Home US Fifteen of my female friends in their 40s and 50s have left their husbands. Here’s the real reason they’re ALL getting divorced…and why your marriage is at risk without you even realizing it

Fifteen of my female friends in their 40s and 50s have left their husbands. Here’s the real reason they’re ALL getting divorced…and why your marriage is at risk without you even realizing it

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One study found that women in different-sex marriages reported the highest levels of psychological distress, while men in same-sex marriages reported the lowest levels.

On Monday, a friend of mine told me, almost in passing, that she was leaving her “miserable marriage.” I didn’t know there was anything particularly miserable about it, although I had always thought she was much more fun, interesting and intelligent than her frankly boring husband.

After spending several hours with him at a friend’s wedding, I often wondered how she put up with him. But who knows, he probably felt the same way about me.

I couldn’t say I saw it coming at the time, but I honestly wasn’t surprised. After all, she’s not the first to announce an impending divorce. She’s not even the second or third. In fact, she’s about the 15th woman I know in her 40s and 50s who has changed her mind in the last few years and said, This is it? Really? For the next 30-something years? No thanks.

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

They generally don’t have affairs, and they usually haven’t been cheated on either. They haven’t even suddenly broken loose because the kids left home.

One study found that women in different-sex marriages reported the highest levels of psychological distress, while men in same-sex marriages reported the lowest levels.

They’ve simply grown tired of the daily grind of “acting like a wife,” as my aforementioned friend put it, which, even in 2024, seems to involve too much work on behalf of others and not enough recognition for it.

The first of my friends to leave her husband turned out to be the vanguard. She had been in a relationship with her partner for over 20 years, had four children, and, despite the fact that they had both worked full-time for most of those two decades, she had divided her career and domestic life.

Which meant that everything else—social life, inner life, health, friendships, everything—went down the drain.

Like so many straight women in traditional marriages (even if you think at first that it’s not going to be traditional, that you’re different, that you’ll never put up with that patriarchal nonsense), the effort was almost all hers. Well, more than 90 percent of it, at least.

If he wasn’t doing a chore or a family errand, he was arranging for someone else to do it. If a ball was dropped, no one else would pick it up.

My friend’s partner—charming, funny, a “good dad,” definitely “one of the good ones”—continued to take care of his job, while she took care of hers and the lives of five other people.

He would certainly have picked up the kids from school if one of them got sick, but he was at work. It didn’t occur to either of them that she was sick, too.

There is nothing remarkable in this story. Just as there is nothing remarkable in her surprise when she was told she wanted a divorce, nor in the family recriminations directed at her for “giving up on her marriage so easily” (although curiously none came from the children, who said, “Well, yes, of course.”).

There was also nothing unusual about the assumption that he must have found someone else, because otherwise why would he leave? Why would anyone pull the plug if he didn’t have another bed to jump straight into? (For the record, he hadn’t found one.)

This is a relatively new thing. Part of it has to do with economics and women making their own money, even if it’s often not much. Part of it has to do with privilege. Many people who would love to leave relationships that range from mediocre to downright terrifying simply can’t afford to.

The truth is that heterosexual marriage works better for men than for women, writes Sam Baker

The truth is that heterosexual marriage works better for men than for women, writes Sam Baker

And these are social habits. These are women who wake up one morning or who slowly, over the years, come to their senses and realize that they’ve had enough.

You don’t have to look far back – or at all – to come across the old cliché of the man who is successful in his chosen field and abandons his first wife (the one he’s often been with since school or college, with whom he’s had children, who has invariably subverted her desires for him) for a younger, more stunning model more in keeping with his new high-flying status.

I was recently talking to author Emily Howes about her latest novel, Mrs Dickens, which is inspired by Charles Dickens’s oft-forgotten first wife, Kate. The woman who gave birth to his ten children and then felt humiliated for “having let herself go.”

Chances are you don’t know anything about Kate except that the celebrated author dumped her, because it was almost a time-honored rite of passage. First wife dies/gets old/gets boring/loses her beauty/all of the above, man moves on.

I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen anymore. Of course it does, all the time. But it seems that a radical change is taking place. And many men (not all, obviously) don’t like it. They like things to stay the same.

Because the truth is that 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 groups of married couples (straight, gay, and lesbian) to keep journals recording their experiences of marital tension and distress.

Women married to opposite-sex partners reported the highest levels of psychological distress, while men married to same-sex partners reported the lowest levels. Men married to women and women married to women were in the middle, reporting similar levels of distress.

“What’s surprising,” said lead study author Michael Garcia, “is that previous research had found that women in general had the most problems in their relationships. But it turns out that’s only true for women married to men…”

Women (again, not all) are the ones who do most of the work and put in the most effort.

I then contacted the 50 women between the ages of 40 and 60 who had volunteered to be my focus group for the book.

Women (again, not all women) do most of the work...and do most of the effort.

Women (again, not all women) do most of the work…and do most of the effort.

Of those in long-term relationships, substantially more than 50 percent were dissatisfied or had recently left the relationship.

Even some of those who said they were not particularly dissatisfied expressed unease about the future.

I will never forget Stephanie, then 49, who had been with her husband since her late teens and was desperate for his differing levels of ambition.

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

“I’m fed up with this. I’m constantly asking myself: is this all?”

It was good news. I barely needed two hands to count the women who, like me, were in long-term relationships and happy with the balance of work, power and responsibility. And there were even fewer of them if I only counted women whose partners were of the opposite sex.

For the women I know, I’m pretty sure perimenopause has also come into play, in one way or another.

The release of those monthly waves of estrogen—generously called the “nurturing hormone,” but which I prefer to think of as the “doormat hormone”—makes you look up and wonder what you’ve been doing, being, and enduring all these years.

And perhaps conclude that they are no longer doing, or being, or enduring it any more.

That applies to middle-aged women, but what about everyone else? Because it’s not just women in their 40s and 50s who are looking at heterosexual marriage and finding it wanting. It’s women of all ages.

I have much older friends who joke that if they die, their husbands will probably remarry in the time it takes to get someone else to change the sheets, but if their husband dies, of course they will miss him, but they certainly won’t be in a rush to replace him.

Maybe they’ll get a friend to have sex with, have fun with and spend weekends away with, but getting married? More dinners? More socks? More snoring? More Sky Sports? No way.

And then there are Gen Z women, currently ages 12 to 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—and I don’t—to know that even now, there is only one person whose life changes radically, and it is rarely the man’s.

But it’s not just about work (whether emotional or domestic) and who ends up taking on the task, but about who gets priority and whose hopes and dreams get pushed aside, collectively or individually.

You Could Make This Place Beautiful, by 47-year-old poet Maggie Smith, is a superb book and one of a series of recent American “divorce memoirs” by women in their 40s that have made a mark on the best-seller lists.

Other books include This American Ex-Wife by Lyz Lenz and Splinters by Leslie Jamison. Smith met her ex when they were both studying creative writing. Marriage and children made her put her dream aside to support him. He went to law school and she became “more of a wife and mother.”

She continued to write independently until one day she wrote a poem called Good Bones that went viral and launched her career into the fast lane. She could no longer take a backseat.

As Smith says of the inconvenience of being forced to travel for work: “I didn’t feel alienated as a person, I felt alienated as a staff member.”

In the end, inevitably, they divorced, and Smith was saved, at the last moment, from sacrificing herself and her dreams entirely. And that’s why her memoir and other women’s stories of divorce and rebirth resonate so strongly right now, because a million other women are looking up and thinking: wait, me too.

And I think that’s why there seems to be an epidemic of divorces and separations among my straight friends. They’re fed up with being the ones doing all the work: the ones remembering all the birthdays, the ones deciding what to have for tea.

They have stopped putting their aspirations aside and prioritising the dreams of others. If they are lucky, they have 30 or 40 years ahead of them. This is their moment.

The Shift With Sam Baker is a newsletter geared toward midlife women. Find it on Substack at The change with Sambaker.substack.com

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