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Thursday, July 27, 2000

DIVORCE IN MIDDLE AGE

A social clash of old values and new rules


Staff writer

The number of divorces in Japan, especially among couples who have been married for 20 years or more, has been increasing. According to a survey carried out by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, in 1999 there were a total of 250,538 divorced couples.

Among couples together for 20 years or more, the number of divorces increased by 3.4 percent, from 39,614 in 1998 to 40,966 in 1999.

Two-thirds of all divorces in this demographic are initiated by the wife. This is no doubt due to the fact that women are now stronger psychologically and financially than women of earlier generations, who could not get a divorce even if they wanted to because of financial obstacles. They simply had to endure living with husbands they no longer loved.

Hiromi Ikeuchi, director of the Tokyo Family Laboratory, a group which runs counseling sessions, lectures and workshops for those struggling to get a divorce, says that there are three reasons for the rise in the divorce rate among long-term married couples.

One is the increase in life expectancy. Many women in unhappy marriages begin thinking about divorce once their husbands retire, as the thought of being together every day for another 10 years or more seems too much for them to bear. Another is the fact that there are now more job opportunities for women in Japan, so wives no longer have to be financially dependent on their husbands, making it easier to get a divorce even for older women.

The third reason is that many couples stay together for the sake of their children, only divorcing when the children are old enough to manage on their own.

There are many couples who fall into this third category. For example, Sakae Minami (not her real name), a woman in her late 50s, could not make up her mind to get a divorce until both of her sons got married. She thought that it would be harder for them to find wives if they came from a broken home, as prejudice against divorce still persists in Japan. Her husband was flabbergasted when she broached the subject of divorce: He had no idea as to why she wanted a divorce. Minami was a very submissive wife and simply put up with her husband's shortcomings, but says that now, living on her own in an apartment, she greatly enjoys the freedom and independence of her new life.

Couples in the younger age bracket who wish to divorce can usually point to a clear reason why their marriages are not working: infidelity, domestic violence, gambling or one partner not fulfilling financial obligations. It is not always as simple as that for older couples, but communication problems seem to lie at the root of most situations.

For Takako Nishino (not her real name), 50, her husband's desire for a divorce came as a complete surprise. After 25 years together, he announced one day that he wanted to start a new life on his own. Both she and her husband worked fulltime, and when her husband began a business, she backed him up financially.

The couple separated one and a half years ago, but have yet to divorce, largely due to the fact that they have not met to discuss formalities since they began living apart. Nishino says that she doesn't mind not receiving any alimony, but wants every penny that she invested in her husband's business back. This may be easier said than done, however, because she says that she never wants to see him again.

"It is useless talking with a person like him," she says. "It's difficult to communicate."

In other cases, women dread the fact that their husbands will be at home all the time once they retire. They become ill or depressed at the thought of losing their freedom and being forced into constant proximity to a man they feel they cannot really talk with.

The type of women who are most prone to this kind of reaction are those who have been "good" wives, always putting their husbands' feelings and desires first and suppressing their own needs.

Part of the problem is that men who have now reached retirement age belong to a generation who believed it was enough to work, support a family financially and buy a house. Placing little importance on building a relationship of emotional understanding with their wives, they often have no clue that their wives are frustrated and are thinking of divorce.

When divorce finally hits, men are faced with the same kind of mental and psychological turmoil as women, but their problems tend to receive less attention, because most Japanese men are ashamed to go to counseling and are often afraid to show their feelings to others.

According to counselor Hiroko Shimizu, "Why is this happening to me?" is the question most men ask themselves when faced with divorce.

She says that this question in itself shows a lack of communication. "Many men do not value the psychological bond with their wives. Instead, they think that marriage is basically just a kind of lifestyle."

However, it is not just men who are to blame, says Ikeuchi. If a problem existed between the couple and it wasn't fixed after so many years of marriage, the wife also hadn't made the right kind of effort. "The women who come to talk to me say that they have just put up with the situation all along and that they can't persevere anymore. But have they tried any way [to solve their marital problems] other than just putting up with things?" she asks.

Ikeuchi is certain that the divorce rate will continue to rise in the future. Part of the problem, she says, is that Japanese couples lean on each other too much. "Both husband and wife need to look at the other as an independent human being. Otherwise, couples will always blame each other and won't take responsibility individually [for their problems]," she says.

In order for an older couple with an unhappy marriage to be able to keep living together instead of divorcing and leading separate lives, Shimizu says that they need to try to learn better communication skills. Once they both feel accepted by the other person, they can open up to each other.

"A couple does not need to compare themselves with other couples or try to fit into a certain model. They should decide what kind of life they want to lead as a couple and try to make that happen, in order to have a happy married life after retirement."



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