Late life heartbreak: Survivors, Part One

(I'm very busy this week, so will respond to your comments on Friday.)

This past summer, several acquaintances, all women 50 to 65 who were in relationships of 20 to 35 years, quite suddenly endured break-ups.

The end of an intimate relationship is always infused with sadness, but there's a particular tenor to the end of a union that spanned decades.

Aside from one blithe friend-of-a-friend who insists no man is worth mourning any longer than it takes an ice cube to melt, the women I've spoken with were unanimous that parting is more fraught now than in youth.

Here's the first five tips that concern coping during the first months of a devastating breakup. (All names have been changed.) The second set appears on Thursday.

1. Get legal advice immediately.
Even if you, like Laura, are wealthier than your partner, do not forgo this step.

"You may think you know how your assets are apportioned", she said, "but are you sure that's up to date? Do you know your rights as a common-law partner or a spouse? This is not a matter of taking him the cleaner's; it's my financial survival." Wills, investments and property may be the last thing you want to think about, but should be top of the list.

Paula said, "Take your time to consider the financial aspects of a settlement", pointing out that there are tax implications.  

The first thing Laura did when she heard Pam had separated was to write the names of three excellent lawyers on a piece of paper and charge me with giving it to her. (They have not met.)

If you late paying your own bills, your credit rating will be affected, and further down the road that can be crucial.

2. Refuse a demeaning stereotype.
Pam says she has decided not to see Louis because, as she says, she is triggered into either Angry Bitch or Abject Victim. Neither role leads to equanimity or, as she put it, "me as me". She communicates about financial matters via e-mail, and has found a measure of much-needed peace by not engaging in person, for now.

Laura said it was too easy and inaccurate to solely blame Tom. She found a therapist and said, "My primary goal is to make sure I take responsibility for my next relationship, should that happen."

3. Ratchet up your exercise– and eat.
Both Pam and Laura found that by increasing the frequency and duration of their workouts, they could sleep better and think more clearly. Pam was taking sleeping pills and found that a longer daily run allowed her to quit.

Paula had only walked back and forth from work and joined a gym when her strength dropped precipitously. 

Weight loss is common. You may rejoice that you can pour yourself into skinny jeans, but this is not a good diet. Eat well and regularly. If you drink, be careful. Alcohol does not numb pain, it just makes you marinade in your misery.

4. Seek some company, even if it feels like you want to shut the blinds and curl up in a ball.

Laura made a new woman friend who has not witnessed the difficult last few years of her union, and they are writing a book together!

There's no consensus about online dating. One has her profile up and had a few "okay" dates, one took hers down after some lifeless dinners, and several are not interested. 

My French-speaking friend Laurence loves the site On va sortir, where people post an activity (hiking, trying a restaurant, seeing an exhibition) and others respond. You don't necessarily go out with one person, and romance is not the purpose. The site has pulled her from isolation into a whole array of interests shared with enjoyable people.

If you are a friend to someone going through it, a coffee date might feel better for her than a long evening. Ros' friend Joanne invited her over for a casual dinner. Ros appreciated Joanne's sensitivity, because they had long done things as a foursome. "Instead of me seeing the empty chair at their table", she said, "we ate on trays on the porch, and it was really nice."

Laurence's friends made sure that at least one of them touched base with her every day during the first shell-shocked month. They also did two very graceful things: they did not press for details, and they did not give advice unless asked.

5. Welcome self-reliance.
Rather than looking at dealing with things your ex used to take care of as a pain, just do them. You can. You might notice when you look back that most partners with one foot out the door were not taking care of household matters  anyway.

Paula said she didn't want to call her son to perform her ex's handyman role. She took a home-maintenance course and showed off the door she hung herself. 

Self-reliance goes beyond household chores. You may now have to make difficult decisions by yourself. If possible, wait until you have had enough sleep and peace to think straight. You may be besieged by friends and family (and even people you barely know). It's OK to return calls later, or as Laura did, send a group e-mail asking for some time to find her balance before answering. 

If your mood turns dark and dangerous, don't gut it out alone. One woman, sensing limits to her self-reliance, got into a cab and went directly to the emergency unit of a mental-health center. She knew she needed attention from a doctor, not a friend.

This painful, acutely stressful period passes, though it doesn't feel likely at the beginning. As these women discovered, you can help yourself, even if you cannot change the situation.

On Thursday, Part Two.


Susan said…
I've been through this situation with a friend and think your points of advice are excellent. My friend lost weight as you describe (from a size 12 to a size 2) and had real difficulty eating. Recovery took a long time and is probably still ongoing (six years now).

Jean S said…
How curious that these happened at the same time ... but how thoughtful this post is.
Mean Mama said…
Magnificent advice!
sisty said…
Excellent advice. Welcome back!
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for this -- my husband of 28 years has just left me. I'm kind of shell shocked still but the suggestions you make sense.
Duchesse said…
Susan: I could not put a timeline on recovery, since everyone is different, but see that during the first 2-3 months, there are some common elements. Acute stress can wipe out an appetite completely.

Jean S.: Yes, very odd. It's as if someone blew a whistle. That's a reason why I wrote this; I figured if so many women I knew were going through post-50 separations, there must be more.

Mean Mama: I'm betting on readers adding more!

diverchic: And we have both been there, but earlier than these women.

Anonymous: When one has *already* weathered the ups and downs for going on three decades, it is a significant change, even if a woman could see it coming. (And sometimes you "see it coming" only in hindsight.)

sisty: Nice to be back and I *am* writing more pearl posts ;)

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