Can your marriage survive the 'frustrated forties' ?
Mid-life divorce is on the rise, from Hollywood to Howth, with far-reaching consequences for family, friends - and your social life. Here, Tash Bell reports on the new etiquette of separation: who to back, what to say and why you should never feel smug
Mid-life was once a time to sit back and smell the roses. OK, you probably smelled your partner's socks, too, but that was the price you paid for security. Not any more: the mid-life marriage meltdown is on the rise. Jennifer Garner (43) and Ben Affleck (42) have fallen victim after 10 years, two daughters and a son together. Supermodel Heidi Klum (42) and the singer Seal (52), who used to renew their wedding vows at a lavish annual bash, divorced last October after totting up nine years and four children together. And last week it was revealed that singer Gwen Stefani (45) and her musician husband Gavin Rossdale (49), who have three children together, had filed for divorce.
Standard celebrity shenanigans, you might think - but are these high profile casualties merely a symptom of what's happening to us lesser mortals? Since divorce was introduced in Ireland in 1995, almost 100,000 couples have availed of the law. Although there are no official statistics available in Ireland on the age range of divorcees, anecdotal evidence suggests that we follow the same trends as Britain, where the average age for a man to divorce is 45 and for a woman 42.
"The saying goes that if a marriage gets through the 'frustrated forties' then it will survive forever, and I would agree with this," says Becky Spelman, a relationship counsellor with the Private Therapy Clinic in London. "To many, the age of 40 represents an opportunity to analyse the success of your life and your choices, including marriage partner."
Which can make life quite tricky for those of us with friends who are joining the mid-life divorce rush. Which team do you support? Should you try to preserve the status quo, or adjust to the new one? Do you take cover - or take sides - when marriages all around you combust? "When I divorced, I figured the real friends would stay with me come what may - and that turned out to be true," says Ayesha Vardag, president of UK family law firm Vardags and the woman known as the 'Diva of Divorce'. No pressure then.
Thankfully, a new etiquette is emerging (see panel, p20) to help us cope with this latest trend. It is rooted in not being judgemental, however tempting it may be. What? Are we really required to be so understanding that we can't get even a little cross with one side or the other, or both?
Not according to relationship counsellors Relate; your friends will be feeling blamed and attacked enough as it is. "When you're in the midst of conflict it is difficult to be positive about anything," says Denise Knowles, a relationship counsellor for the organisation. The danger, she says, of getting involved is that you will begin to see your own marriage as divorce material. "It's like getting broody when all your friends are having children," she says. "If your friends are getting divorced you can't help but feel a sense that it could happen to you."
Fear was indeed the first emotion experienced by my friend Sally, when her best friends split up earlier this year. "It felt like a little a bit of our world had gone boom," she says. She and her husband had known the couple - call them Jack and Jill - since their university days. After 25 years of shared good times, Jack and Jill bought a house around the corner: their foursome was future-proof. Except two days after moving in, Jack moved out - leaving the others to patch up Jill. "We loved them both dearly," says Sally, "but there was a selfish bit of me that did want to cry: 'We've just got everything nice, and now you've ballsed it all up.'"
Truth is, friends and family get on board a marriage, and they can feel sunk when it ends. And by the time we hit our 40s and 50s, most of our friends are couples. When a couple splits, it can be devastating. And it makes it really difficult to throw a dinner party.
My former neighbour Lucy roped her dentist husband into several respectable years of dinner-partying with three other couples who live in their village. Recently, one couple hit the rocks, and it wrecked their last dinner (husband grew brooding; wife turned coquettish, and pursued male host into a wardrobe). Now Lucy has to arrange "secret dinner parties", so the surviving couples can get together to bitch about, ahem, discuss, the divorcing one.
Sinead, a 54-year-old property developer, has hit a similar wall. She and her husband formed a raucous "dinner party gang" with a dozen or so other couples, all parents from school. A decade down the line, Sinead reports that half the couples are divorced - and "the fun ones" at that - so the surviving friends now just go down the pub, where Sinead's husband is often the only man.
"He can't get there quick enough," she adds ruefully. Though Sinead assures me of her husband's fidelity ("he's that knackered"), many wives panic when divorce strikes their circle. Fearing a tsunami of singletons, they batten down their husband hatches.
Kim, a beautiful 48-year-old American acquaintance of ours, says she was "instantly dropped'' from her regular dinner party circuit post-divorce. And not for the reason you would automatically expect. "There are a lot of rocky marriages out there," she observes. "Some friends saw me as a threat. Others were terrified - scared of my sadness - but also jealous of my freedom...and its promise of great sex."
As a result, with several husbands wary of her influence, Kim still finds some of her friends subject to a curfew. "Even now, their husbands worry I'll lead them astray. My girlfriends can meet me for coffee, but they're not allowed to go out at night with me because - as a single woman in my 40s - I'm clearly on the hunt.''
In fact, an unhappy wife is more likely to seek a solicitor than a stud. (The stud can come later.) In Ireland, 56pc of applications to the Circuit Court for divorce last year were made by women. Ayesha Vardag agrees that men "rarely pull the trigger" on a divorce. Even when being unfaithful, they "would rather have their cake and eat it," she says. Both Sinead and Kim confirm it's almost always been a female friend who has instigated a split. Now the "go-to person" when a friend's marriage starts to sour, Kim confides, "I've taken six girlfriends along to my lawyer in the last year alone."
It's not just Kim's solicitor experiencing a rise in traffic, however. With the recession in retreat, couples who opted to grin and bear it during the downturn are increasingly packing their bags and heading to Splitsville. The most recent statistics for Ireland, from the Courts Service, show that there were 3,831 divorces granted here in 2014 and a further 1,271 separations.
Vardag confirms the trend exists in the UK, and explains the logic: Anyone instigating a divorce has just one chance for a "big primary hit" to secure their whole future, she says. This makes timing crucial. If the family home has dropped in value - business is struggling or bonuses are thin - it makes sense for a prospective client to wait for "a positive economic bump". "Right now we're busier than ever," she says.
But if our recovering economy has caused a surge in divorce rates, why is it mid-lifers who are so keen to ride the wave? Perhaps it's not the age of the couple so much as the age of their children. Clinical psychologist, Dr Angharad Rudkin, cites "a well-established trend in marital satisfaction", in which happiness levels remain high until the children hit their teens - at which point they experience "a very significant dip". Dr Rudkin suggests various factors - the stress of coping with teenagers, careers at full tilt, and increased expectations of both romance and longevity. "The sense that we could have another 40 years in us," she says. And do we really want to spend it with our current spouse? If the answer is no, it can be parents who turn into teenagers. Snogging, drinking, fancying each other's friends… The freshly-divorced can feel 15 again (only this time they have a car). A former colleague recalls a heady five-year period when their local set hit their mid-40s: parties raged, divorces were toasted, and flirtations went a bit too far. (In a clear statement of intent, one obliging hostess even installed a stripper's pole in the orangery.)
Divorce, it seems, is a catalyst. After years of your social group running like a well-oiled machine, it takes just one "conscious uncoupling'' to loosen marital nuts all round.
As more of Sinead's friends started to separate, sedate soirées turned to carnage: paunchy 50-year-olds groped their friend's ex in the flower-bed; demure wives sexted across the dancefloor.
Of course, when parents start acting like The Inbetweeners, it's the real teenagers who suffer. Puberty's tough enough without your mate's dad coming down to breakfast wearing mum's La Perla wrap. When parents socialise around school, kids can struggle, as partners get shuffled.
And it's not just the kids... Truth is, we middle-aged fogies don't want to see a new face in the pack. Sally "froze" when her divorced pal introduced her new boyfriend - a pony-tailed hippy who couldn't have been more different to her tough, military ex. "It felt like some weird game of substitutes." Chat stalled, as Sally tried to duck anything that might touch on her friend's divorce or previous partner. "I'd seen her at her lowest. I knew all the financial details of the divorce settlement. I was a bad reminder." The meeting proved to be a goodbye.
Keep your friend post-divorce, however, and you may find they look rather different. Lucy's boss Frank divorced his first wife, declaring her "too podgy to poke". Two years later, he introduced his new girlfriend - a sexy, young gym instructor. When Lucy next saw them, the girlfriend was now "the wife". She was also two stone heavier, and keen to tell Lucy about the amazing supper Frank insist she cooked every night - a huge dish of soft cheese with a hard cheese lid. "Frank's a feeder," cries Lucy. "And I never knew!"
That's the heart of it, isn't it? We don't know what goes on in a marriage - but when a friend divorces, it speaks to us personally. But while married peers may show concern or disbelief, my single friend Cath admits to thinking, "Woo-hoo, another one's back!" Well, that's one way of looking at it.
How to spot a divorcé cliché
Stockpiling new pants. Men are prone to neglecting underwear standards during marriage. Middle-aged divorce is a market sector ruthlessly exploited by Calvin Klein and others.
Using a 20-year-old photo on an internet dating site and listing interests as 'Meeting young Latvians'. Also using an online identity BigHunkOfLove.
A Tough Mudder weekend, joining a choir, taking yoga or salsa classes. Any man over 40 joining these must be placed on a divorcé watch-list.
Saturday park bench Sudoku. A middle-aged gent enjoying sole weekend custody of his children for the first time inevitably turns to puzzles.
Supermarket trolley of readymeals and cheap wine. Divorce means a return to the subsistence existence of a student sitting finals.
Suddenly getting a dog. Not only a divorced man's best friend but increasingly the social lubricant for divorced men in municipal green spaces. Listen out for: "I don't suppose you and your pug are free tomorrow?"
Starting Thai/Russian language courses. A clear indication that a man is turning to "emerging markets" for his next relationship.
- Michael Odell
Nurture your marriage: Becky Spelman, psychologist
Don't believe what the movies suggest about new sexual partners. You and your partner should be able to relax into each other, and it is this intimacy that can be the bedrock of mind-blowing sex. If your sexual relationship is not where you want it to be, talk about it openly, avoiding any blame.
Appreciate each other. It can be easy to forget the little things in a relationship spanning decades, but it is these small things that make or break marriages. Try to appreciate three things about your partner every day and, crucially, share them. They aren't mind readers!
Grow the family. Not another child! A dog or cat
can be unifying and prepares you for the empty nest.
Remember when you were a teenager and you lived for the thrill of a hot date? Take turns to plan interesting and fun date nights out.
Get active. Couples who exercise together stay together. Find a sport or fitness class that you both enjoy, and get stuck in.
The new etiquette of divorce
The rules by Tash Bell
Don't pass judgement
Your role is to comfort and support, not sanction or take sides. Friends and family should be wary of offering their advice, especially when it's invariably terrible. When Kim learned her husband had been seeing prostitutes for the majority of their marriage, for example, her close coterie counselled against divorce. "Turn a blind eye," they said. "Keep the big house and the European trips." Her cousin agreed: "Just have an affair, honey."
Do look after your friends
Anyone coming out of a divorce is going to be slightly nuts. Until sanity returns, keep them fed, keep them company, and keep them off Tinder.
Don't precipitate your own divorce
Discussing your friends' troubles is not a good idea. You've witnessed their vows - and refereed their rows - so you're allowed a bit of post-match analysis. Beware of offering diverging opinions, however. If you're a man, don't rush to empathise with the husband who's left his family to "find himself" in Las Vegas. If you're a woman, don't marvel at the muscles on your friend's new toy-boy.
Don't tell Veronica
My husband is glad to be seeing more of his newly single pal, Tom, but their every jaunt starts with Tom hissing, "Don't tell Veronica I'm doing this." Until the ink is dried on the financial settlement, Tom can't afford for his wife to learn he's dining in Michelin-starred restaurants, or skiing in Chamonix. Divorce is complicated. If you don't know what to say to whom, say nothing. Beware Facebook, don't get gossiping on Twitter, and never, ever talk to anyone called Veronica.
Do learn from it
Failure of a friend's marriage is not a reason to be smug about your own - rather it's a chance to take note. Anecdotally, the divorce rate seems to soar when offspring hit their teens. Other causes cited were husbands working away from home, and partners not having enough/any sex. So women, keep your husbands close. And men, keep your wives tickled. Treat every divorce as a cautionary tale, and you might just stay married yourself.
Don't think the grass is greener
It's not. It's just as patchy as what you have now. When Sinead and her husband meet up with her divorced friends in the pub, they "never stop saying how lucky we are". And when Sinead's husband helps her into her coat to go home, she sees "a look of real sadness in their eyes". No one advocates staying in a terrible marriage, but we don't have to be in a permanent state of excitement, do we? (We're mid-life, remember, our legs can't take it.)
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