We’ve all heard of starter marriages and the seven-year itch, but the sober, unglamorous fact is that women are most likely to divorce in their early 40s, after an average 12 years of marriage. The scales have long since fallen from their eyes, says Sydney-based divorce coach Carla Da Costa, and many of these women simply “wake up to a marriage no longer fits”.
Da Costa has heard an array of reasons for women divorcing their spouse: tiring of toxic behaviour, divergence in values, infidelity, and so on. But no matter the precise cause pushing women towards separation, divorce often offers them a “chance to realign with themselves and what matters to them.” For some, this involves finding a new partner who is better suited for the second half of their life. Others lean into their independence.
We asked nine women who called it quits in their 40s how they feel about it now.
‘I knew I had to make a choice for myself and my children’
“My ex-husband grew resentful while our four children were young. I worked part-time and was completing my master’s degree, as well as caring for the house and the children. He worked long hours and provided almost no support domestically, and felt his emotional needs weren’t being met.
Things grew increasingly hostile when I learned he was having an affair. After confronting him, he swung between denying everything, to blaming me and saying I deserved it.
The marriage became violent, and his drinking escalated. We were sleeping in separate bedrooms, with the frightened children camped out in my bed and on the floor, when he started to come into my bed while everyone was sleeping and sexually assaulting me. He knew I wouldn’t yell or fight and risk traumatising the children.
He felt his emotional needs weren’t being met
When one of my children asked me if every family was like ours, meaning the aggression and hostility, I knew I had a choice to make for myself and for them. The following night, I asked my husband to leave. Initially, he agreed, but it would take six months for him to finally moved out.
Nine years later, I still feel an enormous sense of relief and gratitude that I was able to offer my children a different life. I had parents who stepped in to ensure I could complete my studies and secure a well-paying job, and I know not every woman has that support available to them.
I’ve had a couple of subsequent relationships, but ultimately, I have been unwilling to give up my independence and solitude. I don’t know if that will change in the future, but for now, I feel very content with my life.” – Sadie, 50
‘I thought: I can’t live like this anymore’
“Tension had been building in me for a long time until one morning after the kids had been dropped off at school, I just said to my husband, ‘I’m not happy’. He said, ‘Obviously’.
After that, he had all sorts of reactions, from being angry to making a joke about being single and going on Tinder. The next day he burst into tears and said he’d change, but I just wasn’t in love with him anymore.
We met when I was 20 and we were together for 22 years. We have four kids. We were in love early on, but looking back there were also little things that really weren’t okay. There was a lack of respect.
I just wasn’t in love with him anymore
I went part-time after having the kids but eventually shifted to full-time work while he went part-time to study. But I was flat out seven days a week. I worked full-time in a busy job and still had to keep on top of everything at home. I tried to have conversations with him but was met with the response that he was busy. He was only focused on his needs.
He said he loved me but it didn’t feel like he actually genuinely cared about me or my needs. And when that realisation kicked in, I thought: I can’t live like this anymore. I was working more, so financially I knew I’d be ok.
It was scary but I’m much happier and more relaxed, single. I’m one of those ladies in their 40s with their cats and I’m so damn happy.” – Joan, 46
‘He got sick, had a midlife crisis and left me’
“I was 15 when we met, and he was 16. We became serious at 18, bought a house and married at 21, had a child at 25. We had a whole life together, carefully crafted – we grew up together.
Yet over the course of our relationship, my ex-husband always seemed unfulfilled, especially when it came to his work. As we got older, his frustrations only grew: in hindsight, I think he was depressed at times.
Things really escalated after he became sick and was hospitalised for a few weeks. As a result, he lost his physical strength and couldn’t resume his old job. Forced to work odd jobs, many of them in hospitality, his behaviour gradually began to change. He started going out a lot more, went away with friends, stopped seeing his mum a lot – it really wasn’t like him.
In hindsight, I think he was depressed at times
Then one day he told me he would be moving out, that he felt I wasn’t as giving as he wanted me to be. It was a total shock – I was a busy mum, I had a successful, full-time career, I was looking after ageing parents. I thought it was all just part of marriage!
We did go to counselling to try to patch things up, but when I found out that he’d met someone during this time, I called it off. Even today, 15 years later, I’m still quite angry about what happened. We were building a life together, he could have reached out more.
Ending that relationship was like cutting off an arm. We’d been together forever; it’s just who we were.” – Veronica, late 50s
‘We had to have rules around which days he could drink’
I “panic partnered” at 33. I really wanted to have a child, and my ex came along, and I thought he would do.
It sounds terrible but I was never really in love with him. There were elements of love, and I cared for him, but there was no “sweep you off your feet” love. It wasn’t “this is an amazing relationship” or “this is great sex”. None of that.
By the time I was pregnant with my second child, everything had become an annoyance. Everything grated on me.
In the meantime, his drinking got worse. His father is a big drinker and at every family function, he would drink and get verbally aggressive. We had to have rules around which days he could drink. We did see a counsellor, who said that 90 per cent of his problems would disappear if he stopped drinking, but he couldn’t.
It sounds terrible but I was never really in love with him
Then one day I took our daughter to get some clothes, and my son, who was four must have called me about six times, saying “I’m hungry”. I told him to ask his father for food. When I got back, my son had eaten four apples. It was about midday and my husband was drunk, sitting outside on the outdoor furniture. I said, ‘Did you feed our son’ and he said “You didn’t tell me to feed him”. I lost it. I packed up and me and the kids drove to my parents’ seven hours away. I had to pull over so many times because I was a mess.
I didn’t date for nine years – I just wanted to nurture my children. I have met someone now – he has high emotional intelligence and he doesn’t drink. But we’re not moving in together any time soon. I don’t think there’s a need for women to have a partner. I tell my 30-something friends to freeze their eggs. It’s so much easier.” – Sonia, 51
‘I struggled with my sexuality’
“My 17-year marriage ended because, ultimately, I struggled with my sexuality. I was brought up in a Greek family, we lived in a small country town and my father was very strict. I had three children with my husband, who was a good man, but eventually, the way I was living became too much. I fell in love with a woman post-divorce, but she had alcohol issues so it didn’t work out. I haven’t repartnered but I’m happy.” – Donna, late 40s
‘I didn’t feel prepared for the divorce process at all’
“I knew there would be some hiccups and that everyone’s divorces are different, but I expected the legal process to be relatively straightforward, even when there are children and assets involved. I didn’t feel prepared for what it was really like at all.
When I got married, I walked into a church and signed a piece of paper. It makes no sense that to get out of that you have to jump through hoops and turn yourself inside out; it feels impossible.
All you want to do is say, ‘I’ve had enough of this relationship’ and to move on but you’re having to fight for every dollar. I lost 20 kilos; it is impossible to concentrate on work and run a full-time divorce campaign while the personal details of your marriage and all the things you hold sacred are stripped bare for lawyers and judges to see.
My divorce was finalised this month. I’ve made the best decision; I should have made it many, many years ago.” – Helen, 41
‘I thought: “I’m really not satisfied”. That was the beginning of the end’
“On the surface we appeared to be a ‘happy, stable couple’, which meant I found it difficult to articulate at the time exactly why the marriage ended. I’d often explain it as a long, slow erosion. It’s only now, many years later and having done therapy and much soul-searching that I can say I felt dead inside at the time. There was no intimacy between us and truthfully, probably never had been.
I was the primary carer for our three girls throughout our 12-year marriage, as well as working part-time and running the household. He didn’t care to spend any time with me and at the weekends, and three-to-four nights during the week, he would be off doing his own thing.
I remember getting ready for my 40th birthday party (which I organised) and having a moment of clarity where I thought: “I’m really not satisfied”. That was the beginning of the end.
He didn’t care to spend any time with me
At the time it was going through, it felt kind of strange. A few bittersweet feelings but, honestly, I had zero regrets. I felt freer, lighter, like I was becoming a new and improved version of myself. I realised that during the marriage I’d been playing a gender and cultural role that ultimately made me miserable. It certainly gave me an insight into my late mum and how miserable and angry she’d always seemed to me. Hard not to be when you feel trapped.
I’ve had one, three-year relationship (and a couple of quick flings) in the 11 or so years since we separated and I have no desire to ever marry again.” – Angela, 55
‘He had an affair with a much younger colleague’
“It’s almost too cliched to talk about, really. We met early, in high school, got married early and had kids in our early 20s. Like so many other women, I just fell into the role of the wife and mother, giving up my dreams and goals to support my ex-husband while he climbed the ranks of the police career ladder.
Throughout our 20-year marriage, I often packed up the family and followed him to wherever the job was. Because of the nature of his work, I only worked small jobs here and there to make ends meet, and as a result, I didn’t have any money of my own.
We went on like this – almost like brother and sister – for decades until one day, too lazy to go into my room and grab my own phone, I picked up his to check something inconsequential. I’m still not sure whether it was good luck, bad luck or just serendipity, but the second I picked up his phone it buzzed with a ‘delightful’ good night message from one of his co-workers – a woman in her 20s, only five years older than our eldest daughter.
Like so many other women, I just fell into the role of the wife and mother
For me, that was it. I couldn’t believe that after so many years together, after being careful to keep myself fit and healthy, he would do something so clichéd and boring as have an affair with a younger colleague. I told him to leave; at first, he didn’t believe I meant it. He told me wanted to keep the family together, that he had broken things off with his mistress. I stood firm.
For the first time in 20 years, I was no longer financially dependent on a man. But without any superannuation or a career to fall back on, I was in a very vulnerable position. Fast forward two years (to now) and I’m running my own business, paying my own mortgage and have staff of seven.
Looking back at the marriage, I think we hadn’t just grown apart – we were never a good match in the first place. Two years ago I would have said my ex-husband was the love of my life; now I see we got married and had kids too young.” – Anna, mid 40s
‘I was a robot in my own life’
“I was in couples’ therapy with my now ex-husband and he had just delivered a diatribe about what a horrible person I was. The therapist asked, ‘Look, can you tell her one thing you like about her?’ And he said: ‘I will not reward her in that way.’
The reason we were in the therapists’ office was that I had an emotional affair with a work colleague. We had kissed – and his wife walked in on us, and everything blew up. My husband was furious, understandably; he trusted me and I broke that trust. But the affair woke me up: I had been a robot in my own life, ticking all the boxes and thinking I was happy, but as my own psychologist pointed out afterwards, happy people don’t have affairs.
My ex and I met when I was 22 and we were together for 17 years, and had three lovely children. I ran our home, did all the domestic duties, raised our children and worked casually to fit around my husband’s career for 10 years. When I went back to work full-time, I ended up working very closely with a male colleague and became very invested in that relationship. Suddenly I was doing this big, new, exciting role, being told how capable and intelligent I was, how I had my shit together, and I felt recognised by this other man.
My husband and I did several months of therapy before we made the decision to separate. I’m now in a new relationship and we are engaged – and even though he is a very different man, and this is a very different relationship, I’m still wrestling with why I want to marry again! What is it about marriage that’s so appealing? What I will say is that I’m thinking very carefully about what I will promise publicly in front of all the people that we love. I can’t say: ‘You’re my everything. You are my world until we die.’
What I want to say is I am happy to to grow and develop with you. I want us to have full, happy lives with lots of people in it that we love. And I want us to do it together, as partners.”
*All names have been changed