June 14, 2018

Gray Divorce

Gary Thomas — 

Jordan looked shell-shocked.

I knew him to be a gregarious man with a great sense of humor, accomplished, confident, almost intimidating (but only because of my insecurities, not because of his arrogance or manipulation).

Yet he sat next to me, swirling in a mental and emotional fog. “I don’t want to teach the Sunday School class anymore,” he said. “I just can’t. I’ve got to process this.”

Jordan was in his forties, but his parent’s marriage was breaking up, and it was tearing him apart. “They were the last couple I ever expected to go through this; how can I have any confidence in marriage now, including my own?”

My good friend, Dr. Steve Wilke, did a doctoral dissertation on the impact of divorce on adult-aged children. His conclusion? Divorce could be even more devastating to adult-aged children than to young kids—and Jordan’s real-life story was proving it.

Here’s how an adult child of divorce, Jen Abbas de Jong, explained it to me: “If you’ve almost completed your jigsaw puzzle so that there are only a few pieces left and someone comes in and turns the table over, tearing your puzzle apart, do you feel better or worse that the puzzle was almost finished? You feel worse, don’t you? And that’s what it feels like when you’re about to launch out as an adult and your parents get a divorce.  Part of the reason the divorce is so painful is that everything you were raised to believe about marriage–and perhaps used as the basis of your marriage–has changed.​”

The AARP, NPR, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Washington Post, all run periodic stories about “gray divorce,” couples breaking up in their fifties. It seems that many couples have the notion that they’ll hang together until the last child goes off to college, but on the way back from dropping their youngest child at the campus, they stop at the lawyer’s office to begin divorce proceedings.

We’re fooling ourselves if we think breaking up our children’s home will ever not be painful—even if they no longer live in it. Instead of trying to “minimize the damage,” why not take advantage of an opportunity to maximize the impact? At my son’s wedding rehearsal dinner, my wife counted up my son and daughter-in-law’s parents and grandparents years of unbroken marriage and came up with 310. Isn’t a legacy like that worth striving for?

Becoming empty nesters is actually the worst time to consider a divorce. You’ll have far more energy to rebuild a lonely marriage, more time to work through issues, and usually less stress to attack the marriage. You’ll have more freedom to rediscover sexual intimacy, more time and money to start doing more recreational stuff together—movies, taking walks, and going out to eat. The empty nest years should be seen as a season of tremendous promise, not doom. If your marriage is gasping for air, this is exactly the season where it will be easiest to resuscitate it.

Much of the cause behind gray divorce stems from the fact that couples have lived as strangers for years. They think they’ve become estranged because there’s something wrong with each other rather than the simple fact that the relationship is starving. It’s often a “software” problem, not a “hardware” problem. Instead of getting a new marriage we can invest the same time and energy into rebuilding the old one.

This is a warning to younger couples: don’t let this happen to you. In my book A Lifelong Love I warn of couples who have a lifetime of shared tasks but no shared intimacy. A good marriage is something you make, not something you find, and the hope behind that belief is that you can choose to re-make a marriage at any stage. Don’t overestimate your willingness to put up with a sub-par marriage “for the time being.” When the time is over, you just might stop “being” as a couple.

For those of you about to become empty nesters: what I’ve found is that the initial patterns and routines of an empty nest are crucial. Your marriage will be in a state of flux for a few months, but it won’t be much longer than that before it settles down into the “new normal”—the same old alienation, or a new sense of companionship, purpose, and intimate relating.

Lisa and I consciously decided to do more together than ever before when we became empty nesters. Lisa is now with me more often than not when I travel. We take more bike rides together. We’ve settled on a few favorite television shows. We’ve discovered another empty nest couple that lives just two miles away and have begun new friendships. And we’ve figured out that when the house is empty, you can “go for it” whenever you want to. The clock doesn’t matter. We miss being active parents, but our relationship has never been stronger, closer, or more intimate.

For your own happiness, and certainly for your children’s, use the empty nest years to rediscover each other, build a deeper legacy, and a more intimate marriage. Instead of killing an estranged marriage, choose to rebuild it, reshape it, and rediscover it. Wouldn’t you rather leave an even more inspiring legacy rather than send your adult children reeling with the news that their childhood home no longer exists?

The last child leaving home needn’t be seen as the “finish line,” but rather the starting line to a new intimacy, a bigger legacy, and even the best years of your marriage. 

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27 responses to Gray Divorce

  1. “Part of the reason the divorce is so painful is that everything you were raised to believe about marriage–and perhaps used as the basis of your marriage–has changed.​” A big YES to this quote. When my parents separated, I was 16 years old. I felt like my whole world was shifting. It’s very difficult to have your parents split apart after being together for so long. Very, very difficult. The redemptive part of this story is that God used this painful issue to reveal the problems that were in play in my parents’ marriage. Problems that, if I hadn’t realized it, would likely have very negatively affected how I chose a spouse and what I thought of marriage. As terrible as this process was, I do believe it changed how I approached marriage for the better–by the grace of God. I still wish I could sit down with every older couple contemplating divorce, though, and explain how it will affect their grown kids. It will always affect your children. But take heart, God is a God of redemption, too.

  2. My parents divorced in my first year of marriage. I went through a tough time of grieving that loss, and then when we had kids, it was a challenge to juggle the three grandparent families we had to deal with. We figured it out, but there was always a sadness in me that I couldn’t simply visit my parents together or freely talk to one about the other. When my father died, it was not my mother there but his wife — and while she was lovely, it just wasn’t the same.

    While I believe divorce is sometimes the only or best option (e.g., persistent adultery or abuse), most divorces could be avoided and marriages could build fresh intimacy. Thank you so much, Gary, for shedding light on that! We’re not empty nesters yet, but I can see already that having kids launching soon has made it easier for my hubby and I to have time and energy to connect. We hope to do a lot more of it and secure a loving home for our children (and—fingers crossed—grandchildren someday) to visit.

  3. Great job once again Gary!!! All so VERY true! I have been “preaching” this message as a marriage and family counselor for 30 years! In her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein says the “major contribution of her book has been to recognize…that when children of divorce become adults, they are badly frightened that their relationships will fail, just like the most important relationship in their parents’ lives failed.” Makes so much sense! If what is by nature supposed to be the most important relationship in the world (our parents) relationship fail, how can we hope that ours will make it! We MUST help couples learn there is a new way – a way to make it through whatever difficulties they face! I am right there with you, working and praying we can show them the Way! Thanks again Gary!!

  4. Christine Weston June 15, 2018 at 12:14 am

    This is so precious! My husband is unable to walk. So I encourage every person who can walk with their spouse to do so! Explore! Minister! Run around with your grandkids! Enjoy every bit of nature! Sit on your deck and chat. Snuggle by the fireplace! I pray that each couple, who is able, will take advantage of all their hopes and dreams together!
    Our activities are limited, but we are attempting to focus on goodness, kindness, and love. When these are intentionally sought after, any marriage can thrive, no matter the limitations! Ours needs prayer, lots of it. It is easy to envy our past and others instead of focusing on the positive things between us. Can’t we all say that? If we can encourage our friends—really anyone who will hear our hearts—to cherish every gift and opportunity for the remainder of our marriages, then we can all be encouraged by God’s work in us!

  5. What if you knew that God really didn’t want you to marry that person and yet you married him/her anyway? No real marriage, just shared children? Does God really want you to be together?

    • Hi Wondering,
      God is in the business of redeeming. Even our mistakes. In my opinion, you repent of your sin of disobedience to His voice, and then you wholeheartedly give yourself to your marriage. Two wrongs never make a right. However, if you are in a marriage characterized by infidelity (including porn) or abuse, you should separate yourself from such destruction.

  6. Garrett J Bredy June 14, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Hey Gary I have been a “silent” reader for about a year now and have greatly enjoyed all the wisdom and insight you have given into marriage, as well as pointing it all back towards God. I just wanted to ask for prayer, because on June 23rd I am getting married to my best friend and future wife. I couldn’t be more happy in this time but I know any prayer would only uplift us even more.

    Thanks for all the good reads, and i can’t wait to continue reading them as a married man!

  7. My parents divorced, two of their three siblings divorced, my sister divorced, and my in-laws had all kinds of problems but were married for more than 50 years until Dad’s passing.

    I was determined that my marriage wouldn’t end in the divorce, but I didn’t do anything to build my relationship with my beautiful bride of now days short of 26 years. Infidelity essentially ended our marriage, and I’m grateful for my wife giving me a chance to rebuild trust and win her heart.

    “But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.” – Psalm 13:5.

    I am clean and clear, focused on my relationship with God, and working to get to the other side and to have a marriage that is more exciting, fulfilling, and beyond imagination. I love my wife.

    • Reading this made my heart beat a little faster. Divorce was the only option for my ex husband after my infidelity. No matter the circumstances, I am very ashamed of it. My best friend/husband of 20 yrs didn’t or won’t even try to bring our family back together. We have two boys and he only allows us 1 day every two weeks. My heart hurts and my boys suffer. I wish he would have had guidance from real Christian men who could have been an influence and may have been able to save my family. I haven’t given up on my family even though the divorce is final. I feel empty without my family. This is all so surreal. My marriage is worth saving.

  8. Hi Gary,

    This post causes some pain in me on multiple levels. I remember getting the news from 3,000 miles away that my parents were splitting. I was in my 30’s with 3 young children. It was shocking, confusing, disorienting; I felt like the foundation of my life had just crumbled. My dad was an addictive-compulsive personality, and I won’t go into all the anguish he put my mom through. She was right to withdraw from his abuse of her and the marriage, and yet…my world had lost something significant.

    Fast-forward years later…after 30-plus years of marriage I have separated from my husband and have filed. My marriage was filled with significant emotional, financial, and spiritual abuse. My children and I walked on eggshells so as not to send my husband into a rage; we were controlled through heavy-handed emotional and spiritual bullying. Thankfully, the Lord did a deep work in me and gave me the courage to confront the “evil regime” through reaching to let others know (I was not “allowed” to get counseling, and so to do so meant rebelling against his leadership—one aspect of the spiritual abuse) and a series of wider and wider boundaries in an effort to help him get help. It is clear that he is either uninterested or unwilling to do the very hard and painful work of true repentance that results in deep, lasting change.

    So here I am, knowing the pain my boundaries are causing my grown children. I have the support of each one (they lived through it too) and yet, I know it has shaken their foundation deeply. I remember the feeling.

    However, after I filed, a Christian therapist said to me, “Now your children can begin to heal!” Sometimes a very hard, sad, grievous public acknowledgment of the flagrant abuse of the word marriage is necessary. Sometimes it is actually the most loving thing one person can do for another trapped deeply in sin. It had validated my children’s pain and suffering under their dad, as well as mine. The false foundation of a pseudo marriage may be gone. But the solid foundation of Christ will remain, for me, and I pray for my children, too. I pray also that my husband can find his way out of darkness and into light. I just finally had to realize I could not help him. He is responsible for getting the help he needs, and it’s ok for me to have as much compassion for myself that I have for others. I’m worth protecting, too.

    For regular, everyday, non-abusive marriages out there: marriage is hard, and good, and worth fighting for. It’s suppised to be a picture of Christ and the church. Work and pray to make it so. Don’t settle for mediocre status quo. It is meant to be so much more!

    Thank you, Gary. I’m grateful for your ministry.

    • You sound like a wise woman. Thanks for adding this important perspective

    • I just heard myself speaking, almost crying reading your comment, T.J. … Don’t have to comment anything to that hell I/we (me and my children) went through the past 20 years. Except this: For everyone else we (still) look(ed) like an almost perfect family. What was going on inside was even difficult for me to see and to get aware of what we really were suffering. And my husband still thinks there’s nothing really going wrong, but his wife and two of his three children. He thinks therapy is useless and nobody needs it, especially him. I’m still married. I wanted to stay til our children are old enough to deal with a divorce. A sacrifice I meanwhile believe was not really helpful, for none of us, because the problems especially my children have with themselves and their relationships might have their origin in the “unhealthy” relationship of their parents I fear and: even grew while they were growing up. But: God is Lord over the lives of our whole family – he can heal at any time and I pray and trust that he will ! Divorce seems to be the only way for us to break with sin and abusive behaviour at the moment … But: I still don’t want to give up. The next few months will be our last chance for our marriage and our family. So I keep praying.

      • Dear Stef, my heart goes out to you. I “hoped and prayed and believed” for 35 years. Finally, I realized that God was calling ME to change—to stop enabling a destructive person with a disordered character. My husband refused counseling also, (until I separated from him), so I went alone.

        Gary is a godly man whose writings I appreciate greatly. But I think you need suppirt and encouragement from someone who really focuses on the troubling type of dynamics present in your marriage…Three resources I highly recommend: Leslie Vernick’s books and blog (where you will find an active, supportive group of women who can relate to what you are going through,) Chris Moles, Patrick Doyle/The Dove TV on YouTube, and Dr. George Simon’s books and blog. These Christian people-helpers are specializing in and are actively addressing destructive people and destructive marriages. They all helped me understand what I as happening in my marriage, and blew the fog away. I repented of living a lie, and decided to stop pretending and step out of the darkness and shadows and into the light. (1John 1:5-10) I invited my husband to come too, and deal with the ugliness and sin. It was clear he preferred the pretense, and I could no longer tolerate that sin.

        I hope this helps someone…

  9. This post was really good and good for me. I have been divorced for almost 1 year with 2 adult kids and trust me this is the truth. Thank you for something so honest and true.

  10. I read this with a sense of Irony. My wife and I were one of those couples who were at real risk, and probably only survived those first empty nest years because neither of us were willing to upset the status quo. Our marriage limped along for 10 or 12 years, not because of any committment to each other, but because it would have been harder to do something new.

    A few years ago, God got ahold of me and I started acting like a husband should, and things began to change. A lot of past hurts were laid out and there was a lot of repentance and forgiveness all around. My wife became my best friend, and I was looking forward to things getting better and better as we both drew closer to God and to each other.

    Then the last year hit us out of nowhere. First her dad succumbed to dementia, then my Mother passed away, then our son, who was spiraling into depression and alcoholism moved back in with us(a temporary measure to help him regain some footing), and then both my wifes parents passed away within the same week, leaving major difficulties to my wife.

    Along the way, I have been deliberating about lifting my wife up at every turn, and being everything that God called me to be. I considered it a blessing that my mother passed first so I would know how that felt, and be deliberate to never leave my wife feeling alone thru her own grief. My wife never even acknowledged mine. I can’t recall her even telling me she was sorry my mom passed.

    Anyways, here we are, and I am near the end of my rope. My wife still barely acknowledges me. I reach for her hand or try to embrace her, and she pulls away. I try to talk, but there is always something more important(TV). I tell myself that it has nothing to do with me, but then I see her light up and sparkle every time she is around someone else. She gives all her best to others, and I am left with her grief, her anger, and her angst.

    I sometimes wish we had not had those few really good years, so I would not see what was lost. I wish I knew how to get them back, bit the truth is I have tried. It is not within my power to change her.

    • Hi Doug,
      Is your wife open to getting some counseling support to work through her grief, pain, and the walls she seems to have erected in your marriage? It sounds to me like there is more going on deep inside of her than perhaps you know about, and it sounds like she needs some help to get in touch with and then process those things. Praying that the Lord gives you great grace and wisdom to love her well through this. That could mean gentle insistence on getting some help before your marriage dies.

      • TL,

        While I agree with almost everything you said, I find myself second guessing every idea I have.

        We belong to a very strong and supportive small group at church, and we meet weekly. Thru much of this year, I have shared my own personal struggles and hurts, because that is really the only avenue I have where I know she will sit and hear me. No matter what I share, I am met with stone silence. I had hoped that my being open would give her permission to do the same, but she simply does not let anyone past the walls. I have entertained the idea of meeting with them privately to both let them know so they could pray for us, but also so they could support me as I try to endure. I second guess that idea on a number of fronts. First, she would find that to be a huge betrayal. It could go so sideways that we would not be able to recover from it. It would also probably be the end of our fellowship, and right now, I can not afford to be totally isolated. While they don’t know everything, they know enough to recognize many of our struggles and support us. Thruout this year, they have been there to pray when I asked. When my wife was having a particularly difficult day, I was able to contact the women and ask them to reach out to my wife, when she would take no solace or comfort from me. I also have to ask myself if I am just seeking out sympathy at her expense.

        No…. I am at a loss how to proceed other than to just endure.

      • Hi Doug, I am writing down your name on my prayer list. I lost my wife a few months ago and am involved in a GriefShare program at a local church with others. May I encourage you to consider this – here is the link to find a group https://www.griefshare.org/

    • It seems to be a hard concept for men to grasp- as young wives, you ignore us, walk on us, take advantage of us, take us for granted, and use us for sex. We cook, clean, and try to keep the household running while you go off and chase your dream while ours are put on hold. And you wonder why we become cold and withdraw. Then one day you wake up and “repent” and promise to change your ways. However the years of damage has already taken its toll. A wife that has been ignored for years by a preoccupied and busy man can’t just flip a switch and suddenly embrace her “new” changed man. It took years to cause her to shut down- it will take years to draw her back out. Years of you proving to her that this time you are sincere. Years of relearning that she can truly trust that your motives are for her and not just wanting to benefit you. I wish that guys would realize that women can endure years or neglect and abuse, but once she has had enough and closes her heart to you it will take nothing short of a miracle for her to ever soften and reopen it to you again. She can no longer tolerate the hurt. Her only safety is to keep it closed.
      Think of her as a wounded stray puppy. The only way she will let you to approach her is if you show your self safe and let her slowly approach you. Be aware that any wrong moves on your part will just send her quickly scurrying away and thus make it much harder to ever get her to come your way again. Good luck. It can be fine, but you have a lot of work ahead of you.

    • Doug, have you read Gary’s “Sacred Marriage” book? Highly recommended! Also, “Sacred Influence,” which I think is written for wives but is helpful for the spouse who wants to change their marriage to a disinterested partner.

      I just paused to pray for you. May God give you strength to continue loving your wife, especially in those times when you aren’t receiving much in return.

  11. Ray & Linda Thompson June 14, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Thank you for addressing this issue. My husband and I were married only 3 years when my parents divorced after 27 years of marriage..and yes it shattered me. Both believers and the last couple you would ever think of divorcing, so if it could happen to THEM..it could happen to us!!
    Because we experienced it in our family there came a time in troubled years of our marriage we decided the word “divorce” would never even be spoken. A stake in the ground for us..we celebrated our 51 years of marriage this past March!!
    Praising God for that and being involved in a marriage ministry in our church ..only because of God’s mercy and grace.
    Yes the empty nest year’s are the best!!!

  12. The Baby Mama June 14, 2018 at 7:46 am

    You have no idea just how much I relate to this. I truly believe that 90% of the fears and anxieties I carry around with me today are because my mom left my dad after I got married. Yes, they had a tough marriage – but they also had a responsibility to make it work. And that is my fear, I can I make it work for myself when there is no foundation for me to build on?

  13. This advice works. We did just what Gary has recommended. My husband is my best friend. We are enjoying these silver years together and celebrating 35 years of marriage this year. We short change ourselves of some amazing years ahead when we rediscover that First Love with the person we married. Thanks, Gary!

  14. Thanks Gary. Really like this post (actually, really like most of them). My wife and I became empty nesters a few years ago – and will be officially there in about a month when our 4th child (and recent college grad) gets married. My wife and I have spent the last couple years (and a year preparing) mentoring engaged and young married couples at our church. I think this has been good for them (feedback has been good), but I think it’s been even better for us as we’ve focused more on our own marriage thru prayer, books, and lists of questions to run thru (i. e. meal time or on a date) that help us focus on our relationship and not just “what happened at work today”. We’ve each experienced tough days at work, had a mentoring couple over in the evening and totally been reenergized by the time they left.
    Thanks for this. Appreciate it. Keep writing!

  15. GT! this post is so well written! thank you!!
    God hates d i v o r c e… Malachi 2.. and He
    loves Revelation 2:4 this is whst He has against
    me .. IF I lose my first LOVE for HIM i pissibly
    might lose my first love … my Jim… God forbid..
    Currently im with family members for
    summer fun .. and im thinking of alllll the divorces
    on just my side of the family…. JEESUS SC