The 4O-year itch can hit any pair

Dear Neil: As a longtime reader of your column, I’m curious as to what you have to say about the recent separation of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore to his wife, Tipper – after 40 years of marriage and after having raised four children together. What is your take on longtime marriages splitting apart? Why would anyone want to go into old age alone?

Surprised in Colorado

Dear Colorado: I am reminded of an article I read earlier this year in the New York Times. It was about a 93-year-old woman who entered a nursing home after her husband of 73 years died. When the reporter asked her what it was like to lose her husband-of 73 years, the woman replied that it was “heaven.” She then proceeded to say that she had endured decades in an unhappy marriage with a gruff, verbally abusive man, and she now felt liberated to enjoy her own pursuits, interests and friendships.

So why would a couple divorce after 40 years? For the same reasons that everyone else gives when they are getting divorced. Those reasons include the following:

  • They’ve lost the connection between them and can’t regain it. Their relationship has grown old, stale and boring, and they can’t find a way to recapture the excitement, warmth, friendship or passion – and nobody is putting a lot of effort into the relationship. Some couples just grow apart through the years, to the point where they feel more like awkward strangers than longtime lovers.
  • The romance has left, and sex is either non-existent or very stale. All of us imagine falling in love with an appealing, attractive person.  But after many years, some people have let their appearance or their bodies go to seed, and they are no longer appealing or attractive.  The thought of spending the next 20, 30 or 40 years looking at that same face and body may have zero appeal.
  • Unresolved resentment is the death knell of intimacy. Over time, old resentments never resolved can become seething indictments on the character, the values or the morals of one’s partner – so that you no longer desire a close relationship with your spouse.
  • Broken trust. Multiple small betrayals (or one large one), hurtful words or deeds, being dishonest or deceitful, or being seen as unreliable or untrustworthy once too often can lead to your intimate partner no longer trusting you at all. When trust in a relationship is severed, the relationship usually is severed as well.
  • Loss of respect.  Some people have given up and are not trying to better themselves, or their lives, or their families – and that can cause one person to lose respect for the other.  Perhaps one person has given up looking for work, thereby requiring the other person to pull the entire financial load alone.  Or perhaps one partner has grown addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, TV, shopping, negativity, cynicism, laziness, a “poor me” victim attitude, cigarettes, gambling, porn, or any number of other behaviors or substances that can cause someone to lose respect for their spouse.  The old refrain about this is that “familiarity breeds contempt.”
  • Some people are better able to take care of themselves and focus on their life goals alone.  After many years of devoting their lives to their careers, families or spouses, they want the time and the resources to spend on themselves. For some, there is more personal growth and greater reward in being alone than in being married. There is always the hope of meeting that engaging, emotionally available, nurturing, hot, sexy stranger who will put pizzazz back into your life.

The bottom line is this: If people married 40 years can divorce, so can you. So be sure to pay attention to the quality of the connection and clear up anything in the way of the two of you staying close.

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