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Why Do Long-time Married Couples Break Their Vows?

  • Laura Petherbridge Author, When "I Do" Becomes "I Don't"
  • Updated Jun 09, 2010
Why Do Long-time Married Couples Break Their Vows?


Many people were surprised to hear the news that Al Gore and his wife Tipper have decided to get a divorce. People automatically think that a couple married for 40 years would stick it out until one of them dies. But the trend has been changing for some time.

On September 20, 2007 the New York Times posted an article which stated, "Don't stock up on silver anniversary cards. More than half the Americans who might have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary since 2000 were divorced, separated or widowed before reaching that milestone, according to the latest census survey, released yesterday." He continues, "For the first time at least since World War II, women and men who married in the late 1970's had less than even a chance of still being married 25 years later."
It's the adult children and grandkids that are affected when seniors divorce. "My brother and I gave my parents a lovely party to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary." Janet shared. "We thought things between them were great. Then two months later my dad announced that he wasn't happy anymore and he filed for a divorce. Our entire family is in shock. How do I tell my kids that grandma and grandpa don't live together anymore?"

As a divorce recovery expert of 20 years I have noticed an increase in people divorcing after a lifetime together. Here are a few of the reasons why this is occurring:

Longer life. People today live longer than previous generations. Therefore, those who find themselves in an unhappy marriage see more years ahead than our grandparents did.

A Bump in the Carpet. One of the most predominate reasons these marriages fail is due to years and years of sweeping significant issues "under the rug." Eventually all of the lethal debris beneath the marriage rises up and murders the union.

Rights vs. responsibility. Today there is a tremendous focus on "it's my right to be happy" rather than "it's my responsibility to keep my vow." When my aunt was in her late 20's she had a stroke which caused her to be paralyzed on the left side of her body. My uncle could have left her claiming, "It's my right to have the same woman I married." But he didn't. They had two children before the stroke, and it wasn't easy to raise them afterwards, but he stuck by her side for more than 50 years. In 2007 I watched him grieve as they lowered her body into the grave. This is what the marriage vow, "for better or worse, sickness and in health" means.

Too much togetherness. After retirement many couples find themselves under the same roof day and night, and it drives them crazy. One or both parties may feel as though they are suffocating. The immediate response is to bolt. 

Divorce of the heart. Some couples remain married while the kids are young in order to protect them from the pain of divorce and then divorce after the kids are on their own. One woman shared, "Legally we were married, but in our hearts we had been divorced for years."

Family moves away. Society is much more transient than it used to be. Therefore a couple may not feel as connected to children or grandchildren—and there is less accountability. This can breed a feeling that it won't matter, and no one will get hurt, if they divorce.

No church attendance. Many baby boomers abandoned the traditional church as young adults. Some returned for a season when their kids were young, but found the church irrelevant for themselves. Therefore, they left again. This has produced a "life is short and then you die" mentality without a firm belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. If they attend church it's out of duty, not passion. They also believe as long as you don't murder anyone, and you are a good person you will go to heaven.

My advice would be to recognize that a lengthy marriage, grown children and grandkids doesn't guarantee that a marriage won't end in divorce. It's important to continue working on the relationship, recommit to the vows, and address any problems that arise, well into the senior years.

Copyright © 2010 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When "I Do" Becomes "I Don't"—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, and a featured expert on the DivorceCare DVD series. Her book The Smart Stepmom, is co-authored with Ron Deal. Laura's website is