real life

Is THIS the key to a long and happy marriage?

People who have been together for over 20 years are splitting up in record numbers.




It was the talk of talkback radio yesterday.

A study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies has revealed that while the divorce rate amongst young couples is falling, people who’d been together 20 years and more are splitting up in record numbers.

Forget about those retirement ads showing mum and dad driving down country roads in an Alfa convertible. They’re just as likely likely to be driving straight to the lawyer’s office. In separate cars.

The rate of couples divorcing after decades together has DOUBLED in a generation. The AIFS report shows the proportion of marriages ending after 20 years has leapt from 13 per cent in 1980 to 28 per cent in 2011.

This suggests that while couples stayed together so long for the sake of the kids, once the kids were gone, so was the marriage. That seems to make sense – it’s a rare divorce that isn’t tough on children, and raising a family doesn’t leave much time or money for the business of splitting up.

Kids can offer even the most disconnected couple something to talk about, worry over, be proud of. Kids are great for filling awkward gaps in a conversation.

Once the nest is empty, though, and there’s nothing on telly, the future can look ho-hum for many couples. Comfortable, maybe, but dull.  The little habits that were once adorable have become irritating. Suddenly you’re the last two in the Big Brother house, stuck with someone you thought was a hoot at the beginning, but now the party’s over, you realise you’ve got nothing in common.

We’re talking about people mostly in their forties and fifties – relatively young men and women. The years stretch ahead. There could be twenty, thirty forty more. Their parents couldn’t have gotten divorced. Not so long ago, ending a marriage was a shameful thing – spoken about in whispers.  Not anymore.


The barnies on the radio about these new divorce figures were predictable enough. One announcer was emphatic that divorce is too easy: people just don’t hack the tough times like they used to.

‘Really?’ I thought, ‘Marriage is something to be endured, like the Kokoda Track?  Tolerated like a too-long visit from a boorish uncle?’

The other announcer argued, ‘But if both people are miserable and there are no kids to be hurt, why not get the hell out? Why stay in the carriage as it plunges over the cliff?’

Interesting that it was a woman who said this – 60% of divorces after many years of marriage are instigated by the woman. Their husbands are often shocked.

That said, they recover nicely,  and more divorced men remarry than divorced women, presumably to younger women.

The older and better educated a woman is, the less likely she is to tie the knot again. Make of that what you will.

Maybe our grandparents stayed together not because of enduring love and devotion, but because they had no other option.

Marriage is tough, occasionally. Sometimes. Quite often.

People are living longer, so many couples, if they stay together, will celebrate or commiserate their sixtieth or seventieth anniversaries.

To me, what’s astounding is not that so many people get divorced after 20 years, but that that more DON’T.

Kate Hunter

In my second favourite novel, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, the lead character tells his girlfriend Muriel, ‘I don’t believe marriage should be as commonplace as it is. It should be the exception to the rule; oh, perfect couples should marry, maybe, but who’s a  perfect couple?’

To that point, my friend Bronwyn buys modest wedding gifts, but gives lovely presents for 10th wedding anniversaries and absolute stonkers for twentieths. Not because that’s when the hard yards begin, but because that’s often when couples have a choice again, and those who choose to stick with the person they’ve been with for so long deserves some Waterford crystal. In the shape of a decanter. Full of scotch.

The real question isn’t why do people divorce after so long together, but why does it matter?

Do people in their twenties feel the hurt of their parents splitting as acutely as they do when they’re small? If that’s the case, are their parents doomed to misery forever?

To me, the point of marriage is to be happy. Not every minute of every day, but happier with that person than you’d be without them. And he needs to be happier with you than without you. It’s the only reason to stay together. Not for the kids or for the money. You have to like being together most of the time.

So what’s the secret? My mum’s friend Mary says, ‘You’ve just got to stay in the same room.’

I’m hoping she means that metaphorically.

Are you surprised so many couples are getting divorced after 20 years, or amazed they last that long?