The power of having fun and being romantic should never be underestimated Image Credit: Shutterstock

What is a marriage? We all know about the ‘magic’ of the ‘big day’ and the honeymoon. Before we embark on a life together, we tend to know from the wisdom of the previous generation that you ‘need to work’ at marriage. That juggling kids, jobs and bills whilst trying to maintain a positive relationship with your life partner can be a challenge – a challenge that will both enrich your life and sometimes have the opposite effect. But what we don’t often hear much about is what happens later on. When the kids have flown and it’s just the two of you sitting at the breakfast table day after day. How do you see things through? What are the forces that stick some couples together, whilst others decide to walk away?

It’s been given the rather depressing title of ‘grey divorce’ and it’s a phenomenon that’s on the rise. Couples who have put in the hard yards and dedicated decades of their lives to each other and their family are increasingly deciding to call it a day. 1 in 4 people getting divorced in the USA is now over 50 and half of those marriages have lasted over 20 years. High profile ‘grey divorcees’ such as Bill and Melinda Gates and Jeff Bezos and Melinda Scott have shone a spotlight on what is an increasingly common experience for older married couples. And I can testify to that too. More and more I’m being asked to step in and mediate by couples who feel like they’re on the verge of taking similar steps. So why is this happening?

What’s causing the breakdown

Well, as you might expect, it’s complex. There isn’t a single answer and it’s often the product of a combination of factors. We humans are constantly on a trajectory of change. We change as a collective in that on average we are living longer and that has inevitably expanded our sense of possibility.

Society is constantly evolving too and within that it is only natural we change as individuals. It’s safe to say that we have higher expectations of happiness and self-fulfilment than our grandparents did. We are surrounded by messages that give us a greater feeling of urgency to make the most of life and this is definitely leading some couples to re-evaluate. There is the sense of a ‘second act’ that will bring new opportunities and for some that can be the right choice.

It can be hard to quantify the ingredients of a relationship Image Credit: Shutterstock

But there’s always a flip-side. For every story of a life-affirming fresh start, in my experience there’s a lot of stories where the protagonists think the grass is going to be greener and simply isn’t. After spending so many years together and before making such a life-changing decision, it’s certainly worth exploring whether things can change within the marriage. Part of that exploration comes in the form of really understanding how positive long-term relationships work, looking together at how yours matches up and being open to the possibility of change.

What you need to preserve your marriage

It can be hard to quantify the ingredients of a relationship that will last, but when I speak to older couples who class themselves as happily married it is clear that there are some common traits that help them stay the course.

The first is that they have an enduring respect and tolerance for each other. The familiarity of a long-term relationship can erode the integrity of that respect. Inevitably, we discover things that irritate us about our partners and sometimes it can be hard to see past this. The old cliches of dropped wet towels, leaving the toothpaste cap off or just the way your other half eats or breathes can drive you crazy! However, if you can turn it back to yourself and understand that you’re human and therefore flawed too, it can bring some much needed bigger picture perspective. Retaining politeness in a relationship is also important too. Saying please and thank you or showing how much you appreciate the other person might sound minor, but it helps oil the wheels and keeps resentment at bay.

Russell Hemmings

The two Cs are also key factors in staying together: communication and compromise. We’ve all seen them – those silent couples in restaurants who sit across from each other doing anything but speak and I don’t mind telling you it fills me with sadness. If that’s the way you’re headed, be reassured you can change direction, but it does mean taking a risk. Initially you have to acknowledge there’s a problem. It really only takes one of you to initiate that conversation and it requires some bravery to be that person, but it’s about breaking the cycle. Set a good example and try to be as open as possible.

Talk about how you feel, but also listen. That old saying you have two ears and one mouth for a reason is so true! Practice listening and also asking each other open questions that allow for more elaborate answers. Kick off new conversations by going to new places and trying new things and don’t be afraid to trial being more direct. We’re all guilty of skirting the issue sometimes, so a bit of openness can be refreshing, but try to do it in a calm and sensitive way rather than being confrontational – that never works!

We all need to recognise that relationships ultimately work because we can compromise Image Credit: Shutterstock

Get back to basics. When we’ve been with someone so long, it’s easy to assume we know how that person thinks and feels, but if things aren’t working it is reasonable to assume one thing; you might have tuned out of each other’s frequency. Asking open questions like ‘What would make you happy?’ or “How do you see the next five years?’ can reveal things about your partner that you don’t know. No marriage is perfect, despite what others would have you believe, and it’s better to try and understand your partner, no matter what that brings up, because then you can deal with it rather than just pretending it’s not happening.

Compromise is also crucial. In this age of the self, it can be easy to think your priorities are just that - a priority. But we all need to recognise that relationships ultimately work because we can compromise. All couples argue – that’s natural and healthy, but it’s fundamental to be able to resolve issues with a degree of compromise. Compromise helps to strengthen the bonds of trust and accountability, because it suggests that no one person is dominant in the relationship. It is an indicator that we can work as a team and that we can relinquish our own needs to a degree in order to ensure that ‘the team’ works.

The power of having fun and being romantic should never be underestimated either. If things are a
 little stale, make the effort and shake it up a bit. Small gestures, random acts of kindness, spontaneity, being silly, doing something out of the ordinary…all of these things can show the other person 
that you think about them and want to be with them. It’s easy to become lazy in a relationship after a long time, staying in the same rut, doing the same things. If that’s the case in your relationship, do something different. It sounds like simple advice, 
but you’d be surprised how many people feel stuck. Connection in a relationship 
is vital for longevity and you have to work at staying connected.

Sometimes acceptance is the only option

Of course, some couples will try all of these things and it still won’t work. There is no magic solution or single resolution that suits everyone. If separation is on the cards, it’s important to recognise that it will be painful, even if it’s what you both want.

There may be a period of grief and you may feel anger and resentment towards your partner. This is normal, but 
it shouldn’t stay normal. Hanging onto all of these emotions only makes you more stuck and if you have decided to leave each other, the one thing you want to do is move on.

If children are involved, regardless of whether they are adult themselves, it is also so important for the break-up to cause as little damage to the ‘family’ as possible.

Be as kind and mature as you can be and don’t ask your children to take sides. Take care of yourself and your needs, both physical and mental and make sure you have support from someone – be it a family member, a friend or a therapist.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Have a plan for the next week, the next month, the next year…you need to give yourself direction of travel. And finally, reward yourself for getting through difficult times and emerging intact.