How to Protect Yourself from Bad Break-Ups

Stressful marriages, divorce, and the death of a spouse can have devastating impacts.

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"It's hard to live your life and plan for those events," she says. "It's going to undermine your happiness" if you're constantly thinking about problems with your marriage. At the same time, "you're between a rock and a hard place," she notes, "and just escaping a bad marriage doesn't mean you're going to be in a good place."

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However, to help cope with a bad situation, Carr says, it can help to think about those gender-based skills you lack. "Do whatever you can to learn roles that have traditionally been performed by your spouse," she says.

Reducing stress should be a guiding principle in responding to the loss of a spouse. "We think that a lot of the physical and emotional consequences [of losing a spouse] come from stress," Waite says. So she advises people to take better care of themselves and to seek support from friends.

"They should be exercising, they should be doing yoga and meditation, they should be activating their social supports," she says. "They should be playing ball with their buddies; they should be having lunch with their girlfriends, they should be talking with their mother. And they very deliberately can try to rebuild" their social connections.

It makes sense for older people to turn to organizations to seek support and compensate for the loss of a life partner. Waite says they turn to organizations for social connections—a church, book club, volunteering, or an exercise class. "It's hard at that age to find a best new friend or a spouse," and organizations can fill some of that need, she adds.

Carr says widows and widowers in particular need to continue living their lives. "One important issue is to have a continuing sense of personal growth," she says. "Learning new things, engaging in new activities, and joining new social groups are all considered really protective" and healthy behaviors. "Any sense of mastery is really good for a sense of well-being," she says.

People who have lost a spouse are also influenced by the recognition that big longevity gains mean they still have many years, if not decades, ahead of them, Carr notes. This increases their motivation to get on with their lives, including a greater willingness to end a bad marriage. Couples with children face much more challenging divorce decisions, experts note. But even here, social pressures to "stay together for the children" have greatly weakened in recent years.

"Our healthy life expectancy is getting higher and higher," Carr says. "Why are you going to spend it in a compromised marriage?" People today are much more likely to say, "'I have time left, and I'm not going to spend my time in a marriage that is difficult.'"