No Kids, No Gray Divorce? Not Quite
Many long-married couples divorce at midlife, once they become empty-nesters. But what about childfree couples?
Across the globe, fewer women are having babies, sometimes by chance — whether the lack of a romantic partner or fertility issues — but often by choice. While childfree couples tend to divorce more, I wondered if childfree couples tend to split early in the marriage or later — the typical midlife crisis years or, for parents, the empty-nest years that often send many long-married couples to divorce court after the last child leaves home.
I have been reading Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s Late Love: Mating in Maturity, in which she details her decision to leave her husband of 22 years and the father of her two children for a new love at age 50, and interviews other women who have left marriages at midlife, too. Wittenberg-Cox is the typical divorcee right now: While divorce rates are relatively flat for 20-, 30- and 40-somethings, for those 50 and older, divorce is booming — the so-called gray divorces. I’ll write more about her book soon, but one thing kept coming up — her children had left home or were about to, and it was a good time for her to start anew, and she talks as if that’s the scenario for all 50-somethings.
But what if you don’t have kids? Do childfree couples have the same urge to re-create themselves with someone new at midlife? After all, about 20 to 25 percent of baby boomers don’t have kids.
I first contacted government agencies that collect stats on such things, but none broke down by divorce/separation and age/child status. So, I turned to childfree expert Laura Carroll, author of Families of Two: Interviews With Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice among other books.
What surprised her surprised me: “I see more similarities than differences.” In an email, she shared what she’s seen:
Childfree couples at midlife tend to split when:
- there are big changes such as a job loss or a move that one partner made for the other, and one person feels a bit lost
- life no longer feels challenging like it used to, a feeling of stagnation but not knowing what to do about it takes over
- someone’s living a life that lacks meaning (however that person defines “meaning”)
- the responsibility of meaning or fulfillment has been put on another person — and he or she has not delivered (“surprise, surprise”)
- one partner is over-invested in a particular self-identity (sometimes professional) and that identity is challenged or taken away when circumstances change
The big identity that’s missing, however, is motherhood. Many women have huge investments in being identified as a mother. This does not exist for childfree women, obviously. And even fathers, who are more hands-on than ever nowadays, are feeling adrift once their kids leave.
Still, she notes that, children or not, there are periodic “times of growing pains” for long-time couples. The 17-to-18-year mark is one of those times and, yes, that often coincides with children leaving the nest, but it’s more than that.
Whatever stuff is unresolved [and] not tended to hits a tipping point where there is no return, and this can be the time. It can be the issues that keep coming up over and over. If it has been put under the rug too long, the partnership may very well not survive. … This is not to say childfree couples don’t have distractions they can use to keep issue(s) in denial. For [the] childfree, it can be the last tipping point time of unresolved things between them, which, of course, points to things that have not been dealt with individually.
In which case, childfree couples don’t necessarily have an easier midlife than couples with kids. While kids often distract spouses from dealing with their issues and from connecting intimately, childfree couples are just as susceptible to distractions.
There is one difference.
Couples who want to have children but have fertility issues and don’t produce a baby after IVF treatments have an increased risk of splitting up for up to 12 years after contacting a doctor to be evaluated, according to a recent study. Even the researchers were surprised at the long-lasting effects of IVF. “We knew that fertility treatment is tough both physically and mentally. It’s very consuming and you think about it constantly. But we were surprised to see that the effect lasted this long — up to 12 years after treatment we could see an increased risk of divorce if the couple did not have a baby,” the study’s lead author said.
So if you start trying to have a baby in your mid- to late-30s, as many women do nowadays, you might very well be pushing midlife by the time you split up — not a midlife crisis, but an unexpected midlife reality.
Which means if you and your partner don’t want to have kids, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re doing your best to address your issues as they appear. But if you do, and you believe there may be fertility issues, you may want to get as much help and support as you can to weather the physical and mental challenges IVF presents.
Want to get on the same page about kids? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Please support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.