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Divorce isn’t just for under-50 set anymore

Times Staff Writer

BACK in the 1980s, researchers began noticing a new trend: Gray divorce. Although the divorce rate among people married less than 30 years held steady, divorces in marriages longer than 30 years increased a whopping 16%.

This trend has continued. A 2004 study by the AARP found that of the one in three U.S. marriages that end in divorce, two-thirds of them are initiated by women. Reasons for breakups vary (physical or emotional abuse, infidelity, alcohol or drug abuse), but a surprising number boil down to plain old unhappiness, lack of communication, estrangement and loneliness. Reasons for postponing divorce are children, finances and fear of being alone. The study, conducted in 2004, was based on surveys with 1,147 men and women, ages 40 to 79, who divorced in their 40s, 50s or 60s.

This study captured the attention of Deirdre Bair, biographer of Carl Jung, Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. Her interest in the intimate details of other people’s lives and in cultural trends inspired her to conduct in-depth interviews with 184 men, 126 women and 84 adult children of late-life divorcing parents. Bair was interested in telling the story of late-life divorce from every angle -- men’s, women’s, children’s, grandchildren’s; from the kitchen, the bedroom, the boardroom, the hotel room.

The result is greater than the sum of its parts: a collection of anecdotes and insights laced with statistics. Every so often the author steps in with a theory, but for better or worse (and perhaps because she does not consider herself a social scientist), Bair generally keeps a light hand on the wheel. It can be difficult to keep all the couples and their respective issues straight. She gives just enough context to locate her interviewees in time and space, but every so often one wishes that she had limited her palette to fewer characters with more back-story. Bair also somewhat ruefully acknowledges that most of her subjects are middle to upper class to upper stratosphere, whose haggling over multiple homes, Mercedes-Benzes and country club fees seem irrelevant if not downright fictional to the rest of us. She seems to have a harder time getting personal information from the rare working-class interviewees, which could indicate a lack of familiarity with their milieu and the issues they face.

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One of the most fascinating issues arising from these studies on marriage and divorce is whether marriage in the traditional sense is obsolete, given the myriad changes in the ways we live, the length of life, our expectations, fears and ideas about what constitutes happiness. Although this book does not ask the question “Why marry in the first place?,” Bair describes an astonishing study conducted by psychologists at the University of Washington and the University of Rochester since the 1980s. They have been videotaping and interviewing hundreds of recently married couples for 15 minutes and coding 20 emotions and behavioral traits that enable them to predict the success or failure of the marriage. The accuracy rate for these predictions is 95%.

Bair spends considerably more time on the question of why unhappy couples stay married, even after the children are grown. Several couples in Bair’s sample are effectively divorced but still legally married for financial reasons (divorce can be financially catastrophic for families, but women lose far more economic ground than men). Women have traditionally cited lack of communication as a reason for divorce more often than men, but increasingly, the AARP study found, more men were citing loneliness, lack of communication and other so-called soft reasons for divorce.

Bair’s conversations with the adult children of late-life divorcees are, for the most part, depressing. Even in their 30s, most of the respondents felt “homeless” when their parents divorced and more uncertain of their belief in marriage; less romantic and “more pragmatic about human relationships.”

The real contribution “Calling It Quits” makes to our fuzzy thinking about divorce is the irrefutable evidence that most people are happier after divorce and that the number of ways to live has increased in recent years. Every woman, she writes, quoting Margaret Mead, “needs three husbands: one for youthful sex, one for security as she raises her children, and one for the joyful companionship of old age.”

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Although 45% of the subjects surveyed in the AARP study claimed to fear loneliness after divorcing and 24% cited their fear of never finding another partner, the study showed that 79% of women and 80% of men (remember, the age bracket is 40 to 79) go on to new relationships in two to five years. Bair also describes new options in communal living and cites studies that show how bad relationships negatively affect one’s health. Even though the standard of living decreases for women, 70% of late-life divorcees still feel they made the right decision.

“Divorce,” Bair writes somewhat triumphantly toward the end of the book, “is now as viable an option for a marriage as is the dissolution of a business agreement that no longer works for the parties involved.”

susan.reynolds@latimes.com


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