When a lengthy marriage no longer works

Look at Tipper and Al Gore. After four decades of marriage, the former high school sweethearts announced their “mutually supportive decision” to separate. Close friends say the couple grew apart over the years and had begun living separate lives.

We expect seasoned marriages to last because it’s a throwback to our parents’ generation when couples stayed together no matter what, said Roswell-based relationship therapist Beverly Bird. They grow apart when couples neglect their relationship. The children leave home and people get busy, and the marriage is the first thing to suffer.

Despite the milestones, child rearing and hardships that have connected them, couples forget to work on the small and meaningful activities that created loving feelings. Eventually, they are left with a mutual love and respect but feel dead within the marriage.

“It’s that ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you syndrome,’ ” said Bird, married for 24 years. “Feeling alive [again] trumps almost everything else.”

Atlanta divorce attorney Randy Kessler agrees.

“It sounds sad for an older couple to get divorced, but it would be sadder for them to spend the rest of their lives unhappy,” said Kessler, whose office averages one divorce each month of couples who have been married a very long time. “People are not going to stay married because they’re almost dead. They don’t want to live the rest of their lives wondering ‘what if.’ ”

Couples such as the Gores can rebuild their marriages and regain a deeply committed love by putting effort into activities they enjoy and rekindling those old emotions, said Bird. If both parties want to revive the marriage and commit to working at it, the relationship can be salvaged.

If the marriage cannot survive, older couples can find the emotional and financial challenges of separating quite overwhelming.

“Divorce is not planned, and when it rears its ugly head, we’re terrified and sadder than any time in our lives,” said Margot Swann, founder of Visions Anew, an east Cobb-based nonprofit that provides seminars, resources and support groups to help women transition through divorce. “You feel like such a failure.”

Being alone and winding up a bag lady are the biggest fears for women, especially those who never worked outside the home, said Swann. “If you can support yourself with dignity and make good decisions, not only will you survive but thrive.”

Atlanta divorce attorney Tina Shadix Roddenbery, who handles one such case a year, recommends that older couples seek advice from a financial expert. They are no longer dealing with income-building assets but Social Security and retirement income that can be liquidated without penalty and taxes for post-retirement couples. A medical insurance broker can help secure cheaper rates if the couple applies prior to the divorce. Alimony for non-working spouses, life insurance and even long-term care are additional factors to consider.

Couples should explore all of their options before and during divorce, said Kessler. Even post-nuptial agreements can safeguard their assets and provide for its division in the event of divorce. The couple can choose to remain married but lead separate lives.

“It’s nice to not file for divorce,” he said, “because you don’t have the pressures of a court deadline, and you can create your own formula for resolution. People should be telling the lawyers what they want to do and not the opposite.”

Revive your marriage

Whether you’ve been married four years or 40, certified marriage therapist Beverly Bird offers some tips to help you rekindle the fire:

  • Be intentional. Practice the things that came naturally when you were dating. Do something every day that makes your partner feel loved and cared about.
  • Review your marriage contract. Consider the vows you made at least every 10 years and determine what’s working and what’s not. Renew the contract to meet your current needs.
  • Look in the mirror. Don’t wait for your spouse to change, but see what you need to change about yourself to help improve the marriage.
  • Seek help. Attend a weekend workshop or marriage retreat to get insight about yourself and your relationship before making any permanent decisions.

Source: Beverly Bird, www.gettingtheloveyouwant.com

Getting back out there

“Finding yourself alone later in life is disorienting,” says Barbara Bellman, author of “Flirting After Fifty.” “The rules have changed, the territory is not as safe to traverse as when you traveled as a pair through life.”

Here’s some help from Bellman in navigating the new terrain:

  • Choose to survive. After a lengthy marriage, the newly single person has to make a deliberate and life-altering choice whether to crumble under the weight of the challenges or re-emerge courageously to regain sure footing.
  • Take small steps. Find little find ways to step back into the world. Take a class, go on a trip to a place you’ve never been, or host small dinners or brunches with old friends or hopefully new ones. Read a good book or attend a play and stay after for the post-theater conversation.
  • Volunteer. Consider working at a museum or hospital or nonprofit.
  • Smile and make eye contact. People who are greatly wounded by their loss have a difficult time lifting their heads and making eye contact or smiling at people. They anticipate rejection, and therefore encourage it. Work on these small opportunities and build upon them.

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