Gray Divorce is not About What You Are Reading In the Media: Hear It From A Retired Family Court Judge

The media hoopla around the divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates is the impetus for this blog post and my sharing of my thoughts on “gray” and “white” marriage and divorce.  “Gray” divorces are considered ages 50’s and 60’s.  I guess that leaves us Boomers with “white” divorces.

After a long profession of helping children and families, I finally felt secure enough to develop some ideas and mantras of my own regarding children, marriage and divorce.  One of my most important is that a perfect marriage is when you are happy 70% of the time.  I even lectured about it to other judges and lawyers, and included it in my book, “Florida Family Law & Practice,” available through James Publishing and on Amazon.  The link to my last speech about what I had learned about children and families, marriage and divorce, over my decades long career of being a family lawyer and family judge is available on YouTube.

A perfect marriage is when you are happy 70% of the time.

This a significant statement to ponder.  How can we expect that two strangers, who come from different family backgrounds and culture, are going to be happy 100% of the time when they marry?  After all, siblings from the same family, from the same background and family culture, do not get along much of the time.

I believe that we have an unrealistic romantic view of marriage before we enter into this commitment and it does not get better with the length of the marriage.  We underestimate the commitment.  It is a marital partnership, the greatest, longest, and most challenging and important business contract we enter into in our lives.  It is a commitment to do that which is necessary to make the marriage sustain itself “until death do us part.”

We are not taught that a marriage is an entity separate from each of us.  It is. We must nurture ourselves, but we also must nurture the marital relationship.  Just as life has its ups and downs for each of us individually, life brings peaks and valleys, ups and downs in the marriage. If we bring children into the marriage relationship, then our responsibility to preserve and protect the marriage becomes even greater and more significant.  Divorce damages children and we do not have children in a marriage to damage them.

The emotional aspect of the business relationship of a marriage brings the most challenges. If we aim for a perfect marriage, we should aim to be happy 70% of the time.

When marital partners deal with what are real detriments to maintaining a marriage of any length, drug abuse, mental health issues, spouse abuse, these detriments trump the above.  When partners to a long term relationship consider divorce, there are many reasons, including staying too long in an abusive marriage, not realizing the detriment to the children of living with parents in a loveless marriage.  Adultery can be the cause or the consequence of challenges in the partners or the marriage, and can end a marriage or not. There are no easy answers when in comes to divorce at any time.  There are only hard issues.  “Gray” or “white” divorces have some of the hardest issues and challenges, once considered those being primarily finances and ostensibly growing apart, but there is so much more to consider.

In the valleys of the marriage, in between the high peaks, the Kubler Ross stages of grief and healing upon the death of a loved one are applicable to the emotional stages each marital partner experiences as the marital relationship experiences its expected and unexpected issues and challenges.  The emotional stages leading to the end of a marriage, in my opinion, are shock and denial, anger, sadness, and finally moving forward to a life leaving the marital partnership behind.

The marital partners do not know they are going through the emotional stages.

The marital partners do not go through the emotional stages at the same time.  The partner who goes into the stages of the “emotional divorce” first I call the “initiator” partner.  Many times, the “non initiator” partner does not realize anything is wrong until the initiator has already moved forward, out of the marital relationship.

Divorce or dissolution of marriage happens when neither partner has recognition of a valley that requires intervention until one partner is already in the moving forward stage.  At that last stage of moving forward is when divorce or dissolution of marriage cannot be stopped.

The best time to save a marriage is when there is communication of concern or dissatisfaction in a valley and the partners attend marriage counseling to deal with it.  If one is informed, there are ways to know when this communication is needed.

At the beginning of the emotional stages of divorce, when one partner is in shock or denial, they withdraw and begin to separate from the marital relationship.  Their behavior changes.  If the other partner does not acknowledge the change in behavior, the “initiator” partner, may next become sad and appear depressed.  The “non initiator” partner may even say the other partner should see someone about their sadness and depression.  The best path is for the partners to attend marriage counseling to deal with the marital relationship.

Navigating to the last stage of moving forward has a destructive path as it continues.  When the “initiator” partner is in the anger stage, the “non initiator” partner might feel that he or she can do nothing right or nothing to please the spouse and may even verbalize that.  If there is even the slightest recognition of this stage, the partners should attend marriage counseling to deal with the marital partnership.  Adult adolescence, changing appearance and hobbies, and further separation from the spouse and family further lead to the last stage of moving forward.

We talk about “changing,” how one partner has changed or grown and the other partner has not, in a breakup of a marriage.  Changing happens when there is no effort to grow together.  Effort is the key.  It is easier not to work hard.  It is easier to separate emotionally.  When one marital partner is ready to move forward, to leave, may be the first time that either or both partners want to try to save the marital relationship.  It is too late.

I saw many “situational domestic violence” cases that occurred when one marital partner is packing to leave and the other partner, in shock and denial, not realizing until that point that marriage is over and the “initiator” is done, in an emotional frenzy, tries to stop him or her.

So why does the Gates divorce bring the need to write this blog to the forefront?  I have read most of the articles about the Gates divorce.  Most talk about “change,” or movement from the marital partnership that took place over time in their marriage, and even allegations of adultery on the path to the divorce.

It is the children of the marriage that this retired family court judge cared about, the consequences and the detriment to them.  There was great respect for the parents who understood this, worked on their marriage when the marital partnership needed it, tried to reacquire the love and intimacy that cause the parties to marry in the first place.  There was recognition that marriage is hard work, harder still raising children.  Though, despite this, I rarely found that the parties looked forward to the good and maybe different marriage that could lay ahead rather than backward to what was wrong that caused them to leave.

In a “gray” or “white” marriage there is a shared history to recollect and look forward to reaping its benefits, worth the work to try to save the marriage, especially with the new freedom from the responsibilities of raising children and the joy of family reorganization, time for travel, hobbies and more, and celebration of a shared family history and family future. . . .and especially, sharing the joys of grandchildren together.

Being in a marital partnership comes with a responsibility and commitment to each other and to the children. The children of the marriage suffer at any age when their parents divorce, but the “gray” and “white” divorces are the worst for the children.

There is some speculation that the Gates’ marriage has been over for a while and that they waited until the graduation of their youngest child to divorce.  I wonder still if they looked forward, to what wonderful life together they might be missing, before they both reached the moving forward stage, the moment of no return.  Most important, not one article or opinion piece addressed the impact on adult children when their parents’ divorce. The most recent media articles are just now beginning to acknowledge the adult children’s distress.

This family court judge has found that the older the children the more they suffer when their parents divorce.

Teenagers going through their own crisis in developmental stage and adult children suffer the most.  Teenagers worry about how the divorce will affect their future, payment of schooling, and their expenses. The adult children know enough to know what the parents divorce means to their lives.  Their lives are also changed forever.  The navigation of life passage events (graduations, weddings, births of children, etc.) and holidays and birthdays, becomes complicated and a challenge forever more for the children.  The adult children question whether their parents were ever happy together and at what point in their childhood was every family event or vacation a lie, based on a false premise of a supposed happy marital relationship, wondering if their childhood was an important or happy part.

This is not a blog post to condemn the Gates’ for not divorcing sooner.  A divorce is an emotional failure of a business partnership.  Any divorce, especially when there are children of any age, is tragic.  A divorce is as stressful a life passage event as a loss of a loved one.  We do anything and everything to save the life of a loved one.  The earlier an illness or disease is diagnosed, the greater the change of saving the life.   We should do anything and everything to save a marriage.  The earlier a marital partner recognizes and acknowledges that the marriage needs outside help, the greater the chance of saving the marriage.

Please do not think saving the marriage is just surviving in a relationship.  I have presided over second divorces which ended for the same reasons as the first that were never addressed.  As my mother used to say, “the grass is not greener.”

Notice that I have not mentioned “love” in the discussion above.  My next mantra, which is a common saying, is

Marriage is falling in love many times, always with the same person.

Intimacy is the key to marital happiness and a perfect marriage of being happy 70% of the time.  This is the most important of my mantras.  Prevention is the best medicine. To maintain and nurture intimacy, I always recommend to newlyweds to go away for 24 hours every quarter, four times a year, away from their home, to a tent in the woods if necessary, without electronics or connection to anyone other than their partner.  If one is in their home, they find other things to do than talk to one another.  In this respite, couples have told me they talk about their history of loving experiences.  They reminisce. They remember why they got together in the first place. They reconnect and keep intimacy alive. Studies show that couples have sex 85% of the time during these “intimacy” trips. Marital intimacy brings us to the perfect marriage of being happy 70% of the time.

Our grandchildren deserve us to help when and where we can, not only keeping our own “gray” to “white” marriages alive and healthy as a role model to our grandchildren, but to help the parents of our grandchildren.  In 2103, I wrote the post, “Grandma’s View on Promoting Intimacy and Love.” Marital partners must nurture the intimacy of the marriage from its infancy until death of the partners.  We grandparents can encourage quarterly intimacy trips for the parents of our grandchildren.  We can facilitate them by caring for children or paying for the care of children or assisting with the cost of that 24 hours.  Our accumulated reward points can go to no greater cause.

So, outside help to save a marriage once one of the partners enters the emotional stages of divorce not only includes marriage counseling.  It includes restoring the intimacy, which leaves the relationship first and is the most painful to experience.  When there is a valley in a marriage, more intervention is needed, both counseling and intimacy restoration.  I have recommended in my professional career, when I see that neither partner has yet reached the moving forward stage and the marriage is salvageable, that they go away at least 24 hours once a month for six months while attending marriage counseling.  Six months is the minimum for both and a minor investment for one’s children’s future.  It is better than suffering six to eighteen months of the emotional stages of divorce, and may prevent a divorce or dissolution of a marriage.

The children of the marriage, whatever their age, deserve their parents’ working on the marital partnership and the commitment, trying to save it, before it is too late.  The detrimental consequences to the children are lifelong.

“Gray” divorce is not what you are hearing about in the media.  Both Gates marital partners have moved forward.  The Gates’ adult children are in pain. That pain can now only be minimized by the parents repeatedly affirming and confirming they were once in a happy marriage and the children’s happy life experiences and happy memories of that are true.  However, while the divorcing parents’ pain may fade and go away, the children’s pain will not go away.  It is time that has been properly recognized.


With little joy,










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