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Dear Dr. Debug:
I am a wife who has been married to the same man for 23 years. I am on the verge of filing for divorce. We haven't seen eye-to-eye for years. It seems like we are just not meant to be together for our whole lives. I think this is a thought that rings true for a lot of adults like me who are approaching age 60. Marriages aren't what they used to be. For instance, people used to die at much younger ages than we do now. Signed: The Conflicts Seem to Never End.
The short answers to these questions are yes, we have unrealistic expectations about marriages based on old data and traditions, and, no, there is no such thing as a conflict-free relationship. Comprehensive answers to these questions are the subject matter of books, but I think I can point out a few things that might be helpful.
Divorce among all age groups, including those over 50, has been rising for many years. A widely-reported 2004 AARP survey of people between the ages of 40 and 79 showed that a majority of midlife divorces were initiated by women. Sixty-six percent of women asked for divorces, compared to 41 percent for men. Men, more often than women, were caught off guard by their spouse's request for divorce. Although many men were "surprised" by their wife's divorce action, the marital discontent had often festered for years.
The overwhelming primary reason that most people delayed divorce actions related to children. Fifty-eight percent of men and 37 percent of women in the AARP survey cited their children as the top reason the postponed a divorce for five years or longer. In the not-too-distant past, people did not live much past age 60, and thus, there was not much "free time" to contemplate what an independent life might be like. That has clearly changed.
We do not yet know for sure whether the increased divorce rate is a sign that we are coming to our senses about how difficult it is to stay happily married and we are more unwilling to pretend to be happy or conform to certain outmoded traditions or whether the increased rate is an indicator of increased problems in marriages. However, there are some things we know for sure. Divorce is a serious matter for older adults. People who stay married live four years longer than people who don't. Happily married people are much healthier than unhappy couples.
Since you did not specify exactly what kind of conflicts have been occurring in your relationship, I am not sure how to address the conflicts issue. However, here are a few things to keep in mind about marriages and conflicts.
In a large, 2002 Oklahoma survey, respondents who were divorced said that the two main reasons for divorce were (1) lack of commitment (85%), and (2) too much conflict and arguing (61%). Partner conflict can come from many sources, including disagreements about everything from the trivial to the significant. Each partner in a relationship has different personality styles, values, ideas, fantasies, time-structuring, opinions, likes and dislikes. Even very happy partners experience a large amount of differences and potential conflicts.
Some partners just "luck" into a mostly happy relationship because they just happen to have similar styles for resolving conflicts. Others have to work very hard at resolving conflicts because of their different styles. Some avoid arguments at all costs, some fight a lot, and some are able to find some solution other than raising their voices and can negotiate and come to an agreement. Partners tend to run into trouble when their conflict-resolution styles are different -- for instance, one partner desires to talk out a conflict while the other withdraws to some other activity. I am sure you may know people who never have a deep conversation about their differences, but they are happy and satisfied with their marriage.
According to John Gottman, Ph.D., a world-renowned marriage researcher who has filmed, evaluated and studied thousands of married couples, the main indicators of a potential divorce are (1) the way a couple argues, (2) differences in conflict-resolution styles, and (3) whether "negative sentiment" has begun to significantly overwhelm the "positive sentiment" in the relationship.
One of the major myths that Dr. Gottman addresses is "perpetual conflicts in a marriage will doom the marriage to divorce." His extensive studies of happy marriages show that you don't have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to work. However, there are specific, successful techniques that happy couples utilize for dealing with perpetual, unresolvable conflicts. In addition, Dr. Gottman has discovered specific techniques for resolving solvable conflicts.
The keys to working toward healthier conflict resolution skills are (1) deciding whether the conflict is perpetual or solvable, (2) determining if, as a couple, you are "gridlocked," (3) establishing the foundation required for all successful conflict resolution -- "communicating basic acceptance of your partner's personality", and (4) solving your solvable conflicts. The techniques that go into solving your solvable conflicts are too complex to address in this short column.
At the heart of Gottman's program for helping people obtain happier marriages is the principal that happy marriages are based on deep friendship, not on styles of communication. Conflict resolution techniques will not necessarily do much for partners who do not have a friendship. Friendship comes from some other place. According to Gottman, the seven principles for making a marriage work are (1) enhance your love map (Gottman's way of saying "increase your knowledge of your partner, including their history"), (2) nurture your fondness and admiration, (3) turn toward each other instead of away, (4) let your partner influence you, (5) solve your solvable problems, (6) overcome gridlock, and (7) create shared meaning.
I highly recommend reading Dr. Gottman's book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" before you make any major commitment to a decision about a divorce. I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Debug.
Ron Sterling, M.D. (Dr. Debug) is an award-winning psychiatrist in Seattle, Washington. He has been writing for newspapers and magazines since 1998 on subjects ranging from good manners to senior mental health. He hosts and maintains the well-known Internet mental health center, DearShrink.com. The Doctor Debug column is dedicated to assisting with the "debugging of malfunctioning elements in our own personal programming."
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