Joy had the perfect marriage. She married her childhood sweetheart, Bill, when she was 20 and fresh out of Bible school. Handsome and a natural leader, Bill became an ordained minister, specializing in church planning.
For 35 years Joy worked alongside him, raising their four children, teaching Sunday school, organizing church music programs and playing the piano in services. If anyone had asked, she would have said they had a happy marriage.
Then, a week before Mother's Day, Joy found a letter addressed to her in their mailbox. Without discussion or warning, Bill wrote that he was leaving her. Their children were grown, he said, and his responsibilities at home were over. He wanted a new life without her.
"It was like a death," Joy recalls. "The only trouble is that the funeral is still never over for me."
Stuck financially and devastated emotionally, Joy needed five years to work through the pain and anger she felt over Bill's departure.
"I'd known him since I was 13," she says. "I'd never even kissed anyone else."
Why do seemingly stable men like Bill divorce their wives and devastate their families just when the children have left the nest? Why, when the financial burdens have ebbed and the "golden years" of retirement are just around the corner?
Dr. Archibald Hart, a psychology professor and author of Healing Adult Children of Divorce, calls the culprit "later-in-life crisis."
Most divorces occur within eight or 10 years of marriage, Hart says, but increasingly later-in-life divorces happen after a couple have been married 25 or 30 years.
"The empty nest occurs later now because people are marrying later and delaying having children," explains Hart. "For some couples, the sixties are becoming the newly recaptured years. But the home environment begins to get stale."
Husbands and wives who have devoted themselves to their children, their jobs and even church work—to the exclusion of keeping their personal relationship alive—may find they hardly know each other once their outside responsibilities decline. When the couple doesn't have a compelling reason to stay together, says Dr. Hart, one spouse or the other may look outside the marriage for a relationship.
Hart lists these warning signs for older couples who may be vulnerable:
Hart says that prevention for late divorce should occur throughout a marriage, as couples keep the spark of romance alive over the years.
"Couples who have fun together and have similar interests and activities hardly ever split up. But when she does her thing and he does his, there can be trouble later on," he says.
For older couples who suddenly find they don't have much in common, Hart suggests thinking back on the courtship and early marriage years and trying to rebuild the togetherness that existed then.
So far, the later-life crisis seems to be a male phenomenon. Hart says that while older women can embark an long-held goals such as going back to school or starting careers, men in their sixties, on the other hand, start to feel indifferent about their jobs and complacent about their marriages. They aren't ready to retire, but they're tired of working. That's when they panic about aging a d develop a "last chance" mend to recapture their youth.
Highly successful men are especially vulnerable, Hart says, because they spend a lot of time away from their spouses, plus they often associate with younger women in the business world. "The opportunity for an affair presents itself even to men who aren't looking for it," Hart says. 'The higher up the totem pole you are—and this could be a senior pastor or a corporate vice president—the more arrogance and lack of accountability you've tended to develop."
Last year, Joy married a widower at a celebration that included all her children and grandchildren. She says the anger over Bill's departure has faded with time. Still, she struggles at family gatherings: "It's just the feeling that there's a dream out there about what my life was supposed to be like," she says. "That dream was shattered."