Issues couples may face around retirement—Part 2: Divorce

Upset senior couple after argument while standing in kitchen

Image: Wavebreak Media Ltd/

Here’s the scene. We’re almost eavesdropping on a therapy session with marriage therapist and author of Searching for Intimacy in Marriage, Dr Bryan Craig. This is the second of a three-part series looking at issues couples may face when approaching retirement. Hopefully, this ‘session’ is helpful for those who are contemplating divorce.

A couple in their early 60s has come to see him because they can see no future in their marriage. What they say is this: ‘We think we should divorce, you’re our last chance to keep our marriage together.’

No pressure!

What’s been happening?

Craig says, ‘I would ask them something like, “What’s happening that makes you feel this is your last chance?” I want to know why they’ve come to see me.

‘It’s important that I ask them to tell me what’s happened; why they’ve come to see me; what they want from me; and what’s concerning them. It’s too easy for me to make a diagnosis through guesswork. I don’t want to solve something that’s not a problem.’

And because the couple has said that Craig is their last chance they’ve signalled that they haven’t made a final decision. It’s as if they think there’s something in the relationship that makes it worth keeping.

He continues: ‘A good question is, “Do you want to salvage your marriage?” I expect the answer would be, “We don’t know, we’re not sure.”’

‘So,’ he asks, ‘Are you telling me you want me to create a miracle or do you want me to help you see if there’s anything in your marriage you could salvage, maybe resurrect and work on?’

He suggests they would answer something like: ‘We’re not sure. We’ve given up on the idea of resurrecting our marriage because we don’t think it’s possible.’

But by coming to Craig, they’ve also signalled uncertainty.

‘It’s obvious to me,’ says Craig, ‘that there’s a bit of you that still wants to know whether you’re throwing the world away. Let’s see what brought you to this point and what obstacles there are for making a clean decision for or against the marriage.’

Confronting the pain

There’s always pain when a couple gets to this point and particularly when there’s uncertainty about whether to end the marriage. Addressing the pain is important.

Craig says, ‘I want to know before the first session is finished how much the couple wants the process to continue. In other words, are they committed to working on the issues or are they just going to be spectators looking for a door open wide enough for them to get out?’

If they continue it won’t be easy.

‘I’m convinced that people don’t really know what they want when they’re in a state of absolute confusion, anger, hurt, and frustration. They’re annoyed and can’t see a way through the issues.

‘What they need is someone to help them hear all that emotion first before they can get talking about the differences and the issues. That’s a delicate, slow, and somewhat difficult process and it depends on the attitude and the passion of the two individuals involved.

‘I’ve learned over the years that there’s no healing until we first address the pain.’

Beware the junkyard dog

In most relationships, says Craig, the issues that aren’t addressed and understood will eventually be like a junkyard Alsatian dog that, if it gets out, will bite you on the backside. The thing is that these issues tend to, sooner or later, get out and can maul the relationship to death.

‘That’s a good reason people should be honest with themselves and be upfront with what’s bugging them in their relationship if they want the relationship to maintain vitality and life.

‘For a couple facing retirement, these are not easy issues to unearth when they’ve taken one of two approaches. The first is a plateau of ‘happy enough’ where the couple says, “This is where we are and this is the best we can expect.”

‘The second is where the couple have learned to live around each other and boom—retirement happens and they’re together 24/7 and it’s, “You so annoy me.”’

That sounds like the junkyard dog is on the loose.

What’s your next step?

Craig refers to an Australian survey of individuals (of all ages) who had been divorced for five years. ‘Forty per cent of them said, “If I had just known the warning signs, this would never have happened. I wish it had never happened.”’

If you’re a couple considering divorce, it may be worth checking with a marriage professional before taking that step.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Couples, Emotional Health, Retirement

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