What The Hell Happened to Your Marriage?

04/08/2011 11:49 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

Marriage is our last, best, chance to grow up
----John Barth

If you don't understand why your marriage failed, you will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Why bother digging up the past, you might ask? Isn't it better to just move on? Well, no, it isn't. The old saw, "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it," applies. More second marriages fail than first ones for this reason. Also, even if you never marry again, and many older women like myself won't, understanding what went wrong is a crucial part of being able to move on. Only with understanding can you get the clarity that will allow you to both release your anger and stop blaming either him or yourself.

There are some very interesting findings in the AARP study of divorce over 50, In a 2004 article about the study posted on their website, the author said, "most women in their 50s or older said the top killers of their marriages were physical or emotional abuse, infidelity, and drug or alcohol abuse--and they put almost all of the blame on their ex-husbands. On the flip side, most 50-plus men said they simply "fell out of love" or had "different values or lifestyles. And a larger number of men, though not the majority, said it was their own fault. The one thing neither sex would take the blame for, however, was an affair. Among people 50 and older who said infidelity caused their divorce, 93 percent of women and 78 percent of men said their spouse was the one at fault." .

These are, of course, the immediate precipitating factors that trigger a divorce. Men (and women) have an affair, or there may be a long term pattern of infidelity. Women are most likely to cite emotional abuse or alcholism for the breakup. Men fall out of love or discover they want another lifestyle due to a midlife crisis.

But the mystery is what kept these marriages together for so long. When young people get divorced, it's often in the first ten years of the marriage. Why do some couples stay married for their whole adult lives and THEN break up. Usually something has changed--the kids leave home, the husband retires or falls in love with someone else (or you do), the drinking gets worse, the emotional abuse starts edging into the physical. In some way the balance of the relationship, which may have been fragile to begin with, tilts too far in one direction or another.

You can attribute the death of your marriage to the ostensible reasons for breakups, such as abuse, alcoholism, infedelity or even growing apart. But if you're introspective, as I am, you will want to look beneath the surface. The inner search is very rewarding and though often painful will go a long way to helping you heal. You'll find out who you are, and who he is, see what brought you together, and whether it was those very things that in the end drove you apart.

My marriage was almost a case study in everything that causes marriages to fail--My husband and I married out of desperation rather than love, there was no real physical chemistry between us, we virtually duplicated the relationships of our parents, and there was a huge power imbalance from day one. He was younger than me and unemployed when I met him. I found him a job and gave him a life. Men hate being dependent and will never forgive the woman who rescues them. My girlfriends, however, thought I was deliciously avante garde for hooking up with a much younger man. It was a new trend at the time and I liked being on the cutting edge. My shrink told me the only danger was that he'd grow up and leave home someday. That was prophetic.

It's surprising we lasted as long as we did. We were more like mother and teenage son than lovers, complete with tantrums on his end and lectures on mine. He wanted me to want him and I just never did.

I attribute our longevity to the power of friendship. We liked talking to each other. We understood who the other one was beneath the façade we presented to the world. He paid a huge amount of attention to my thoughts, feelings, activities. He had never had anyone show much interest in him at all, or recognize the wit, intelligence talent underneath his paralyzing shyness. We had a lot in common, including a sense of values, a sense of humor, the same mordantly cynical view of life, a love for the same books, movies, music, TV shows Unfortunately, none of that was anywhere near enough.

It doesn't take much to sink a marital ship. There were powerful undercurrents of disatisfaction on both sides from day one. In our case the marriage fell apart because he hit his midlife crisis and fell for a younger co-worker who worshipped him in a way I never had. I asked him why he hadn't left years before since he said he'd always been unhappy. He said "I couldn't have done it any other way." This guy still needed a woman to give him a life--he just switched women.

What made us unable to save our marriage was that we'd never gone through the mad, passionate, can't keep your hands off each other stage that may only last a year or two, but provides the foundation for a marriage. When marriage hits the inevitable rough spots, it's those first years that you look back on and use to remember what you loved about each other, and try to revive those feelings. If you never had those feelings in the first place, you're in big trouble.

Have you looked within--without blame--to try to figure out what went wrong? What have you come up with? What caused your marriage to fall apart?