Why do couples divorce after decades together?
Toni Tennille, left, and Daryl Dragon, the singing duo "The Captain and Tenille, pose during an interview at their home in Washoe Valley, south of Reno, Nevada, on Wednesday, October 25, 1995. The ubiquitous "Love couldn't keep them together" headlines blanketed social media and websites after news broke that married musical duo Captain and Tennille are divorcing after nearly four decades. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/David B. Parker
TORONTO - The ubiquitous "Love couldn't keep them together" headlines blanketed social media and websites after news broke that musical duo Captain and Tennille — who are both in their 70s — are divorcing after nearly four decades of marriage.
The couple had no children together and no reason was given for the split.
While there are all kinds of factors at play when partnerships in business and love dissolve, is there anything in particular that can distinguish couples who divorce after decades together?
Markham, Ont.-based registered couple and family therapist Shyamala Kiru said after more than 10 years in practice, it's a pattern she's seeing more frequently — particularly among retired couples who've made the decision to separate.
While it's sometimes a mutual decision, oftentimes it's one partner who decides to leave the other. And anecdotally, from her own practice, Kiru said increasingly it's women who are leaving men later in life.
"This generation that we're looking at is women in their 50s and 60s leaving their partners," said Kiru, chair of public relations for the Ontario Association for Marriage & Family Therapy.
"Years ago, it wasn't as OK to make that choice. There weren't as many resources available to women."
She added: "I'm finding that as they're getting at a different stage — whether in the family life cycle or in their career — and they're experiencing a little bit more freedom, they're also experiencing that freedom to make different choices and to think differently about what they want."
Toronto-based couples therapist Karen Hirscheimer said the question of why any couple breaks up is complicated, but boils down to the primary focus on love, partnership and goodwill getting "lost to other things," citing resentment, unresolved grievances, neglect and diminished trust as possible examples.
Kiru recalled working recently with a couple who had been married for 37 years and were contemplating separation. Looking back at their relationship history, there had been issues that surfaced during the time of their engagement that were never really addressed.
Whether it's financial pressures, launching careers or having kids, there are many pressing issues that may need the immediate attention of a newly married couple — possibly causing the relationship itself to be left on the back burner, she noted.
"Now that kids have moved out and moved on, careers are winding down, and then you actually look at each other and say: 'Wow, we never really dealt with this stuff, and I'm not sure that I would have stayed in this marriage that long.'"
Kiru said a common struggle for couples is negotiating closeness and distance: how much time is spent together versus apart. On a practical level, that could involve addressing whether to have separate or individual bank accounts or sharing the same friends or activities, she noted.
"Oftentimes in a relationship, one partner will want to do things one way and another partner will have a different idea about closeness and distance. And when you have that sort of argument or conflict over a number of years, it can feel like: 'I just don't want to do this anymore. I want a partner I can go skiing with every year. I want a partner that wants to go to the gym with me everyday.'"
Hirscheimer said many couples don't have the practical tools or skills to communicate in order to avoid getting into the problems that eventually occur and come between them. Much of the work she does is to help couples establish effective communications strategies and principles to follow that can help them keep — or recapture — the spark in their relationship.
She said if couples feel that they've reached a stalemate, feel like roommates or are lacking a connection, they should seek help sooner rather than later.
"I think there's nothing wrong with trying to attempt to resolve it on their own, but if they're getting stuck ... if they see that they're just not going anywhere, what tends to happen is a lot of people get frustrated and so they stop talking about it," Hirscheimer said. "Then it becomes a worse problem sometimes, or other problems start to emerge because they're not talking."
Hirscheimer said ideally both parties should be involved in counselling, but oftentimes, one person can come in and that's sometimes enough to instigate change.
"The reality is, the relationship is a huge investment of time, energy, and nothing affects our mental well-being more than our relationship with our significant other," she said. "It's really important to keep that relationship healthy and connected."
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