Can you imagine being paired with the same partner for over 100 years? A pair of giant tortoises at an Austrian zoo called it quits after 115 years of living together. Bibi and Poldi were born around 1897, met shortly after, and became a couple. They were presumably happily paired but their relationship soured in 2012. Instead of drifting apart, Bibi became violent, biting a chunk out of Poldi’s shell. Nothing about their routine changed causing this conflict. Zoo officials made a number of unsuccessful attempts to have them resolve their differences through couples counseling, joint games and fed them “romantic good mood food.” It appears they just can’t stand each other any longer. They now live in separate enclosures next to each other and can still see each other from afar. Distance has not made Bibi’s heart grow fonder. Instead she hisses at Poldi. The zoo staff hopes that someday they will find happiness together again.
Bibi and Poldi’s breakup can serve as a lesson not to take your marriage for granted. Staying together is not necessarily an indicator of marital happiness. There are two significant periods when humans divorce. Half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage. Another wave of divorces occurs after 20 years.
What one might find surprising is the number of divorces of people over the age of 50. Gray divorce is a term that refers to the increasing divorce rate for older “gray-haired” couples following long-lasting marriages. You might think that after 20 years, they have settled into mature love and have “worked the bugs out” so to speak. So why is this trend happening?
John Gottman, a marital researcher, sites a lack of marital friendship as cause for most divorces. Eighty percent of people who divorce, say that they have grown apart. How do you grow apart? Falling in love is magical. However, with time the little idiosyncrasies you loved at the start can grate on you. Sometimes the way your partner eats, breathes, and their bad manners can build irritation gradually. Perhaps your partner hasn’t changed at all, but the way you look at them does. If you met at an early age, you may think they are not the same person anymore. In fact, they aren’t. You have both changed.
Gottman says “the principles that make a marriage work are surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter or more beautiful than others, and they don’t live in castles in the clouds where there’s no conflict or negative feelings. They’ve simply learned to let their positive feelings about each other override their negative ones. They understand, honor, and respect each other. They know each other deeply and enjoy being together. They do little things every day to stay connected and to show each other they care. In short, they are friends.”
As a marriage counselor, I help couples navigate turbulent times. Sometimes they make the difficult decision to divorce. Divorce can be a devastating experience and should not be done impulsively. But there are times when divorce is warranted. There are cases in which a marriage is non-viable and should be terminated such as domestic abuse – emotional, physical or sexual. Abuse warrants divorce. Safety comes first.
I would love to see Bibi and Poldi reunite, but only if their safety is ensured.