Moving on from Divorce after 20 or More Years of Marriage

If you’ve been married a long time, you may have spent more years as part of a couple than you did as a single person. Marriage is like muscle memory. You may forget what it’s like to be single because you’re so accustomed to having your spouse by your side.

But now you’re single again – or contemplating it. In your new life, an exciting future awaits.

Getting divorced after a long marriage

Moving on after a divorce can be challenging, especially after a long marriage. Whether you initiated the divorce or your ex-spouse did, it can send you reeling. As a long-term spouse, you may have put aside your own needs for years to take care of your family. 

Gray divorce is common

Gray divorce” has become common. While divorce in general has declined over the last few years, nearly a quarter of people filing for divorce today are over 50. Why? Here are just a few theories:

  • Older couples are more aware of their mortality. They may see the door closing to living a full life of true happiness, and they may see divorce as a solution.
  • Older adults have experienced many life changes: the ups and downs of marriage, finances, and careers. They’ve watched their kids grow up and leave home. Now, life feels too predictable, and excitement and intimacy are no more.
  • Older adults, particularly women, have the resources to support themselves without the help of a partner. This is a change from how things were in decades past.

For couples who have spent decades together, divorce can be exhilarating or devastating. If you’re in the latter camp, make sure you’re dealing with it in healthy ways. You might try some stress-relieving physical activity and lean on your support system – friends, family, or members of a like-minded support group.

It may also be a good idea to get some professional help.

Addressing your top concerns after divorce

If you’re getting divorced after 20 years of marriage or more, you undoubtedly have questions. Where will you live? How will you take care of yourself? Will you live the rest of your life alone? Will you find someone new?

Your emotional, financial, and spiritual health should now be some of your top concerns. Let’s take a closer look.

Your emotional health

The end of a long marriage, especially if it was initiated by your spouse, will feel especially tumultuous. There will be a profound sense of loss, not only of the relationship and your shared hopes and dreams but also of who you were as an individual. Your identity as a “spouse” has ended, and it has left a huge void. 

If you are not the one who filed for divorce, you may be wondering how your spouse could do this to you. Divorce after a long marriage will push all your vulnerability buttons, often at the same time. You may feel hollow, rejected, sad, and angry. 

Dealing with grief

A divorce after so many years of marriage is a genuine loss and will need to be grieved like one. Anger, blame, and guilt are all valid feelings. It’s natural, even essential, to go through a grieving process. 

Grieving a divorce is similar to mourning the death of a loved one. You may find yourself moving through similar stages such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  This is healthy and necessary to process your losses and what you’ve been through.

After a certain point, however, the uncomfortable stages of grief can be detrimental to your emotional and mental well-being. Recognize that all of these feelings are a normal, valid part of the healing process, but also remember that your end focus should be moving on with your life. 

Read: Complicated Grief: When the Hurt Won’t Go Away

Reevaluating your identity

Over the course of a long marriage, your identity as an individual may have been overshadowed by your identity as part of a couple. Divorce often triggers an identity crisis. It forces you to look at who you are outside the confines of that marriage. Fortunately, this can lead to an important period of redefinition and self-discovery. 

Realizing the significant impact it has on your family and social dynamics

A long marriage creates many intertwined family relationships and friendships. Your children may suffer their own existential crises – after all, you and your spouse were the foundation of their identities. Friends might not know what to say, or they may take sides. These changes in your social and family interactions can make you feel even more isolated.

Coping strategies

1. Get support

This is difficult stuff. You don’t have to handle this on your own. Everyone can benefit from some emotional support during a divorce, but this can be especially necessary if you’re ending a very long marriage. Join a support group that can provide you with a sense of community and comfort. Consider working with a professional therapist to help you figure out and accept what happened, why, and how to move forward.

2. Embark on some critical self-care

Perhaps you may not have focused on yourself – truly focused on yourself and your well-being – for a very long time. Well, now is the time. Try to strike a balance between adequate physical activity, a balanced diet, and decent sleep each night. Consider breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation to take the edge off any stress and anxiety you’re feeling. 

3. Try new things (or return to old things) to rediscover yourself

Who were you before you became half of a whole? Revisit some old hobbies and interests or explore some new ones. Set new goals for yourself – for your career, your health, your future direction, and your purpose. This can be quite fun and liberating, once you relax into it.

4. Reconnect with people you’ve lost touch with

Chances are, they will understand and be glad to hear from you. Social support is essential to your healing right now. Friendships can be some of the best medicine. In addition to old friends, you might decide to make some new connections locally or on social media.

Surround yourself with positive people. Fill your life with people who accept the reality of your situation and will help propel you forward. This can be a time of expansive personal growth if you let it be. Don’t know where to start? An online support group like Circles may be the perfect place. You can also keep an eye out for groups that meet at your area library, church, gym, or another location.

For specific ideas on where to find a great therapist or support group, check out our article, Guide to Therapy during and after Divorce.

The emotional stages of divorce

No matter how long you’ve been married, healing from divorce requires movement through common emotional stages. While everyone’s circumstances look different, and these stages won’t necessarily be navigated in any specific order, healing usually involves some, if not most, of them.

  1.  Denial: The initial emotional stage of divorce – denial – is marked by overwhelming shock and disbelief. Your marriage is ending, and it may seem inconceivable after so many years together. Processing this new reality will be challenging, at the very least. 
  2.  Fear: You may worry about your security and basic needs. You may wonder what you will do, where you will go, and how you will survive. It’s common to worry about the present and your future, romantic and otherwise.
  3.  Anger: When reality sets in, you may feel angry and betrayed. Your anger may not only be directed at your spouse. You may feel equally angry at yourself. How could you have not seen this coming? Or maybe you did and decided to ignore it. 
  4.  Bargaining: Where did things go wrong? What could you have done differently? Could there still be a chance to turn things around? During this stage, people find themselves holding on to the tiniest threads of hope, even though reconciliation seems unlikely.   
  5.  Guilt: Although blaming everything on your spouse was easy, you now recognize your role in your marriage’s demise. If only you could turn back time and do things differently. Unfortunately, you can’t, and now you’re suffering the consequences. 
  6.  Extreme sadness and grief: As you understand the finality of the situation, you feel profoundly sad and lost. This marriage is all you've known for so long. How will you go on?
  7.  Acceptance: Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re okay with the divorce. It merely means that you have accepted its reality. There is nothing more to be done in terms of fixing the relationship. Your focus now is on rebuilding your life.

    It’s in your best interest to work toward finding peace. You may even find forgiveness for your spouse, which works in your favor as well. We’re not talking about forgiving your ex for your ex’s sake. We’re talking about forgiveness for your own sake.

The emotional work to be done after divorce is hard. But it’s not impossible, and you are worth the effort. Finding a therapist who can help you work through all of your feelings can be priceless.

And what about your kids? Your marriage was part of their life, too. Many of their memories are wrapped up in the life you and your spouse created. Give them plenty of time to accept what has happened. 

Read: What Are the Emotional Stages of Divorce?

Your financial security

The financial impact of divorce after 20 or more years of marriage can be considerable. As a couple, the two of you may have accumulated a home or two, retirement accounts, stocks and bonds, life insurance, and other assets that will have to be divided. 

A spouse who stayed home, sacrificing their career while the other spouse worked, may face some unique questions at this time. For example, how can you take care of yourself financially if you don't foresee yourself being marketable in today’s career landscape?

State family laws provide for these kinds of scenarios. You and your spouse will divide your marital assets, and, in some cases, that division will not necessarily be 50/50 but what the law considers “equitable.” 

Examples of equitable property division in divorce

Some states follow equitable distribution laws in a divorce scenario. In this case, “equitable” doesn’t mean equal. It means “fair” considering the many different factors. These factors can include the length of your marriage, what each of you has contributed to the marriage, each partner’s age and health, your standard of living, and other factors. 

Here are some examples of how equitable distribution could affect your divorce if you live in an equitable distribution state.

The earner and the homemaker

You and your spouse have been married for over 20 years. Through most of this time, your spouse has been the primary earner, and you have remained home, first to care for the children and then to continue caring for the household. 

In this scenario, even though your spouse earned most of your financial assets, the court will recognize your non-monetary contributions to the marriage and your family. The court will also consider your standard of living during your marriage when determining what you’re entitled to in your property division. 

The business co-owners

In addition to your home and other financial interests, you and your spouse have built a successful business during your marriage. The court will not only consider all your financial and non-financial contributions to the marriage when dividing your marital assets, but it will also consider your contributions to the business when dividing business assets. 

Suggested: How Are Business Assets Divided in Divorce?

The retired couple

You and your spouse are divorcing after 28 years of marriage, and you are both retired. Most of your marital estate consists of your retirement savings, investments, and your spouse’s pension.

Depending on the length of the marriage and the assets available to both of you, the court will consider your spouse’s pension in addition to any other retirement savings you’ve accumulated over the years in an equitable distribution scenario. 

Your marital estate involves an inheritance

Your spouse inherited money during your marriage, and you’ve used those resources to upgrade your lifestyle. While an inheritance would typically be considered separate property in a divorce, you have used this money to make purchases that have been co-owned by both of you, such as real estate or cars. 

When separate assets like an inheritance have been commingled with marital assets, the court will also consider these assets in your property settlement. 

The above examples only partially reflect the complexity and variability of equitable distribution in a long-term marriage. If you want to get a better sense of your financial picture, you may benefit from some time with a financial advisor who can suss out the financial implications of your divorce. Hello Divorce offers flat-rate sessions with a certified financial divorce analyst, which you can read about here.

Your children

A divorce after a long-term marriage will significantly impact your family, particularly your adult children. Your children may be adults and have families of their own, but you’re the only parents they have, and they will have their own emotional reactions to your divorce. 

They may have known you were unhappy, reacting to the news with a resounding, “Finally!” Or, they may be surprised and confused. Your children might find themselves in a “role reversal” situation where they’re trying to protect you, inadvertently getting in the middle of your conflicts, taking sides, or mediating your disputes. Your divorce could shatter their sense of family stability and unity, leading to their feelings of grief and loss. 

If vacations were spent together with extended family at the cabin by the lake, if Thanksgiving was a time when everyone gathered around your table, or if birthdays were typically a celebration hosted by you and your spouse each year, your divorce will affect these long-held traditions. It will influence your kids in ways you may not have anticipated. In the meantime, they might feel like small children again, seeing the parents of their childhood become real people with their own foibles.

How can you manage your emotions while also being mindful of how your children are coping

  • Avoid blindsiding them with the news. When you do tell them, maintain open and honest communication. Reassure them of your love and continued commitment to them and your grandchildren. 
  • Acknowledge their feelings. After all, this is their story too. They may be dealing with bittersweet feelings about cherished childhood memories. They may be thinking about the undeniable changes that will impact your roles as grandparents.  
  • Be open to their involvement, but maintain boundaries. Don't speak negatively about your ex, and respect your kids’ relationship with them. Don’t put your children in the position of taking sides or being your sole support system. 
  • Try to preserve family rituals and traditions. If this is impossible, find ways to create new ones to maintain a sense of stability and continuity. 

Your future

Thinking about your future as a single person after a long marriage can be challenging. But your next chapter may even be better than the one before. You might make new friends, have more free time, and capitalize on this new beginning.

Consider these common reasons many divorced people end up happier:

  • You will no longer have to settle for an unhappy marriage or unhappy partner.
  • People are healthier and living longer than before, and there is no better time to begin a self-care plan.
  • In most cultures, there is no longer much of a stigma surrounding divorce.
  • There are many options for single adults in midlife to spend time traveling, pursuing new hobbies, and enjoying life.
  • Many people in midlife are reinventing themselves and beginning “second act” careers that are more aligned with their values and interests than financial necessity.
  • Getting back out into the world is good for you, socially and emotionally.
  • Are you dating or considering a new relationship? You are older, wiser, and no longer plagued by the insecurities you had before you married.

Redefining life goals and ambitions

Your goals and ambitions after your divorce will probably look very different from the ones you had the last time you were single. You're older and wiser, and this new chapter should be aligned with the person you are now.

  • Take time for self-reflection. What truly interests you today? Your answer to this question might prompt you to resurrect an old hobby or career or pursue something new.
  • Evaluate the skills and strengths you have now. Consider how you could apply them in ways like volunteering or embarking on a new career path.
  • What do you value? Your new goals should align with your core beliefs.
  • Know your worth. After a divorce, you’re probably feeling vulnerable. That’s normal. But before you go back out into the world, get clear on who you are and what you bring to the table.
  • List some of your short and long-term goals in writing. Make sure they’re specific and achievable. Seeing the words written on a page can help make them more concrete in your mind.
  • Investigate new possible career paths that align with your background as well as your interests. Update your skills through online or local courses and certifications. 
  • Experiment with new hobbies that resonate with who you are now. Look for clubs or online communities that support them. 
  • Review your progress. Nothing is set in stone. Celebrate achievements, but if some of your experiments fall flat, readjust your sails, and head off in a new direction. 

You may have ended a long marriage, but it’s not the end of your life. This could be an exciting new phase of personal growth and exploration. Take your time and choose things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. The rest will fall into place. 

Free downloadable worksheet: Dating after Divorce

A new beginning

Seeing the light at the end of your marriage can be particularly hard if marriage is all you’ve known for a long, long time. But it can also be a catalyst for a fresh start. You can redefine yourself and your life on your terms. 

Reevaluate your priorities. You have no one to answer to now. Pursue things that make you happy. Take time to understand yourself better so your needs and desires come into focus. Learning from the past means you’ll use those experiences to help you try new things as a wiser and stronger person. 

As you begin to move independently through your new life, you’ll start to build the self-confidence and resilience you’ll need to make it your best yet. 

Need support? A divorce coach can walk you through the divorce process and support you from a logistical and emotional standpoint. It is like having a knowledgeable and supportive ally in your corner each step of the way. 

Permit yourself to make your post-divorce life the best life possible. Let us help. At Hello Divorce, we are committed to helping people navigate divorce without drama. We offer services, online divorce plans, and an extensive library of resources that can help you understand all aspects of the divorce process and move into your next chapter with self-confidence and optimism.

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Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.