- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

NEW YORK - Jane Harkleroad marked her first anniversary on Nov. 17 — the anniversary of the divorce that ended a 37-year marriage. The past year has been daunting for her in many ways: Bouts of depression, some awkward dates, distress the first few times she ate out alone at restaurants.

Lately, she feels happier and more confident, thanks in large part to support from friends and fellow churchgoers in Statesboro, Ga. “If not for their prayers,” she said, “I probably wouldn’t be alive today.”

Mrs. Harkleroad, 60, is one of a growing legion of Americans confronting the trauma, challenges and opportunities of divorce after a marriage of long duration falls apart.

No firm statistics are available, but specialists say breakups among couples married more than 25 years are becoming more common, although they are still less likely than divorce among younger couples.

With ever-lengthening life expectancies, even unhappy spouses in their 60s or 70s may find the motivation to start their social lives over again.

“Sometimes it’s people whose marriages have not been good for many, many years, and they’re just waiting for their kids to be grown,” said Constance Ahrons, a California sociologist who has written extensively on marriage and divorce.

“There’s the realization of the emptiness when the kids leave home, the realization that they still have many years ahead, and their spouse is not the person they want to spend the rest of their life with,” Miss Ahrons said.

Mrs. Harkleroad said she sensed relatively early in her marriage that she and her husband were not fully compatible.

“But I was brought up in a Baptist background. When I married, I married for better, for worse,” she said. “I had no intention of leaving.”

Mrs. Harkleroad said she and her husband eventually realized they both were unhappy, and divorce ensued, to the surprise of a son and daughter in their 30s.

The initial months after the divorce were difficult and some financial worries remain, Mrs. Harkleroad said, but life improved when she moved into a smaller house and went back to work at a college library. She said her husband has remarried — to their former real estate agent — while she has tried dating.

“It’s not been the best experience,” she said. “People are nice, but some of them are a bit forward for me.”

Jane Burroughs, 57, of Stevens Point, Wis., believes that her 1997 divorce, which ended a 31-year marriage, reflected dilemmas faced by many women her age.

“My generation was caught in the middle between the women’s liberation movement versus when you stayed home and took care of your children,” she said. “I chose to work full time, as a secretary, and I also had to do all the housework and raise two kids. It all fell on me.”

Mrs. Burroughs said she had two emotional breakdowns and underwent counseling for 10 years before deciding she needed more independence to boost her self-esteem. After one final argument in a long string, both spouses decided it was time to end the marriage, she said.

She put off dating for three years, then met some men through the Internet. “I tell my dates right from the beginning, I do not do marriage again,” she said.

Her ex-husband, on the other hand, is engaged — a pattern that Mrs. Burroughs says is common.

“I know some women who are very bitter, very frustrated that no men are out there for them, while their ex-husbands are out there dating, having the time of their life, or so it looks.”

Scholars say men and women are equally likely to be wounded by the breakup of a long-term marriage, but they generally agree that older divorced men have better luck finding new wives.

“Unfortunately for women, it appears still to be easier for an older man to capture a younger woman than the reverse,” said Dr. Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center-U.S.A. in New York.

Bob Tremblay, 59, divorced three years ago after a 29-year marriage, and says he is now happily reunited with a girlfriend from his high school days.

But his relief at ending years of marital friction is tempered by virtual estrangement from his 30-year-old daughter and a son, 28.

“My wife and I, we were ready for divorce — it should have happened way back before the kids came along,” said Mr. Tremblay, an electronics technician from Somers, Conn.

But losing contact with his children was different: “It was like a knife was stuck in my heart and twisted.”

Though divorces affecting young children can be wrenching — especially if disputes flare over custody and visitation — divorces by couples with adult children have their own distinct challenges.

“Many 20-plus-year-olds, facing their parents divorcing, wonder, ‘Why aren’t people talking about us, and how we’re facing the loss of everything we ever knew?’” said Karen Kahn Wilson, a twice-divorced psychologist who specializes in helping ex-spouses cope with divorce.

Betsy Stellhorn, 56, a clinical social worker from Bethesda divorced in February after a 28-year marriage. She has stayed close to her 27- and 22-year-old daughters — the younger of whom lives with her — but she says the divorce was hard on them.

“The older kids in a way have a tougher time — they’re so used to it being a certain way for so long,” she said.

Mia McNerney, 55, who ended her 32-year marriage in 2001, and her ex-husband were both still in college when they married. Why the breakup?

“I matured,” Mrs. McNerney said. “Women’s independence, women’s roles — I waffled on them a long time. The double standard doesn’t work for me: Take care of the kids, have a job when he needed me to have one, not have a job when he didn’t need that.”

The divorce itself was amicable, Mrs. McNerney said, and she regularly sees her ex-husband when he visits her Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home to see their 12-year-old daughter. Two older children are away at college.

“I don’t want to live my life being angry or jealous,” Mrs. McNerney said. “Am I lonely? Sometimes, sure. Do I feel like a total failure in the wife department? Sometimes, sure. But the nice thing is to feel I’m really happy that I did it.”

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