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Divorce After 20 Years of Marriage

Anna Khmara

Anna is a certified life transformation and relationship coach with an in-depth focus on positive psychology and transactional analysis. Using her 3+ years of experience, she helps her clients understand the essence of the problem, build self-esteem, establish healthy relationships, find harmony, and manifest their dreams into reality.

Statistics show that the first marriage, on average, lasts 8 years. At the same time, the most common age to file for divorce is 25-39 years.

However, it doesn’t mean you are in a safe zone if you are 40+ and married for over 8 years. The divorce rate among older couples is growing.

The facts are as follows:

So what is the reason for such frightening divorce risk statistics? Why do some couples decide on separating after 20 years of marriage?

These are the questions we are going to answer today. Let’s get started.

Why Couples Divorce After 20 Years

It seems that having lived together for a couple of decades, the spouses become one, and nothing can ruin their union. However, sometimes, even after a long-term marriage, a couple can file divorce papers.

Spouses who choose to break up after a 20-year relationship typically face a midlife divorce, also known as “gray divorce.”

As the logic goes, hard times seem to be over during midlife:

  • Sharp corners in marriage have already been smoothed out;
  • A financial basis for the family has been created;
  • The children have grown up, etc.

So, finally, you can relax and enjoy a peaceаful life without stress and hassle. But, for some reason, this scenario doesn’t fit everybody.

Midlife divorces are now more common than generations ago.

Co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Susan L. Brown, explains it by the fact that older adults today are less willing to remain in what we call “empty shell marriages.”

Every couple has their why’s for splitting up after 20 years. Keep reading to find some of the most common reasons spouses might make such a decision.

Of course, it’s not a complete list. Moreover, we didn’t include factors such as abusive behavior, adultery, or addictions because these are the things that end a marriage regardless of its duration.

Instead, we focus more on psychological aspects.

Midlife Crisis

Statista reports that the average marriage age is 28.4 years for women and 30.3 years for men. It means that spouses who decide on leaving a marriage after 20 years are in their midlife. At this age, people typically face one of the most striking personality crisis, the midlife crisis.

This period often begins when a person reaches 40-45 years. It can last 3-10 years, or even more, depending on a person’s individual characteristics and how they cope with it.

Unlike other age crises, the midlife one isn’t related to the future but the past. During this time, a person may feel disappointed with what they have achieved and reevaluates their life experience.

People begin to ask themselves questions: Who am I? Is this how I live? Where am I going? Do I have the right partner? At the same time, marriage no longer evokes vivid emotions.

The children have grown up and are busy with their lives. Life doesn’t seem so colorful and vibrant anymore.

A crisis can be defined as a period of emotional turmoil and associated with a desire for change. In terms of marriage, couples can change their marital lives in different ways.

Some spouses try to “adjust” their better halves to their changing standards, while others don’t see the point in it. Some couples go to a family therapist, while others go to court.

Emotional Burnout

Emotional Burnout

Emotional burnout is a state of emotional exhaustion caused by stress in personal or/and work-life. Emotional exhaustion is closely related to relationship burnout and can lead to separation after a long marriage or even divorce.

Sometimes, by the 20-year relationship milestone, the spouses have accumulated unresolved grievances, grudges, and mutual reproaches. They repeatedly argue over the same issues, show no motivation to resolve marital problems, and feel constantly irritated.

These are the main signs of relationship burnout.

At some point, patience ends, and one or both spouses decide to become single after 20 years of marriage.

Empty Nest

Kids leaving home can be one of the factors why marriages fail after 20 years.

Couples who have lived together for 20 years or more are likely to have grown-up children. When they leave their family home, it becomes like an empty nest for their parents.

There’s even a so-called empty nest syndrome. It is a sense of anxiety and loss when children leave their parental home to find their way in life.

At such a moment, the parents are left alone with each other. Quite often, the problem is that they forget how to live together without someone who can take over the attention or serve as a buffer.

The process of building a new family life in this period can make spouses realize their incompatibility. Moreover, if they were united only by children, the couple could break up as soon as this connection is gone.

Drifting Apart

The process that leads to gray divorce is slow. Everything happens gradually. It’s like having a shatterproof cup that doesn’t break if you drop it. Yet, some microcracks appear. The more often you drop it, the more cracks. Finally, even the shatterproof cup can shatter into pieces.

Many of those who get divorced in midlife or after a long-term marriage say they just drifted apart. It’s one of the most common marriage problems after 20 years. Spouses lose the emotional connection and no longer have shared interests or a shared outlook on life.

Of course, people and their views can change over the course of a life, and that’s okay. The main thing is to find common ground. But if spouses happen to have communication problems, it can become a challenge for them.

Sometimes spouses don’t just drift apart or change but do it at different rates. For instance, if one partner has gone far ahead in their intellectual or spiritual development, and the second has remained at the same level, a breakup is almost inevitable.

Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Help

All of the reasons long-term marriages fall apart mentioned above can be worked out through counseling. If spouses notice at least some hint of a problem they can’t deal with on their own, they should seek professional help (family therapy, relationship coaching, visits to a psychologist, etc.)

However, having lived together for 20 years, spouses may not always be ready and able to change their lifestyle and habits. In some cases, even therapy fails to strengthen the bond between partners.

Instead, it can even prove discord between partners and show that ending the marriage is the only step towards happy golden years.

6 Tips to Improve Your Relationship and Fight Marriage Issues After 20 years

After a long-term marriage, people can get tired of each other. Add a midlife crisis, lack of communication, slow but steady drifting apart, and the marriage is at risk. However, it’s not yet a verdict. If spouses are willing to make an effort to restore family life, the marriage can still be saved.

Below are some working tips to help you get your marriage back to how it was in its happiest years.

Discuss Old Grudges

Old grudges keep people from moving forward. They take up a lot of energy and steal sincerity. Whenever asked whether you feel offended, you answer, “Everything is okay,” you are lying to yourself and your partner.

As a solution, you can ask your spouse to list the main points that cause anger or bitterness. You should do the same. Then go through each item on both lists together and discuss them.

Each side should accept their roles in misunderstanding, misperception, or conflict. Then discuss what you can change in the future to prevent such situations.

Do New Things Together

At first, it may seem like you and your spouse have already done many things together. Perhaps you’ve tried skiing together or took tango lessons, etc. However, you shouldn’t stop!

New experiences help you and your partner reach the same emotional level and restore bonds. You have something to discuss, share your impressions, and interact with each other.

Do silly and fun things together because you are old enough to treat yourself to it. Do useful and healthy things together because you are smart enough to understand what really matters. Or, you can do nothing at all as long as you do it together.

Add Romance to Your Relationship

Add Romance to Your Relationship

Even after 20 years of marriage, you can and should go on dates with your spouse. Dating helps change the atmosphere and fight routine.

You can even refresh the memories of your first date. Book a table at the same restaurant, buy movie tickets, walk around the places you used to frequent at the beginning of your relationship.

Respect Personal Space

To maintain the relationship, each spouse needs to have a personal space. Living together for many years, people sometimes forget about the importance of respecting each other’s boundaries.

Analyze your marriage. Are you overly intruding on each other’s personal life? Do you respect each other's interests, feelings, hobbies, etc.? Even if your spouse doesn’t say anything, it doesn’t mean that everything is fine.

Talk About Sex

Over the years, your body changes, your sexuality takes on different forms. Jessica O’Reilly, the author of The New Sex Bible and Astroglide’s resident sexologist, agrees. She says, “Hormonal changes that arise with age can cause significant shifts in sex drive.

And though every couple of every age experiences differentials in desire, these can become more pronounced with age.”

Spouses who share their sexual expectations and needs can cope with these issues. Jessica O’Reilly also explains that communication is essential. As our body changes, we need to discuss what feels good both physically and emotionally to cultivate intimacy.

Be Interested in Your Partner

When you fell in love with your future spouse, you were probably very curious about what they thought or felt. Over time, this interest can get lost. However, curiosity can make your partner feel appreciated. It helps to get closer.

Harville Hendrix, couples therapist and co-author of Getting the Love You Want, notes the importance of curiosity. He says, “Being curious is good for relationships because it helps you to listen and be more open.”

Harville Hendrix also gives practical advice, “When your partner is talking to you, instead of wondering when they’ll be finished so you can interject a story or comment of your own, try asking: “Can you tell me more about that?”

It can help to open up, and your communication may move to the next level. The key is to do it sincerely and really focus on what your partner is saying.

How to Survive Divorce After 20 Years of Marriage

If advice and therapy don’t help and breaking up after 20 years is inevitable, it’s crucial to prepare properly for the divorce proceedings and your new life.

Ending a marriage even after one year can become an absolute nightmare if the spouses don’t want or can’t do it in a civilized way. Ending a 20-year relationship can become even more complicated.

Spouses need to decide on child custody and child support (if a couple has younger children), alimony, division of marital property, including retirement plans. What’s more, they have to break a relationship they have been living in for a couple of decades.

It’s a tremendous emotional shock, even for those spouses whose feelings for each other have long faded.

Here are some life hacks to deal with midlife or gray divorce to start a new happy life peacefully.

Talk to Your Spouse

Even if communication problems lead to a breakup, spouses need to talk to separate peacefully. As difficult as it is, they should discuss all aspects of their divorce and find a solution to satisfy both parties. It can help them avoid lengthy litigation.

Spouses can hire divorce lawyers if they can’t reach a consensus on their own. As an option, they can also find a mediator who can help them negotiate.

Ask for Support

Going through the divorce and all the related procedures, you are likely to experience stress. A support group can help you cope with it.

Spending time and talking with a very close and trusted friend or family member can help you vent your thoughts. It can distract you from negative emotions and help you see things differently.

You can also seek help from a psychologist or therapist. These specialists can help you sort out your feelings and suggest different practices to deal with depression, anger, fear, and other emotions you may experience ending a long marriage.

Give Yourself Some Time to Grieve

Surviving divorce after a long marriage requires time. So give yourself it.

You can’t accept what happened in a second. You can only do it by going through all the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). By skipping this process, you risk moving into a new life with stifled negative emotions.

But how long to grieve after divorce? We can’t give a single correct answer to this question. Each person mourns differently and for a different time.

However, it’s crucial to analyze how long you stay in a particular grief stage. If, for instance, depression lasts too long, you should seek a psychologist’s help.

Bottom Line

The longer the marriage has lasted, the more difficult it can be to end it. However, living in a relationship that doesn’t make you happy can be even harder. And sometimes even pointless.

20 years is a long time. During this period, the spouses can become the closest people on the planet, united by joys and sorrows they experience together. However, even after all these years of marriage, spouses may want to dissolve it.

Of course, this decision is individual for each family. Some couples try to overcome marriage problems after 20 years, go to psychologists, reconsider their lifestyle, and try to control their thoughts and emotions. Others decide to get divorced. Whatever they choose, the main thing is that this decision makes them happy.


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