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#93 – Divorce 101: The Complexities, Motives, and Impact on Happiness with Meredith Shirey

Divorce rates have doubled for those aged 50 and over since 1990, and tripled for those 65 and over. It’s shocking to think what once seemed like your happily ever after, could possibly turn out to be the downfall of your family, finances, and overall happiness. For that reason, many couples are left asking, “How did we get here?” Meredith Shirey, Founder and Practice Director at Meredith Shirey Marriage & Family Therapy, provides her insight on that question and more in this week’s episode.

Meredith reviews the biggest catalysts leading to divorce and how marriage is perceived in different cultures and throughout history. Furthermore, she reveals what to consider when divorcing, as well as how this can impact your family and children. Later in the episode, Wes mentions his findings regarding marriage mulligans for Happy Retirees, Meredith dives into the touchy subject of affairs, marrying for happiness, and describes divorce patterns along with how to repair them.

Read Show Notes From This Episode (click to expand and read notes from the full interview)

Wes: the thought around divorce rates declining but 50+ they’ve been doubling and 65+ they are tripling.

Meredith says stats are always changing but generally yes that is the case. Big divorce rate for empty nesters. Some of them are parallel to why rates have been on the rise in general. Life expectancy growth plays into it. It used to be “married for life and if you like the person, that’s a bonus.” It was an economic arrangement. Women weren’t in the workforce so they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. Plus social stigma.

Wes – brings up movies with love stories. But most of the time in history it was economic. Meredith says yes up until the industrial revolution. If it’s terrible, just hope your partner dies before you do. The purpose of marriage was not to make you happy. Post-industrial revolution it is. Now, more flexibility.

Wes brings up those stats again. For 50 and 65+ rates are going up. Stats are tricky, though. Meredith says millennials are delaying marriage.

Wes says maybe the new iteration of marriage is more bonded because people have waited and didn’t get married until they actually wanted to. What are some of the other catalysts? Meredith says the biggest one is “have we allowed ourselves to become disconnected? It happens in subtle ways.” If we don’t address these tiny moments. Every little interaction is like a grain of sand. After a while, that grain of sand BECOMES A BEACH. So many moments of disconnection. We emotionally close ourselves off. The sooner you repair the better.

Wes: eventually a dump truck worth of sand. How much of it is societal, social media, and general disconnectedness? Society makes up disconnected? Wes is fascinated by facebook’s move to META. It’s almost a sad thing. A fake world. Wes isn’t commenting on stock price or anything but just from a broad standpoint, it’s so strange and sad.

Wes: a couple has some sand building, when do people hit the point of no return? What do you see? Meredith says the overarching thing is more about perspective. If a person already feels buried he or she won’t feel like digging out. It’s about perspective and each person’s willingness to try. There might be some mismatch to some degree but it can’t all fall on one person. She finds people have much better luck if they come in sooner for the therapy. Meredith can tell pretty quickly if couples are buried under sand. She can tell that they have no interest in listening to each other. Hearing what the other person says. Learning about the other person’s perspective. That’s a situation where Meredith doesn’t have a lot of hope. But she says it’s important to think about the priority of happiness in marriages. Divorce rates in the US are significantly higher than in other countries because our priority is to be happy. In some other countries, it’s arranged so they aren’t looking for the mate to fill that role. They don’t put individual happiness over the unit or the family.

Wes: What about the natural inclination of humans to be with the right fit? What happens to that thought of the love of your life? Meredith says it never goes away no matter what culture you’re in. It’s more about thinking about the role of your spouse. Those folks aren’t looking to the spouse to supply the love. Affairs happen universally but in those cultures the affair isn’t as bad as breaking up the family. Here in the US you’re shamed for staying in a marriage after an affair. It makes sense because the US is about the pursuit of happiness. Most other places in the world put a priority on the stability of the family. Then Europe. But more African and the Middle East and South America. Getting a divorce would be far more stigmatized.

Wes: You have 3 questions you need to be asking yourself when considering a divorce. Let’s remind people how brutal divorce is. Meredith says it’s one of the worst crises you can go through. One of the big things that set it apart – people forget to be as thoughtful when they do it as they’re older because kids aren’t in the picture. Parents divorcing might behave more when kids are around. The older divorces are sometimes less civil. We forget that adult children can have hurt feelings, too. A big change affects them, too.

Meredith rarely has little children in her office because the parents got divorced. She often has older adult children in there for that, though.

Wes’ parents were divorced when he was 10, 11, and 13 year old range. Wes is seeing divorce more in his practice as a financial advisor. Wes asks Meredith what her story is. She says her parents divorced when she was 16. It was traumatic. She didn’t know there were problems. Everyone tried to protect her little sister and Meredith got stuck in the middle so then she decided later that maybe she’d get paid doing stuff like that. Meredith says “parentified” is a silly way of saying a kid who is too young to be put in the role of knowing divorce settlement info, etc. Wes says that is what happened to him, too. When he was 12, mostly from one side. The older Wes got, he got even more from his parents – each side of the perspective. Wes thinks maybe it helped him grow up quicker, not necessarily bad. Harder on his little siblings. Wes is the oldest of 4.

Meredith said if she’s going to do that, she might as well get paid for it. Wes brings up his family members going through divorces. And it is really rough. He says it doesn’t have to be horrible for years and years but there’s a range. Meredith says everything about the divorce comes down to “what is your relationship like with the person you’re divorcing from?” Can you be amicable? Is it pretentious? Are you able to hold space and respect them as a partner? That’s the drop that starts the bigger ripples. We’re all wired so differently. That’s why 2 people going through the same thing can have vastly different reactions. The most important thing someone can do is think about the emotional needs of the kids (young or adult) and talk to them about it.

With trauma – sometimes people look back and wonder if their memories are a lie. Did their parents not love each other even though it seemed like they did. That can be traumatic. Did I grow up in a lie? When parents have little kids, they are very protective of them in those situations. When the kids get older, parents forget that they still have emotions.

Wes says if you go through a grey divorce, you have to think of the kids just as much as when they were little.

Wes brings up the data he found that people who went through one divorce were no less happy than people who were in their first marriage. Surprised him. But he deemed it as everyone gets a marriage mulligan. In a 3rd and 4th marriage, happiness levels have declined. He talks about it in “What the Happiest Retirees Know.”

Meredith says that’s an excellent point. If you really are this unhappy with that person, it’s okay to divorce. Sometimes people sacrifice their own happiness. Sometimes you might be doing more harm than good by staying together. Wes asks Meredith to repeat that. She says you have better outcomes for child adjustment when parents are more connected and happy – more important than whether the parents stay married or not. Adjustment means how happy and healthy and well-rounded person. Overall well-being.

Wes wants to know what people should ask themselves when they are thinking about going through a divorce.

Meredith – if you’ve been unhappy with your marriage – be very conscious and intentional in thinking about what happens to bank accounts, relationships with children, friends, etc. If you get divorced 65+ and you’re a male and you were the breadwinner, Meredith’s understanding is that everything put into assets will be divided in half. Will you be okay at that age, financially, doing that?

Wes: if you’re in your mid-60s or 70s you might think you know how your children will react but it’s an unpredictable thing. Meredith says the best way to preserve a good relationship with the kids is to not mudsling at the divorced mate. The kids will have a relationship with both so don’t try to undermine that. This is their parent! Meredith told her parents “I love you both and you need to stop putting me in the middle.” Both of them telling her all this stuff wasn’t helping her. Wes laughs and says there is still mudslinging in his family even now! Meredith asks if Wes feels closer to the mudslinger or mudslinger. Wes says it’s been happening for so long he thought it was normal. For 10 years they were both doing it. Then one parent stopped and the other one kept slinging. He doesn’t really feel closer to one vs. the other. He can’t even believe they were ever married. They are so different and unique that he loves them for different reasons. Equal. Meredith is very glad to hear that.

During a divorce remember the parent/child roles.

Wes asks how much she says the financial side making it all worse. Or if it’s a wealthy couple and they both have plenty. Meredith says it’s different for everyone.

Wes laughs and says he always looking for generalities. Meredith says couples therapy is so interesting. People either love it or hate it. Meredith finds it so fascinating. You get a different side of people. They can’t get away with telling only their narrative.

Meredith’s Top things that show up? Typical pattern of divorce? Meredith says disappointment.

Wes talks about his wife’s experience with nursing and relates it back to HBO’s show In Treatment. Apparently, the new version isn’t very good.
Wes asks, “How do we fix it? People get disappointed and they don’t fix it. What would be the fix to it?”
Meredith suggests addressing things as they’re happening. Don’t have a manifesto of what your parent did wrong for years on end. Address it in the moment and you have to talk about it in a way that doesn’t attack the other.
It’s about finding a pattern of communication and having a value of your partnership that you’re willing to put in the work to maintain it. Happy, healthy marriages take work.
Trauma – parents or families that go through trauma. Is that solvable? How do marriages get through it? I mean trauma with a child.

Meredith – I think those are some of the worst, and there’s little that you can do. Do you have an outlet where you can make sense of it and not hold it in by yourself? If parents can turn to each other it can bring them closer. But if you don’t feel like you can rely on your parent it can push the couple apart.

Why do affairs happen?
Meredith’s Book – The State of Affairs – a million reasons, but for people who start in a happy relationship, it’s often because one person doesn’t feel appreciated or loved and they don’t feel they can turn to their partner. One partner might be looking and finding something that they didn’t even realize they needed. We don’t get to choose the circumstances, but we do choose how we respond.


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This information is provided to you as a resource for informational purposes only and is not to be viewed as investment advice or recommendations. This information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. This information is not intended to, and should not, form a primary basis for any investment decision that you may make. Always consult your own legal, tax, or investment advisor before making any investment/tax/estate/financial planning considerations or decisions. The views and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only as of the date of production/writing and may change without notice at any time based on numerous factors, such as market or other conditions.

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