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How to Avoid Gray Divorce

anxiety, depression, mental health, therapist, ask a mental health question, dr. margaret rutherford,

I saw a couple very early in my practice – probably 20 years ago now.  He was going blind.  Only had a few months where he would have enough sight to work at his computer, that sort of thing.  He was in his early 60’s.  She mid-50’s.  His job had mandated their moving almost constantly as a family years before.  He had been professionally successful; she had reared the children.  She now worked part-time.

He was gruff but likable.  She, more quiet and friendly.

At first, I didn’t understand why they had come to therapy.  I had suspicions of past domestic abuse, dispelled when I saw them individually.

I didn’t get it – because I didn’t understand yet what it takes to be married a long time.  Successfully.

mental health, gray divorce, divorce at midlife, relationship counseling, connecting with your spouse, staying in love, midlife, midlife women

He told me, in individual session, that he knew he had dominated the relationship.  She had made her life about him.  She hadn’t followed any of her dreams. He needed to ask her to forgive him while he could still see the look in her eyes.   When she said, “I forgive you.”

“I know she will say it.  She’s just like that. I have to know if she really means it.”

John Gottman, famous therapist and marital researcher, would call this a “turning toward” your spouse.  An attempt at reconciling a hurt or a conflict by a “bid for reconnection.”  He wanted my help to be vulnerable and form those words.  To admit what he had recognized.

It happened.  There were lots of tears.  She told him she forgave him.

She sounded like she meant it.

I have watched other bids for apology that have not gone so well.  Too much water under the bridge.

The upsurge of gray divorce seems to reflect a growing feeling that if there has been too much withdrawal, affairs by one or both, or disdain – we – and it is mostly women – are getting out.

So why did this man’s request “work” and others do not?  Why do some couples seem to get through their midlife crises together? He buys the fancy car but she’s the one riding in it with him.  She goes back into the work force and he’s the one who is fixing her lunch!

There is an understanding of how they have interacted.  How their strengths and their vulnerabilities have been interwoven throughout their life together.

Both are taking responsibility for their own role in that.

So this wife took responsibility.

She had told me in HER individual session that she had allowed him to dominate their relationship.  There were reasons.  Some were about her, some about the culture of the times, some about him.  Whatever anger or frustration she had felt over the years had been worked through.

You have to know why you would walk down the aisle again.  Why you would say “I do.”  Knowing what you know today about your partner.  You would still marry them.

What do you get in return?  If your marriage is healthy,  you get someone who knows you like the back of their hand.  Knows want you want.  What makes you tick.  And supports you.

Maybe you don’t always feel “in love.”

Maybe sometimes the things that are irritating or disappointing rear their heads.

But what you can have is a deep, mature love.  And a promise of more.

Please email me if you have comments or questions about this post at [email protected].  All emails will be confidential unless requested otherwise.  Suggestions might be questions about the process of forgiveness in therapy, more about John Gottman’s work and/or research, or anything else that the post brought up for you.  I will welcome any and all responses.

Thank you for reading.
Dr. Margaret

midlife boulevard, columnist, midlife women, middle-age, midlife crisis

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford has been in practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over 20 years. She began blogging in 2012 with the website “NestAche”, and following with in April 2014. Her work can be found here on Midlife Boulevard, as well as the Huffington Post, Boomeon, WeWantMore, BetterAfter50 and Arkansas Women Bloggers.


Wednesday 26th of February 2014

My mom and dad were married 51 years. I thought the relationship was sad at times. But she died unexpectedly and I got to talk to her before she passed. In the end he was the one she trusted and loved. In the after, I realize that he truly loved her and placed her on a pedestal. We don't know how relationships work. And we don't understand the successful ones. Just my opinion!

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 26th of February 2014

Hi Sandra. Your comment makes me think of something I often try to remember as a therapist. That is that my definition of a good marriage - a successful relationship - is not necessarily important to remember when working with a couple. Its theirs. What works for them. It sounds as if what looked on the outside to you "sad" worked for your parents. I have heard similar kinds of stories. Your opinion is a well-stated and important one I think. Thanks so much for leaving it!

Debi Drecksler

Wednesday 26th of February 2014

I immediately thought of what I refer to as the "close to death" syndrome where individuals will ask for forgiveness to people they feel they have hurt. With blindness around the corner , this man wanted to "see" the reaction of his words. I think that is beautiful.

As far as the challenges they face in their marriage, I can't help but think how much we are influenced by what we read about other relationships. With the internet, a world of information is at our fingertips. Even the expression "healthy marriage" has many meanings depending on what article you have read.

I love the way you write. It is thought provoking...

All the best,


Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 26th of February 2014

Thank you Debi. What an interesting parallel. Close to death and his blindness. And I agree about the info on the Internet. It's overwhelming sometimes. I don't know if you looked at the link about maybe not being "in love" all the time. That was a post including a point you just made. The influence of what others are saying around us about their relationships- bad or good. We have to be careful. I am so glad you shared your own thoughts as well.

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