Deirdre Bair (Interview)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on January 29, 2007. Partner content is not updated.

Q: As a biographer, you've always chosen trailblazers for subjects - Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and Carl Jung. Now you've written the first book on late-life divorce.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on January 29, 2007. Partner content is not updated. Q: As a biographer, you've always chosen trailblazers for subjects - Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and Carl Jung. Now you've written the first book on late-life divorce.

Bair, Deirdre (Interview)

Q: As a biographer, you've always chosen trailblazers for subjects - Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and Carl Jung. Now you've written the first book on late-life divorce. Did you see it as the next vanguard?

A: I did. Starting around the end of 1999, everywhere I went I was encountering someone going through late-life divorce. It seemed there was a phenomenon going on. When I phoned my agent to talk to her about it, she started telling me of all these people that she knew. Two of the people who ended up bidding on the book said, "Oh, my God, I just went through that! I want to buy the book."

Q: How did you define "late-life divorce"?

A: Someone who had been married at least 20 years. The people I interviewed were mostly in their 50s; they ranged through 85. People were ending 55-year, 60-year marriages.

Q: Your own 43-year marriage ended in divorce, yet you don't write about it. Why?

A: I never talk about myself. I have one or two friends in whom I confide, but I really did write this book as an objective observer.

Q: You talked to 126 men and 184 women, marshalling hundreds of narratives. What - if any - patterns did you find?

A: A growing apart. I used a quote from Lillian Hellman to introduce one of the chapters: "People change and they forget to tell each other." An indifference comes to pass, a lack of communication, a non-sharing of anything on any level. That seemed to be what inspired so many people to say, "There has to be something better, there has to be something different." Of course infidelity was a very large component, but mostly in the upper classes. And the reason that it was possible for these people to divorce rather than to just end their lives living separately within a dead marriage, I think, was the feminist movement of the 1970s. Many women either worked or they had the experience of knowing that they could make it on their own, that they were entitled to a portion of the husband's pension or whatever if they had not worked outside the home, so they felt that financially they would be able to survive. People in their 60s are saying, "I could have 20 more years of life and I don't want those 20 years to be what I'm living now, I want something better." I think having more opportunities for financial survival, and leading long-term healthier lives, has inspired many people to make this really astonishing step.

Q: We see late-life divorce as the purview of the wealthy. But your study crosses class lines. Did it surprise you that people were willing to forfeit financial security, particularly women?

A: Ultimately, no. A lawyer-mediator I spoke to described herself as the reality checker: "I'm the one who has to tell [some] women they're not going to be able to make it on their own and they're going to have to find a way to survive within the marriage." I tell the story of one woman who remained in her marriage for another 15 years and would come in periodically to see her, and each time the mediator would have to say, "Nothing has changed. This will be your life if you leave this marriage." Finally at the end of 15 years this woman said, "I don't care if I can't survive, I just can't stay in that house with him another day," and she did get a divorce.

Q: Obviously at this age, awareness of mortality figures in the decision. You tell an amazing story of a woman who ended a 53-year marriage after a kidney transplant.

A: Yes. The woman woke up after the transplant and said, "I don't know how many years I have left, I just know I don't want to spend them with you." There was a woman on an airplane going to make a crash landing and she said to herself, "If I get out of this, I'm getting a divorce." Another woman in Texas whose son was injured in a football game said, "Dear God, let him survive, and if he does I'll get a divorce and make a better life for my kids."

Q: There wasn't a sense of shame or failure in most of the people you spoke with?

A: No. Even people who came from very fundamental Protestant backgrounds really didn't feel the stigma. They regretted that their church would no longer take them in or that they weren't as welcome in various social settings as they had been when they were part of a couple. But if there was any stigma, it was very slight.

Q: So they didn't agonize about breaking their marital vows?

A: No, not really. What came across was a greater sense of relief.

Q: Your chapter on post-divorce sexuality covers lust, loneliness, confusion. Did you find a gender divide in terms of expectations?

A: Men felt, when they first went into the dating game, that they had to perform, and then they discovered that to perform meant something different for almost every woman they were with. Many men were surprised by the fact that women liked cuddling and touching, and if they didn't have genital sex that was perfectly fine with them. Women, on the other hand, were appalled by the behaviour of men who'd probably never had a woman look at them before they got married, and during their marriage the only sex they got was when their wife "put out." And now here they are like kids in the candy shop. I tell a story about a woman who cooked a very nice dinner for a man she had met. He came into her apartment and said, "Shall we have the sex before or after?" She said, "Well, I thought we were just going to get to know each other," and he said, "Listen, lady, I know a lot of women I can just know. Do you want to have sex or not?" and he walked out! Generally, though, men thought they'd have to adjust, accommodate, find somebody to take care of them - very routine, mundane responses. Women hoped for something better, something different.

Q: Obviously we have to see how this trend will play out socially. But you allude to seeing new kinds of living arrangements among the post-divorced.

A: I was just amazed by the creativity - the people who went into communal housing, or who banded together in various ways. And again that goes back to the idea of loneliness, that people who have been part of a couple or part of a family don't want to live alone, they want companionship, they want engagement with other people.

Q: Many of the people in the book convey a sense of exuberance about starting a new life. But there was also sadness and regret.

A: There were some people, of course, who were depressed and bitter and who would never get over the divorce. Some women would say, "I will never marry again. I will make that bastard pay for the rest of his life." The people who suffered the most, I found, were the women who had been the wives of the men who I described as having "CEO-itis." They've had access to wealth and to power, and to having people being deferential to them because of who their husband is. Then suddenly they've been replaced by a trophy wife, someone who may even look like them but who is much younger. And even though they've been well provided for, they don't have the power and attention that came to them during their marriage. I heard a story too late to use of a woman in Connecticut whose CEO husband dumped her, who went to a plastic surgeon to change her appearance, changed her name and moved away. She didn't even tell her children where she was until months later. Another man was so angry and bitter that I was really grateful he was in another country - he was in Canada actually. He was so convinced that his wife was going to come back to him and I thought, "Oh, God, you're so angry and abusive, how did she wait 43 years before she left you?" Many men didn't know what hit them. They would say, "I thought everything was okay. Why did she do this?" Those men were more circumspect about their life after divorce. It was as if they were having to reinvent and reinterpret everything about themselves. But for the most part people really were optimistic.

Q: Your interviews with 84 children of late-life divorcing couples suggest that children are never too old to be affected by it.

A: That's right. The response I heard the most was they were devastated, even though they had grown up in unhappy homes and knew that the parents never got along. The second response was that they were angry; they wondered why after all these years their parents couldn't keep it together. The less frequent response was "What took them so long? Why didn't they do this earlier?"

Q: Did you talk to children who encouraged the divorce?

A: Unless the behaviour was truly egregious - unless the husband was an alcoholic who beat the wife - the children wanted to stay out of it. And most of the children resented it when one parent forced them to takes sides.

Q: I've heard that there's often anger toward the parent who initiates the divorce. Did you find that?

A: What I found was that there was anger when the wife left the marriage for another man.

Q: Most women, though, leave for no one. Their mantra is: "Better to be alone than in a bad marriage."

A: Yeah, women talk about that. You know, women will say, "I love being able to have an apple and some cheese and a glass of wine for my dinner rather than having to cook this huge meal that has to be on the table precisely at 6 p.m.," and "I will never pick up a man's dirty laundry again as long as I live."

Q: You write, "Divorce is one of the many options for making a life gone sour sweet again." But don't you feel the rejuvenating power of divorce has been overly romanticized?

A: I think that's true, especially for women. They all felt they were going out into the great unknown and it was going to be romantic and exciting and wonderful. Realistically speaking, it was none of those things, but they were doing really well. They did adjust, they did accommodate and they did feel they had done the right thing by getting divorced.

Q: This is a pioneering work. It struck me that many people will find solace in the fact they're not alone in unhappy marriages.

A: I wanted it to be that. I think that divorce is such a drastic action, but I think if you feel that you have to take it, it would be good if you had something that would give you support, and also something that would give you warning in the sense that this will be the financial reality of your situation when and if you divorce - this is what you will face if you go up against the legal system, that kind of thing. I also have some friends right now who are thinking of ending 40-plus-year marriages and I keep saying to them, "It should be your last resort. It should not be something you go into lightly. You have to think very carefully about what you're going to be doing."


Maclean's January 29, 2007