“When I look at his face I literally see red,” Margaret said.
When 52-year-old Margaret became my client, she’d been married to Ted for 25 years and they had two children, 12 and 15. Ted was a binge-drinker and Margaret was, in her own words, his “angry doormat, co-dependent, control freak.”
She hid bottles of alcohol, tried to stop Ted from going out alone to social functions, covertly placed a tracking app on his cell phone, plead with him to get help, launched long-term, punishing silence campaigns, engaged in all-out verbal warfare, saying things she could never take back, and often in earshot of their kids.
“I did everything short of tasering him, putting him in a straight-jacket, and locking him in the basement,” she said.
Fortunately, Margaret has a good sense of humor.
Sometimes Ted went on the wagon and didn’t drink for months at a time, though Margaret remained ever vigilant. But despite her best efforts, Ted inevitably relapsed and binged again.
The toxicity of her marriage began to take a physical toll on Margaret.
Over the years she developed blinding migraines, her immune system weakened, she got cases of flu every winter and eventually she had to take medication to control her spiking blood pressure.
When Margaret became my client her main goal was to get me to help her change Ted. She was completely disgruntled when I said the only way Ted would change was if he wanted to. Otherwise, his addiction was beyond her control.
I did, however, offer to help her work a 12-step program so she could stop enabling her husband and take care of herself.
“You’re going to tell me to divorce him, aren’t you?” Margaret asked.
I explained that I had no agenda other than helping her learn to set healthy boundaries in her marriage and to build her own self-esteem to make better choices.
“Good,” she said, “because a divorce would kill my kids. And besides, I’m too old to get a divorce. At my age, there is no way I’ll find another man and even though it’s stressful staying in my marriage, it’s better than being alone.”
While I believe in working at marriage, I disagreed with Margaret’s reasons for staying in her toxic one.
Here are 4 lies midlife’s tell themselves to stay in an unhappy marriage.
1. Divorce will destroy my kids.
A Reddit thread seems to indicate the exact opposite. One reader comments: “Coming from a kid whose parents divorced when I was 14, I’m 22 now: Kids will learn over time why things happened the way they did. It’s much better to have a household that isn’t full of anger. We feel it, I knew something was wrong for a long time before I found out.”
Another writes: “My parents divorced after I was an adult, and honestly, I wish they would have done it long before. It was far more stressful dealing with all of the fights and drama as a kid than it would have been to spend time with each of them separately.”
And finally, in a Psychology Today article, Dr. Frederic Neuman M.D. writes, “Constant quarreling between parents is unnerving to children. I have had a number of adult patients who told me they thought their parents should have been divorced, and that growing up they had wished for them to live apart.”
2. I’m too old to divorce.
“Too old” doesn’t mean what it used to a mere 100 years ago. Berkeley Education’s stats reveal that in the United States in 1915 men, on average, lived to be 52.5 years old, while women lived to be 56.8 years old. In 2015 you can use a cool Life Expectancy Calculator at Social Security to find out your projected expiration date.
I typed mine in. Because I’ve lived to be 50.3 years old I can expect to live until I’m 85.6. Because my husband has lived to be 55 he can expect to live to be 82.8 years old!
What this means is that people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are not too old to leave a toxic relationship or unhappy marriage. They still have the potential for many years of peace, serenity and quality relationships in their lives! Why go out with a whimper, when you could go out with a bang?!
3. I’m too old to find a new relationship.
Guess what? This one isn’t true, either. Thanks to statistics gathered by Match.com I’ve discovered that:
- There really are a lot of fish in the sea. According to the Census Bureau, 29 percent of adults aged 45-59 are now single, compared with only 19 percent in 1980.
- And those fish are having fun! Seventy percent of single boomers say they date regularly, and 45 percent of men and 38 percent of women say they’re having sex at least once a week.
- A lot of you are online. People over age 50 make up Match.com’s fastest-growing segment of users, with a 300 percent increase since 2000.
- The man-to-woman ratio really isn’t that bad. There are 92 men for every 100 women for those aged 55 through 64.
- Seventy-five percent of women and 81 percent of men in their 50s experience a serious, exclusive relationship after a divorce. (And some of them date younger people — women included!)
4. At my age I can better manage my toxic relationship; I’m not as fragile now as I was when I was young.
This one may be the most dangerous lie we tell ourselves.
An article in Health Day says that older people are, in fact, far more vulnerable to being damaged by stress than young people.
“At any age, stressed-out brains sound an alarm that releases potentially harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Ideally, the brain turns down the alarm when stress hormones get too high… But the flow of stress hormones can be especially hard on older brains in general.
According to a report from the University of California at San Francisco, extra cortisol over the years can damage the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s crucial for storing and retrieving memories. Several studies have found that high cortisol goes hand in hand with poor memory, so we might be able to chalk up certain ‘senior moments’ to stress.”
In fact, according to the article, extended emotional distress can even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease!
So midlifers, this may be the best time in your life to determine how you want to live the rest of your life. It’s never too late to be happy.