Calling It Quits; Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over : Part I

This is the first book to reveal the truth about the exploding phenomenon of late-life divorce, which has resulted in a seismic shift in modern relationships. Now, in a finger-on-the-pulse examination of this growing trend, Deirdre Bair, New York Times bestselling author and winner of the National Book Award, explores the many reasons why older, long-married couples break up. Having conducted nearly four hundred interviews with ex-wives, ex-husbands, and their adult children, Bair reveals some of the surprising motivations that lead to these drastic late-life splits, as well as the surprising turns life takes for all concerned after the divorce is final.

Although the standard assumption is that husbands trade in their spouses for younger trophy wives, Bair has found that, most often, women initiate these divorces because they want the freedom to control how they will live the rest of their lives. The realization may appear to happen suddenly, but Bair shows how it often takes many years and much careful planning before the ultimate "Eureka!" moment. We see that for one woman it happened when she asked her husband to help in the kitchen and he shouted angrily for her to keep her voice down so he could hear the television. For one couple, the decision to end their marriage arrived when the wife condemned their unmarried adult daughter for having a baby and her husband sided with the daughter, leading both partners to realize that they had never had anything in common. One woman in her eighties, married for fifty-three years, woke up after transplant surgery and announced to her husband: "I don't know how many years I have left, but I do know I don't want to spend them with you."

Bair describes current trends in late-life divorece, including the growing use of "mediators," whom many couples see as lower-cost alternatives to lawyers. She also provides fascinating examples of how people cope in the years after divorce. Divorce changes older peoples' sex lives in surprising ways, and Bair is candid in discussing what really goes on in their bedrooms. She presents the stories of those who elect to stay single after divorce, of others who remarry immediately, and of those who are puzzled to find themselves divorcing yet again. As Bair's subjects rebuild their lives, the reader wills see new possibilities for living in "the third age," and may be inspired to realize that there is indeed life after divorce and plenty of it.

Important, eye-opening, and truly groundbreaking, Calling It Quits is essential reading for an entire generation and its children, and an acclaimed author's most personal and most universal work.

Not every writer finds inspiration for a new book in a dentists office on a sweltering summer day. I was a nervous wreck waiting for what I knew would be the bad news that I needed an implant, and so I thought I'd divert myself by reading magazines. There wasn't much on the table and most of it - about hot rods, golf, raising babies - was old and tattered, but at the bottom of the pile I spied what I thought was the best of a bad lot, the magazine for oldsters sponsored by AARP (American Association of Retired Persons).

The cover was like all its others, featuring a photo of a woman who didn't look old enough to be on it (Cybill Shepherd this time), but it was the blurb for one of the articles that caught my attention: "The New Divorce: Why More Women Than Ever Are Calling It Quits 'and Why Men Don t See It Coming).' 'This was certainly intriguing, because my own divorce happened after forty-three years of marriage, and in the years since I had been told countless stories (whether I wanted to hear them or not) by men and women who had been married a very long time but who had, for whatever the reason, decided to live the next stage of their lives as a single.

Some gave the usual reasons: "He traded me in for a trophy wife younger than our daughter or "We had nothing in common anymore" or "I couldn't take his (fill in the blank - gambling, drinking, womanizing].' But I also heard a lot of stories from men and women who I thought lived comfortable, contented lives in financially secure marriages and who said that they didn't care what the future might hold, that they divorced because they could not go on living the same old life in the same old rut with the same old boring person. I heard a lot of remarks that all came down to one word: freedom. Women - especially those women who had jobs outside the home - were tired of taking care of husband, house, and children. Men who divorced told me they, too, were tired of the same old daily grind of working to support wives who did not "appreciate them and children who did not "respect' them. Another remark I heard often from both was "Its my time and if I don t take it now, I never will.

So I was naturally intrigued when I saw that the magazines story was about a survey that AARP had commissioned of 1,147 people aged forty to seventy-nine, all of whom divorced between their forties and sixties. The reporter called it "groundbreaking" because it put the lie to the usual assumptions, that men leave and women seldom find love and/or companionship ever again. The study found that women initiated the divorce more often than men, and if they wanted new love or companionship, they were usually able, eventually, to find it.

The article corresponded in large part to the stories I had been hearing from friends, associates in publishing and academe, and acquaintances everywhere from Paris to Zurich to Sydney, where the research for my biographies took me. People rushed to tell me their stories while I kept mostly silent, probably because I am a curious anomaly: a biographer who writes the intimate details of other peoples lives and tells few of her own. To cover my reticence, I joked, asking if there was something in the drinking water that was making late divorce the worldwide phenomenon it seemed to be.

Some of the stories I heard fell into the same patterns as those in the AARP survey, but most had original and interesting twists. I knew several couples in their eighties who divorced after sixty years of marriage. I knew women who celebrated their fifty-year golden anniversaries by announcing that they would be divorcing within the coming year. One woman had been married for fifty-three years, had never worked outside her home, had no clear idea of how she would survive financially, and had just undergone an organ transplant. She told me, "I don't know how many years have left, I just know I don't want to live them with him!" Her ex-husband said he "didn't know what hit him" when she walked out because he always thought "everything was just fine. We never fought, we never raised our voices.' And I knew high-level businessmen approaching retirement who told me they were 'frightened' into divorcing because, even though their wives fulfilled every life style-supporting role they needed, from giving exquisite dinner parties to entertaining clients to raising the children alone so they could concentrate on work, there was no intimacy between them in their showcase "McMansion' homes. One of these men said he "could not stand the loneliness any longer, especially now that he and his wife would be together "24/7."

I thought about these stories in the dentists office. Yes, I did need an implant, and we did set up the necessary appoint men is, but the dentist was puzzled that I seemed more interested in telling him I needed to filch his AARP magazine and beat a hasty exit than in his description of the dire procedures that awaited me. All I could think of was how fast could I get out of his chair and onto the phone with my agent in New York. I had barely begun to explore with her the possibility of turning the intriguing stories I had been hearing into a book when she burst in excitedly to tell me about the "late divorces' that were almost an epidemic among the "chattering classes,' as the publishing and writing communities are called. We talked about the writer whose wife of thirty-seven years grew tired of washing his socks - yes, washing his socks, not typing his pages - and left him to fend for himself in a Brooklyn loft while she went to Cape Cod "to find herself and write her own book, ~a self-help for other women who call it quits.' There was the very rich "lady poet' (she styled herself that way) whose husband of twenty-nine years (and a figure of respect in his own right but in a different line of work) got tired of holding her two tiny dogs at readings in obscure storefront locations, especially after they became old and incontinent. He left her to go and live in a studio apartment in a poorer part of Manhattan, where he watched television sports and drank beer from the bottle in solitary splendor at the end of his busy workday.


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