A man who’s thinking of divorce hesitates because of the children. Mariella Frostrup suggests thinking about how a marriage can evolve and adapt
The dilemma I am a 50-something well-educated man, married for nearly 30 years, with two children at university. For the past 15 years I have been unhappy in my relationship with my wife. There has been a constant difference of philosophy in bringing up the children: adventure versus cotton wool, exploration versus stay at home, achievement versus comfort zone, confidence versus reliance. Recently I was subjected to a long rant (not the first) in which she said I should drop my job, which includes lots of travelling, sometimes for long periods. It ended with a “me or your job” ultimatum. I have stayed this long for the kids. I would leave, but I am worried about the effect on their lives.
Mariella replies I’m not a stick-together-at-all-costs sort of person, but I don’t often advise the opposite either. Thirty years of marriage and two grown kids is quite a feat and agreeing on how to raise them is now a redundant argument, as your opportunities for influencing them slowly dissipate. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right, the reasons and the impetus to get the hell out.
I blame it less on your partner and more on medical science and healthier lifestyles. The reason a golden wedding anniversary attracts so much attention is that it’s meant to be rare. “Till death us do part” is a noble aspiration, but it dates back to the days when you weren’t committing to much more than a couple of decades. Nowadays, if you’re young and a fool for love, you could tie the knot at 18, leaving yourself with 70 years or more to “enjoy” the company of your “one and only”. For many that is more of a life sentence than a romantic idyll, and though such staying power represents an admirable ambition, it’s nigh on impossible to live up to.
If we’re increasingly headed towards life expectancies of up to a century, an awful lot of what we take for granted when it comes to jobs, children and mating needs to be examined. For a start, when attempting such Olympian heights of relationship longevity, regular reassessment periods – making departure a less complicated, messy and emotionally wearing process than divorce – would be an improvement on the current contract. How about creating a nuptial contract renewable on a 10-year basis and marking each passing decade that you stay together with a party for all those who have helped you stay the course, from in-laws and friends, to children and exes? Rather than token gifts for longevity of tenure, how about a “get out of jail free” card that you can choose to use or lose every decade? That way you offer incentives to each other and to those around you to keep the marriage boat afloat. One wedding, one reception and then a lifetime together with no punctuation, rolling along like waves on a beach, seems an altogether measly ratio of enjoyment to commitment.
I’m not making light of your dilemma, but instead illustrating what a good innings you’ve put in and why you have every right to at least ponder your options for the next half of your earthly existence. More people get divorced and come out in their 50s than at any other age, so you’ll be awash with single contemporaries and just one of many choosing to plod a new path. Obviously I’m not going to side with you on the reasons for your disgruntlement. Your gripes will be as subjective as every aggrieved lover’s complaint list. Nevertheless what you feel is as important as what’s real in such circumstances, and you clearly consider yourself to be much put upon.
Before you make any rash decisions it’s also a good idea to consider the opposite point of view. Don’t leave because you’re fed up or feeling sorry for yourself. Leave because you’ve come to a point where, rather than seeing your relationship improving thanks to your new-found freedom from the friction of co-parenting and the onerous financial responsibilities that come with it, you judge happiness to lie outside rather than within your home. You mention being subjected to a “long rant” from your spouse in which she asked you to choose between your job and your marriage. In the circumstances I can’t help wondering if she’s identified where the competition lies. Have you considered that she cares enough to want you to herself – contentment with the status quo not shared by too many women after three decades with one man?
I can’t tell you to stay, or give you permission to leave, I can only encourage you to think in a less linear way about your relationship before you chuck 30 years of hard-earned companionship out of the window. Then again, with the likelihood of another 30 to go, you’ve got plenty of time to start all over again. As for your kids, they’re close to adulthood now and will be making their own nests pretty soon, with little care for your opinions on their lifestyle choices. Of course they generally prefer things to stay as they are, but they also adapt pretty well to change, so long as it’s handled with kindness, sensitivity and there’s something in it for them – like two homes where they can get their laundry done instead of one.