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What It Felt Like When My Parents Divorced at 80 (Hint: Not Terrific)

What It Felt Like When My Parents Divorced at 80 (Hint: Not Terrific)

There’s an old Jewish joke.

An 80-year-old Florida man calls his adult daughter in Manhattan. “Darling, I’ve got bad news,” he says. “Your mother and I are splitting up.”
Daughter is shocked, “My God, Dad, you’ve been married forever. Don’t do anything rash. I’m flying down tonight, and we’ll work this out.”
“All right, sweetheart, if you think that’s best,” he replies, then turns to his wife and says, “Good news! She’s coming for Passover.”

I love that joke. But it wasn’t so funny when I got that call, and it wasn’t Passover.

I was 53 when my parents divorced. They had been married for 56 years when they decided it just wasn’t working out. I was shocked, but not surprised.

From the start, Mom and Dad were chalk and cheese. Dad was a Brooklyn boy with a great sense of humor, love for adventure, and a short fuse. Mom grew up in Loraine, Ohio, in a proper, joyless home whose family crest read, “It’s just not done that way.”

It wasn’t a happy marriage, but it didn’t seem like a disaster, either. They always presented a united front to my older brother and me, rejoiced together at family occasions, enjoyed their station as pillars of the community.

But in old age, their differences became unbridgeable. Mom became more and more fearful about going new places and doing new things, while Dad was desperate to make the most of his remaining time. They had been living separate lives for years, and when the tension became too great – and my father became sloppy about his affair — they divorced.

They aren’t alone. The number of “grey divorces” in the 65-plus group more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, according to a study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Evidently, the kids are grown, lifespans are stretching, and couples feel they no longer want to live unhappily ever after.

When my parents announced their separation, my head exploded.

I look like my mother, but I think like my father. The divorce, I feared, would force me closer to Mom (we don’t really get along) and farther from Dad, whose good opinion still factors into choices I make.

I worried how my mother, who has never been alone, would survive without a husband.

I worried that my father, already attached to a woman just a few years older than I, would cut me out of his new life: It happens.

I fretted that mother’s care was being dumped into my lap; and I obsessed that I wouldn’t know when my father was sick or be invited to his someday funeral.

But mostly, I grew more and more anxious about my own, 13-year marriage.

Mostly, Greg and I are happy. But, we’ve had our struggles. Would he leave me when I was stooped and terrified about breaking a hip? Would I take off when his bad knee held me back from stalking rainbows in a new trout stream?

Was there no time in marriage when I could relax and figure, “We’ve come this far; we’ll surely go the distance?”

My folks have been divorced now for 7 years. Mom lives in a retirement community, and I worry constantly about her state of mental and physical health. Dad remarried, and the new wife begged me to fly to Florida when, at 87, Dad worked himself into exhaustion and briefly landed in the hospital: After all, he’s got a young wife and an old wife to keep in high style.

Greg and I are fine and just celebrated our 20th anniversary. We’re sending our son off to college in the fall, and we had a ball trekking glaciers in Alaska last summer.

Mostly, I thank heaven for our solid marriage. But some days I look at my dear husband and think, “Will he leave me today?”

Read more: Health, Aging, Healthy Aging, Relationships, Stress, , , ,

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Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Lisa Kaplan Gordon, creator of frugalgarden.com, is an award-winning journalist, avid gardener and fly-fisher. She lives in Northern Virginia on a half acre that always needs weeding. Please visit her on Twitter (@kaplan_lisa) and Facebook (Lisa Kaplan Gordon)

104 comments

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2:23AM PDT on Oct 8, 2014

I think the writer's parents should have divorced a long time before they actually did.
Why make yourself miserable by staying in an unhappy marriage???
My first husband and I were divorced after 4 years of marriage. We got married waaay too young and knew it was not working!!
I was divorced to 17 years and had no desire to get married again.
Then I met my now, 2nd husband. We've been together for 22 years. I'm not saying every day is roses, but we have a lot of fun together!

10:28AM PDT on Aug 8, 2014

Having gone through a divorce is traumatic enough without worrying about whether or not a relative will go through one. If they do I will support both of them in their decision. If not I will be glad they are still together. The author sounds insecure. I am not trying to be judgmental, as I have many insecurities myself and my own fears of rejection. Its actually nice to know that there are others with the same fears to commiserate with.

10:21AM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

I was in a toxic marriage. When her family asked me why I was still hanging in there, I responded that it was habit. It took another 5 years but after 40 years threw in the towel.My grown sons had started their own families and used our marriage as the model NOT to follow.

9:44AM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

The part I most relate to it looking like the care of the mom would be dumped on the daughter. Looks like the dad got what he wanted, but at a cost to the health of his first wife and daughter.

2:17AM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

Thanks for sharing your story Lisa. Reading the comments it seems that a lot of people's family experiences were/are toxic and disruptive. It was the same in mine. My folks divorced after a lifetime together and their actions drove a solid wedge between people shattering our family unit which has never recovered. It causes great sadness, confusion and mistrust that may or may not fade with time.

I wish you health and happiness Lisa, all the years of your life.

4:34PM PDT on Jul 30, 2014

Its always sad when divorce breakes a marital relationship, for everyone involved...even the children! No one wins&unfortunately it can lead to mental illness, sadness&depression&all sorts of other things, no one really wins!

12:19PM PDT on Jul 29, 2014

Thank you

5:44AM PDT on Jul 29, 2014

Thanks for sharing and always remember life could be worse.

10:20PM PDT on Jul 28, 2014

I am sorry they waited so long to be happy apart--it wasn't as healthy as it could have been. They could have had more happy years apart. In that age group it is a new thing that women can support themselves financially without a man. Also in the days they got married, poor marriages were acceptable, and women were dependent on men. As more people realize this is not so anymore, we will choose healthier ways to live.

And to those who are being snarky about the author 'making it about her' --Of course it affects her--they were her very definition of love and marriage. She will need to look at that definition and re-create it in a new way----hopefully a healthier way--hopefully in a way that consciously takes care of her marriage every day.

3:18PM PDT on Jul 28, 2014

Interesting. I could never understand why my grandparents stayed married, as they always fought terribly. I guess the fear of being alone was worse than the horror of being in a toxic relationship. My husband and I try very hard to be non-toxic.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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