Why women in their 40s and 50s are increasingly walking out on long-term marriages

Sam Baker
Daily Mail
A growing trend of ‘happily married’ women in their 40s and 50s are looking at their husbands and wondering ‘Is this it?’.
A growing trend of ‘happily married’ women in their 40s and 50s are looking at their husbands and wondering ‘Is this it?’. Credit: Wong Yu Liang/Getty Images

On Monday a friend told me, almost in passing, that she was leaving her “miserable marriage”.

I didn’t know there was anything especially miserable about it, although I’d always thought she was way more fun, interesting and smart than her frankly quite boring husband.

Having been stuck with him for several hours at a friend’s wedding, I’d often wondered since how she put up with him.

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But, who knows, he probably felt the same about me.

I couldn’t say I saw it coming then, but I honestly wasn’t surprised.

After all, she’s not the first to announce imminent divorce.

She’s not even the second or the third.

She is, in fact, about the 15th woman I know in their mid-40s to late-50s who has turned around in the past few years and said . . . Is this it? Really? For the next 30-odd years? No thanks.

Let’s be clear, these are not, on the whole, women in so-called bad marriages, although I’m inclined to think that “bad” is in the eye of the person who has to lie next to it in bed every night.

They are not, on the whole, having affairs. and they have not, again on the whole, been cheated on.

They are not all suddenly freed up by the kids leaving home, even.

They have just tired of the daily grind of “acting the wife”, as my aforementioned friend put it which, even in 2024, seems to entail far too much slaving away on behalf of others and not nearly enough appreciation for it.

The first of my friends to leave her husband turned out to be the advance guard.

She and her partner had been together for more than 20 years, had four children and, despite them both being in full-time work for most of those two decades, she had divided herself between the professional and the domestic.

Which meant everything else — a social life, an inner life, her health, friendships, everything — went by the board.

Like so many heterosexual women in traditional marriages (even if you think it’s not going to be traditional when you start out, that you’re different, that you will never put up with that patriarchal nonsense), the effort was almost all hers.

Well, more than 90 per cent at least. If she wasn’t doing this domestic chore or that family errand, she was arranging for someone else to do it.

If a ball dropped, no one else would pick it up.

My friend’s partner — charming, funny, a “good dad”, definitely “one of the good guys” — carried on looking after his job, while she looked after her job and five other people’s lives.

Doubtless, he absolutely would have collected the children from school if one of them got sick, but he was at work.

It didn’t occur to either of them that so was she.

There’s nothing standout about this story.

Just as there’s nothing standout about his shock when told she wanted a divorce, nor about the familial recriminations directed at her for “giving up on their marriage so easily” (although interestingly none came from the children who were like, “well, yeah, of course”).

Nor was there anything unusual about the assumption that she must have found someone else — because why else would she leave?

Why would anyone pull the plug if they didn’t have another bed to jump straight into? (For the record, she hadn’t.)

This is a relatively new thing. In part, it’s about economics and women earning their own money, albeit often not a lot of it.

It’s about privilege. Many people who would love to leave relationships ranging from lacklustre to downright terrifying simply can’t afford to.

And it’s about social mores. It’s about women waking up one morning or slowly, over the course of years, coming to, and realising they have had enough.

You don’t have to look very far back — or even at all — to stumble on the old trope of the man who gets successful in his chosen field and dumps his first wife (the one he’s often been with since school or college, who he’s had children with, who has invariably subverted her wishes for his) for a younger glitzier model more befitting his new highflying status.

Recently, I was speaking to author Emily Howes, about her latest novel, Mrs Dickens, which takes as its inspiration Charles Dickens’ much overlooked first wife, Kate.

The woman who bore their ten children and then found herself shamed for “letting herself go”.

Chances are you don’t know anything about Kate other than that the celebrated author dumped her, because it was a time-honoured rite of passage, almost.

First wife dies/ages/ gets boring/loses her looks/all of the above, man moves on.

I’m not saying that never happens any more. Of course it does — all the time.

But it feels like there’s a sea change happening. and a lot of men (not all men, obviously) don’t like it.

They like things the way they were.

Because the truth is, heterosexual marriage works better for men than for women.

When I was writing my book, The Shift, I came across a 2019 study in which researchers asked three sets of married couples — heterosexual, gay and lesbian — to keep daily diaries recording their experiences of marital strain and distress.

Women in different-sex marriages reported the highest levels of psychological distress.

Men in same-sex marriages reported the lowest.

Men married to women and women married to women were in the middle, recording similar levels of anguish.

“What’s striking,” the study’s lead author Michael Garcia, pointed out, “is that earlier research had concluded that women in general were likely to report the most relationship distress.

“But it turns out that’s only women married to men . . .”

Women (again, not all women) do the bulk of the labour.

They make most of the effort.

Then I canvassed the 50 women aged approximately 40-60, who had volunteered to be my focus group for the book.

Of those in long- term relationships, substantially more than 50 per cent were either dissatisfied or had recently left.

Even some of those who said they weren’t especially dissatisfied expressed disquiet when they thought about the future.

I will never forget Stephanie, then 49, who had been with her husband since their late teens and was in despair at their diverging levels of ambition.

“Bless him for wanting a simple life — sex, two bottles of wine, Kung Pao prawns and golf most days, stopping off for three pints on the way home — but that’s his dream life, not mine,” she said.

“I’m bored of it. I constantly wonder, is this it?”

It was salutary. I barely needed two hands to count the women who, like me, were in a long-term relationship and happy with the balance of labour, power and responsibility.

Even fewer if you only counted the women whose partners were the opposite sex.

In the case of the women I know, I’m pretty sure that perimenopause has also come into play, in some shape or form.

The departure of those monthly tidal waves of oestrogen — generously called the “nurturing hormone”, but I prefer to think of as “the doormat hormone” — causes them to look up and wonder what they’ve been doing and being and putting up with all these years.

And perhaps conclude that they’re not doing and being and putting up with it any more.

That’s mid-life women, but what about the rest?

Because it’s not just women in their 40s and 50s who are taking a look at heterosexual marriage and finding it wanting.

It’s women of all ages. I have much older friends who joke that if/when they die, their husband will probably remarry in the time it takes to (get someone else to) change the sheets, but if/ when their husband dies, of course they’ll miss him, but they certainly won’t be rushing to replace him.

They might get a friend, for sex and fun and weekends away on the side. But marriage? More dinners? More socks? More snoring? More Sky Sports? Not on your life.

And then there are the Gen Z women, currently aged between 12 and 27, who are distinctly less enthusiastic than Gen Z men about having children someday.

Who can blame them? You don’t have to have children yourself — and I don’t — to know that even now there’s only one person whose life changes radically, and it’s rarely the man’s.

But it’s not just about labour (be it emotional and domestic) and who ends up taking it on.

It’s about who gets prioritised and whose hopes and dreams get collectively or individually shunted aside.

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by poet Maggie Smith, 47, is a gorgeous book and one of a slew of recent American “divorce memoirs” by women in their 40s that have made an impression on the bestseller lists.

Others include Lyz Lenz’s This American Ex-Wife and Leslie Jamison’s Splinters.

Smith met her ex when they were both studying creative writing.

Marriage and children saw her put aside her dream to support his.

He went to law school; she became “more wife and mother”.

She continued to write in a freelance capacity until, one day, she wrote a poem called Good Bones that went viral and projected her career into the fast lane.

It could no longer take a backseat.

As Smith says of the inconvenience (to her ex) of being obliged to travel for work.

“I didn’t feel missed as a person, I felt missed as staff.”

Ultimately, inevitably, they divorced and Smith was saved, at the last moment, from sacrificing herself and her dreams altogether.

And this is why her memoir and the other women’s stories of divorce and reemergence are resonating so loudly right now, because a zillion other women are looking up and thinking, hang on, me too.

And this, I think, is why there seems to be a divorce/separation epidemic among my heterosexual friends.

They’re done being the one who makes all the effort; who remembers all the birthdays; who works out what to have for tea.

They’re done shelving their aspirations and prioritising other people’s dreams.

If they’re lucky they have 30, 40 years ahead of them. This is their time.

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