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Boomers Face A 'Divorce Revolution,' But Some Can Learn From Happy Couples


Finally today, let's spend a few minutes talking about marriage. It turns out that midlife marriage is in crisis. So many long-term couples are ending things that there is even a name for it - the great divorce revolution. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the journalist and author, has been looking into this for her book "Life Reimagined" and an NPR series on the middle years. And she tried to figure out what happy couples do right and why things go wrong. And Barbara's with me now in the studio. Welcome.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Thank you. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So what is it at midlife that seems to be behind this? What's this Gray Divorce Revolution?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yeah, it's a really stunning development. I mean, something like a quarter of the people who divorce these days are over 50, and that's twice the rate of our parent's generation. And there's kind of, like, a perfect storm creating all of these great divorces.

MARTIN: What is that perfect storm?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: So there are a couple things. One is a lot of these folks were divorced before, and so they know that life goes on after the split. Another thing is that women for the first time in history are financially independent enough to divorce, and they're the ones who generally ask for the divorce. And if you're, like, 50 years old and you think you have another 30 years to live, you might say I think I want someone else who might check a few more boxes.

MARTIN: You talk to a lot of people - couples and researchers - to find out just if there was a through line to the - kind of the happiness factor. And I'd like to know what you found.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, one thing that researchers have found is that people who do well think as a team, and they're not thinking as two individuals. So researchers at Berkeley followed 150 couples for 20 years and found that couples that use plural pronouns like we and us were much happier in their marriages and far less likely to be divorced than the people who used I and me. And obviously, this wasn't just semantics. It was a mindset. They tackled life together. They were building careers, raising children, dealing with the crises of life. And they were doing this in collaboration.

MARTIN: What about if people are very dissimilar?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: You know, there's a truism in marriage research which is opposites attract and then they attack. But in fact - this is really a cool finding - having personality differences in midlife is a really good thing. It turns out midlife is about getting things done. So two conscientious people might both want to do the taxes while, you know, the kids play dates go unscheduled. But if you have an extravert and an introvert, you'll get the taxes done and the kids play dates will be scheduled.

MARTIN: You also talked about in the book injecting novelty into the marriage. And you actually did some research on this that you can share that's general-audience friendly.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's right, we did (laughter). My husband and I decided to try out novelty for the betterment of science, right? So I want to just play a little bit of tape here.

So here we are ready for the big adventure.

DEVIN HAGERTY: Winchester (ph), here we come.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Winchester. What's Winchester?

D. HAGERTY: That's were camping tonight.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: My husband always wanted to go travel in an RV. And I could think of nothing more boring or pointless. But it was really great for our relationship because it was so novel. I mean, we didn't know anything about driving an RV or backing one up. We didn't know anything about black water, which we won't talk about right now. We got stranded in a flood once. It really threw us out of our comfort zone, and it made for the best vacation ever.

MARTIN: What about unhappy marriages? Is there any, you know, hope for people who are in unhappy marriages?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: What's interesting, Michel, is there really isn't much hard scientific rigorous study on this. But I did find one really interesting study. And they looked at - the researchers looked at what's happening in the brains of married couples. So here's what they did - the researchers recruited happy couples and couples on the brink of divorce. And when they scanned the brain of the happy wife who thought she was in danger of getting an electric shock to her ankle found that when she was holding her husband's hand, her fears calmed down and so did her brain. But - get this - when the unhappy wife was threatened with the electric shock, her fear centers went berserk. And here's how Jim Coan, a researcher at the University of Virginia - here's how he explains it.

JIM COAN: When relationships are functioning well, your spouse takes a problem away. If the relationship is not functioning well, the spouse adds an additional problem.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: So then what happened is the unhappy couples went through 20 weeks of therapy called emotionally-focused therapy. And it's based on the theory that love is not a romantic sentiment. It's actually a survival mechanism, kind of an evolutionary code that's designed to keep people close to you who are going to help you deal with life threats. So after this therapy, the unhappy wives went right back into the scanner. And the wives' brains now looked like those of happily-married women. It suggests that even people on the brink of divorce who might make a go of it actually can improve their marriage enough to be happy.

MARTIN: All right, that's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Her latest book is "Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, And Opportunity Of Midlife." And she was with me in our Washington, D.C., studio. Thanks so much for joining us.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thanks a lot, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.