As a young bride, Bangor resident Karen Foley had an idea of what her life would look like a few decades in the future. She and her husband would raise their four children, stay madly in love and eventually retire around the same time and travel the world together.
It didn’t work out that way. The 49-year-old mother of four grown children found herself unexpectedly divorced six years ago, and had to learn to embrace a life that looks considerably different than the one she imagined as a young woman.
Divorce is a reality for thousands of Maine families every year. Family relations experts and data from the U.S. Census Bureau, however, shows the number of divorces in Maine is down overall, although more middle age people are reporting splitting from spouses than ever before.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, 10 percent of Maine women and 11 percent of men in Maine are divorced. The national average of divorced women is 9 percent and men is 8.6 percent. Questions about “marital events” were added to the survey in 2008 and ask participants to answer what the person’s marital status is, if he or she has been married, divorced or widowed in the past year and how many times the respondent has been married.
The cost to file for divorce in Maine is $120 and if both parties agree to terms and don’t need much help from lawyers, the process is quick after a mandatory 60-day “cooling off period.” Attorney Dawn Pelletier said the majority of divorces in the state do not involve lawyers and even fewer ever make it trial. So even with a little lawyer involvement, a divorce in Maine is relatively inexpensive, around $500 to $1000 compared to surrounding states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire where lawyers charge more for services.
Robert Milardo, a professor of family relations at the University of Maine, said the majority of divorces, including those in Maine, occur by the seventh year of a marriage. Typically by year five to seven, the level of romanticism in a relationship starts to decline and the level of conflict increases.
But Pelletier said she couldn’t summarize the age of the average couples coming to her for legal divorce advice. She’s seen everyone from 90-year-olds to 20-year-olds, however, where she has seen an increase is in people filing for divorce later on in life.
It’s a trend Foley has observed among her friends and colleagues as well.
“I don’t know that I know anyone my age who isn’t divorced in my age group and most of them more than once,” she said.
Milardo said it’s a trend that could help explain Maine’s higher than average rates of divorce, though it’s not the only factor.
He argues that Maine’s older population means the average of people divorced may be higher because people have had more time to marry and divorce. In addition, divorce rates nationwide for people over 50 are up and thanks to Maine’s abundance of people in that age range, the numbers skew to the higher side.
Therapists, family attorneys and social scientists say that while there are hundreds of reasons someone might seek a divorce, several trends have emerged over the years.
Pelletier said the number one reason for divorce she sees is incompatibility, followed closely by disagreements about finances and children. Milardo referenced external stressors like unemployment, children and couples lacking the personal skills to manage conflict. Once a couple adds children, stressors tend to increase and parents are faced with even less time for each other.
“Young children especially are very time consuming and that puts a lot of stress on the primary relationship,” Milardo said. “Parents will say ‘We grew apart because we didn’t have time for each other,’ but you have to try and successfully work through those challenges and a lot of times it takes a community to do that.”
He recommends parents ask family members, friends or babysitters to watch children occasionally so they can go on regular date nights and reconnect as a couple. It’s also important, Milardo said, for couples to listen to one another’s complaints and act on them. If one person doesn’t feel there’s enough affection, find ways to increase it. If the other doesn’t think household labor distribution is fair, find ways to more evenly carry the load.
Alan Algee, a counselor at Dirigo Counseling Clinic in Bangor, has a different theory about why couples split.
“In our current culture, we do not know how to be nice to each other, we have not learned good manners, basic things like courtesy, dignity, respect,” he said.
Algee argues couples should speak to each other with soft language, express affection and give consideration to the other person’s needs.
“I see it all the time in my office, couples being rude and cold at the drop of a hat,” Algree said. “That type of thing festers and results in divorce … when people get divorced, they are often hurt and angry, we’re talking about deep, deep wounds.”
Marrying young could also hurt a couple’s chances. Statistically, couples are less likely to divorce the older they are when they marry for the first time, Milardo said.
“Those people who are marrying in their late 20s or early 30s develop more stable relationships. They enter the marriage more financially secure and more secure in themselves,” he said.
The increase in middle and late-age divorces could also be a product of political change. Beginning in the 1970s, Mainers no longer had to prove “fault” when they went to file for divorce.
“The law follows the will of society and while it’s always more complicated than you think, I think that, plus the independence that women achieved by coming into the workplace in higher numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, played a role,” Pelletier said. “If you can be financially independent, that goes a long way to promoting a divorce … you may look around and say ‘what’s the point, we’re not getting along and we can support the kids,’ isn’t it better to see two parents happy [separately] then together and not?”
Societal and familial pressures can also keep couples together long past their prime. Some may stay together for the sake of children or extended families. Others don’t realize how unhappy they are until the kids have grown.
“Everybody is on their own journey and sometimes it takes awhile for them to realize enough is enough,” Pelletier said. “You may wake up one day the kids are gone and you are looking at each other thinking ‘Why are we still together?’”
Most therapists say divorce is a negative and traumatic experience to children. Some may handle it fine, but adverse childhood experiences can have a lifelong effect on children, Algee said.
“In my experience as a psychotherapist, children’s brains are not designed to handle traumatic experiences,” he said. “They may come into adulthood as people who can’t heal, wounded people, and it sometimes becomes a generational curse.”
Algee said it’s important parents who’ve decided to split, avoid “parental alienation syndrome,” which occurs when one parent tries to alienate the other. For example, a parent may ask children call a step-parent “mom” or “dad” even though the child’s biological parent is still involved in the child’s life. Other times, a parent may talk ill of the other, putting the child in an awkward position of not knowing how to respond.
“Each parent must vigorously defend the role of the other parent,” Algee said. “No parent should try to diminish or fracture the relationship a child has with the other parent.”
By the time Foley’s divorce six years ago was finalized, her children were adults and they all knew many friends whose parents had also split.
“They don’t feel like it’s a big worry, they grew up in a time when divorce was very normal,” Foley said. “My parenting slogan has been do what makes you happy.”
Overall, Foley has enjoyed the time since her divorce. She recently earned a second degree and spends her free time volunteering and serving on boards. She even started dating again, though she still remains focused on activities that make her happy with or without a partner.
“I live on my own for the first time, completely on my own, and it’s really really wonderful,” she said. “It’s the first time I can focus on me.”
The picture of divorce in Maine, though initially jarring, isn’t much different than the rest of the country.
“Economic issues and related things may influence [Maine’s divorce rates,] but I don’t think they influence them any more than anywhere else,” Milardo said. “I don’t think Maine relationships are unhealthy.”
Fortunately for struggling families, all isn’t lost. Algee, said he encourages couples to remember that “falling in love feeling” and act on it occasionally.
“Courteousness should be easier than ever considering our technology,” he said. “Send a nice text to your partner. We have the technology to display our love for each other. Use it.”
Milardo is hopeful that with time, divorce percentages will continue downward, leaving more families happy and together.
“The good news is the rates are declining,” he said.
As for Foley, she now finds herself content and encouraging her children to embrace their lives alone, before saying “I do.”
“It’s an adventure. It’s not the road I would have chosen for myself but I’m glad I’m here now and it’s a good place,” she said.