3 Ways To Avoid The Dreaded "Gray Divorce"

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older couple having problems

I've got some good news, and I've got some bad news.

The good news is that the overall rate of divorce in the US is declining.

The bad news is that among those fifty years of age and older, the rate of divorce has doubled over the last two decades. In 1990, married couples in this age group accounted for just one in ten divorces. In 2009, that number jumped to nearly one in four. The study also found that the divorce rate was 2.5 times higher for those in this age group who had previous marriages.

These findings were recently published in a study, "The Gray Divorce Revolution," co-authored by sociologists Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, and I-Fen Lin.

Since the study relied on census data to determine the trends rather than direct responses from divorcees, the authors could only cite correlating sociological trends to explain the phenomena. 

Researchers and analysts point to a number of societal forces at play driving this trend. Women are more empowered and independent than ever before, making divorce more financially feasible than it was twenty years ago. It is well-known that those previously married have a significantly higher rate of divorce.

Due to the surge in divorces since the 70s, there are many more previously married couples that find themselves at higher risk. In addition, for the late baby boomer generation, divorce has lost much of its social stigma.

What can you do if you are married and looking down the road to your fiftieth birthday and beyond? How can you help ensure that your marriage doesn’t become part of these dismal statistics, especially if you are not in your first marriage?

Here are three simple (not easy, but simple) actions you can take that have the potential to radically reduce the chances of your marriage dissolving in the later years.

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Here are three ways to avoid the dreaded gray divorce:

1. Recommit to your marriage's higher purpose.

Many today take the view that their marriage is all about their own personal happiness. This relatively new view of the purpose of marriage came into vogue with baby boomers, also appropriately called the "me" generation.

Dr. Brown, one of 'The Gray Divorce' study's authors, describes the attitudinal shift concerning marriage as "a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy, rather than on how well each individual fulfilled their marital roles." She goes on to say that "it springs at least in part from boomers' status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment."

If you think the purpose of your marriage is simply to make you happy, and on top of that you hold your partner accountable for the extent to which you find happiness when hard times come (and they do) and happy feelings vanish, there is not enough to hold your marriage together.

On the other hand, if you look at your marriage as having a higher purpose, something beyond yourself, and if your spouse shares the same view, you are able to cling to that higher purpose when everything feels like it's falling apart. 

What higher purpose, you ask? What about commitment to a promise? What about keeping a covenant? What about a determination to become the kind of person your spouse needs rather than simply waiting for your spouse to change into what you think you need and deserve? What about the kind of real love that endures "for better or worse."

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2) Realize that marriage is not all about you.

Duke University Ethics Professor, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, describes the destructive force of this self-fulfillment paradigm as one "that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become 'whole' and happy.

The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect of marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person."

He goes on to say that regardless of how well you think you know your spouse going into your marriage, you really have no idea what you are getting into, "The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married."

Many in the "me" generation seem to have a hard time with the notion of selfless, sacrificial love. I know, because I belong to that generation!  But the truth is that it's the kind of love that transforms marriages and leads to ultimate and lasting fulfillment. It causes us to ask different questions than we may be naturally inclined to ask:

• Instead of asking, "What's in it for me?" ask, "How can I bless you?" 
• Instead of asking, "What are my rights?" ask, "What is the right thing?" 
• Instead of asking, "What will advance my cause?" ask, "What will enhance my marriage?"
• Instead of asking "What can I get?" ask, "What can I give?"

I understand the fear and concern involved in being selfless. What if my spouse doesn't love me back in the same way, and my needs don't get met?  Don't I need to look out for myself? 

While it's true that there are no guarantees whenever people are involved, genuine, sacrificial love is a compelling force for good that best leads to true fulfillment. It's the kind of love that feeds and sustains a marriage for the long haul. 

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3. Every day, choose to make your marriage a high priority.

There are a thousand things that vie for our attention on a daily basis. Today, more than ever, we run from task to task, from screen to screen, from crisis to crisis. It's easy to take our eye off the important, in order to stay on top of the urgent.  

Your marriage is an organic entity: it's either growing or dying. If you want your marriage to endure well into old age, make a daily decision to invest in it now. Be watchful over your relationship. Guard it. Nurture it. Whether things are going well or not, choose to make it a priority.

Too many couples reach the empty-nest stage of life to discover that they are married to someone they barely know. Maybe you've grown apart slowly without realizing it. Maybe you've focused so hard on your children and careers and on accumulating stuff that you've neglected to stay connected to the most important relationship in your life.

The Bible describes marriage as "two becoming one" (Genesis 2:24). If you believe that is true, then when you fail to continually invest yourself in your marriage, you are actually hurting yourself. 

Commit to keeping intimacy high on your priority list. Yes, I'm talking about sex, but I'm also talking about fostering emotional and spiritual intimacy, as well. Make room in your day, every day, for genuine connection. Don't take the chance of waking up one day to find yourself alienated from the one you share your home and bed with.

A word to those of you reading this who have previously suffered the pain of divorce: My purpose in offering these suggestions is not to accuse or find fault regarding your past marriage, but to encourage you toward success in the marriage you now find yourself in.

By keeping in mind the higher purpose of your marriage, lavishing your spouse with selfless love, and consistently keeping your marriage and spouse a high priory, you can strengthen your marriage for the long haul and fill it with the kind of passion and intimacy every married person longs for. 

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Scott Means is a champion for great marriages. He has been writing and teaching about the passion and intimacy found in God's design for marriage for more than ten years. Visit his website.