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Some longtime couples find that not breaking up is hard to do

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; HE02

Al and Tipper breaking up? What a shock! But maybe not. Blame it on longevity.

As people lead longer, healthier lives, it is not surprising that long-married 60-somethings might decide to go their separate ways in order to make the most of the rest of their lives -- not just a few sunset years, but possibly two or three decades. If they are not happy together, why should they stay together?

Every marriage -- and each divorce -- has a private and public narrative. No one knows what really goes on between two people. We can spot certain divorce triggers, from abuse and addictions to emptiness, burnout and lust. But the unraveling of a marriage is much more complicated, especially in a long union.

Our notions of divorce are mainly based on younger breakups, since most divorces occur within the first 10 years of marriage. We even enjoy the sordid titillation of juicy celebrity smashups a la Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston: beautiful young people making a spectacle of their relationship.

But we are not used to men and women with crow's feet having a tabloid moment. Recent public examples of gray breakups -- such as the John Edwards debacle -- have no class, no dignity. We hold our elders to a higher standard -- a standard the Gores met. "This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration," they wrote in an e-mail telling friends they were separating.

That dignified announcement illustrates the different rhythm of late-life divorce, the different set of protocols required.

For starters, gray divorce does not erase or replace the decades of a long marriage. In an early divorce, the union is often looked at as a mistake. Ex-spouses often say, "We never should have gotten married." But when a couple stays hitched for 20, 30, 40 years, it's not a mistake, it's an accomplishment. The Gores had just marked their 40th anniversary; they have four children, three grandchildren and a shared lifetime of public service. That's a smashing record.

For another thing, as we age we become more understanding about the reasons for divorce, less likely to assign blame. According to a Pew Research Center telephone survey in 2007, about 65 percent of people ages 50 to 64 believe that divorce is "preferable to maintaining an unhappy marriage," compared with 54 percent of those younger than 50.

Long-term marriages tend to end with a whimper rather than a bang. High-conflict marriages have already washed out. Yet, many late breakups are deferred divorces. Waiting until the children are grown is a leading reason to stay in an unhappy marriage, according to a 2004 study by AARP on midlife and late divorces.

Other marriages burn out. A woman, 69, told me about her breakup nearly a decade ago after more than 35 years and four children. "We had moved in different directions. In another era, when people didn't live as long, we would have stayed together. But I was figuring that I had 30 more years left; the divorce rules are different, I'm financially independent," she explained. She and her ex-husband remain close; they live next door to each other. "It was the right decision. I love my new life, and I know he does, too."

Research by psychologist John Gottman suggests that with older couples, it is the absence of positives -- play, humor, joy -- that quietly kills a relationship. Population researcher Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania adds that people who divorce at this stage "want to do different stuff. They don't like spending their days together. They have different visions of the future."

Some long-married couples find a renaissance in this late-life period. They fall in love in a new way and relish grandparenting together. Being with someone who knows you so deeply is a potent aphrodisiac. And even not-so-good marriages, if they don't dissolve, are likely to get better with age, according to research at Stanford University.

But other couples come to this stage in a flat-line relationship. There's little engagement and a habit of walking on eggshells so as not to disturb the peace. Perhaps they can revive their union. Or stay married but lead separate lives.

Or, perhaps, they divorce -- because, for all the anguish and sorrow, it can offer hope for a better life.

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