in the hardest of circumstances do so with a lot of work.  They spend time with each other; they force themselves to submit to the needs and the will of the other; they respect each other; they talk.  When need be, they even get outside help.  After the 10th year, (probably after the 6th), it takes a LOT OF WORK to keep a relationship pruned and healthy.  When people cannot commit to that work, either because of time constraints, personal failings, stress, those relationships have a steep expiration date.  Every day a long-term relationship needs resuscitation, not just once a month, and BY BOTH PARTNERS. Relationships fall apart because neither one is willing to do the work or put in the time to salvage it.

Leo Tolstoy in his wisdom has remarked, “To say that you will love one person for your entire life is like saying a candle can last forever.”  The truth is you will light many candles in your life and watch them melt to a stub that disappears in the sand.  I tend to think that three is the magic number.  You can realistically fall in love (the head-0ver-heels erotic love) with three people in a lifetime.

Relationships and marriages are doomed to die.  Nothing lasts forever.