Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the CEO of a gender-diversity consulting firm, had never known anyone in her social circle to get divorced until she turned 50. That year, she told Brides, half a dozen of her girlfriends walked out on their marriages.
“I was astonished,” she recalls. “And then I did it too, and I was even more astonished.” She wondered what could possibly be driving the upswing of women in their 50s and 60s leaving decades-long relationships—which included her—and starting new ones. Her new book Late Love: Mating in Maturity, which comes out Valentine’s Day, analyzes that trend in the scope of navigating personal transitions the same way we navigate professional transitions: in a healthier, more positive way.
“We have always had a multiplicity of marriages in our marriages,” Wittenberg-Cox says. “Sometimes we manage to keep them between the same two people, and sometimes it’ll be more people. But a long marriage is just several marriages with several different ‘people’ who manage to shift and grow and adapt together. That’s a real skill.”
Her stance is somewhat radical—can we really talk about divorce in a positive way?—but these are uncomfortable issues that need to be examined. Especially considering how the last several decades have seen women thrive in the workforce, thus dramatically shifting what’s happening at home.
In October, Wittenberg-Cox penned an op-ed for the Harvard Business Review about balancing a successful career and a successful marriage. She argued, in short, that breadwinning women really only have two options: They should either choose “a super-supportive partner or no partner at all.”
“Anything in between,” she writes, “ends up being a morale- and career-sapping morass.”
“It’s what I have seen over the course of life,” Wittenberg-Cox explains, “that women who have spouses, sometimes to their great surprise, are not as supportive as they thought when they got married like 20 years earlier. The intent is there early on to be a fair, dual career couple. That’s what they’ll say.” Then life becomes complicated, she says, and even millennials find themselves making some of the same decisions about family and work that previous generations have made.
That’s why she suggests couples not only ensure they’re on the same page before they tie the knot when it comes to these kinds of conversations, but that they revisit this topic regularly—like taking your car in for its annual tune-up. “ ‘Are we on track? What’s the vision? What are your goals this year, what are mine? How do we make sure that we can deliver to each other what we said we wanted to reach mutually? Will one of us make some choices, will we take turns, will one draw back?’ Because nobody expects what happens in reality, and so the adjustment is constant,” she says.
In other words, approach your marriage with the same fiery ambition you do your career. “It’s just like a lot of what we ask leaders at work to be: good listeners, good team-builders, good communicators, regular feedback—it’s all the same,” Wittenberg-Cox says. “You know how they always used to say, ‘Behind every great leader is a really great spouse’? Well, where marriage is going, beside every really great leader will be another really great leader.”
And there’s never been a better time to be married, considering how the institution has shifted over time, she says. “Part of the message of the book is that you don’t always get it right immediately, but you can work toward it—either by changing your partner, which I don’t necessarily recommend...or by helping your own marriage be transformative over time.”