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Sadly, “Gray Divorce” is a thing.  It speaks to an increasing divorce rate for older (“grey-haired”) couples who have been married for a long time, and usually takes place after the age of 50.  The causes of gray divorce are usually unique to older couples. 

 

At 75 and after 56 years of marriage my husband and I are getting divorced. The divorce is going to be brutal as he is in a relationship with a girl of 25 years old. She wormed her way into our lives.

YEI member “Jane”

I felt a profound sense of loss when I realised that my marriage of over 30 years was coming to an end.  I struggled with feelings of failure and even entertained the idea of suicide.  Thankfully, with the help of friends, I got the help of a therapist, who has helped me enormously.

YEI member “Godfrey”

My marriage was great, until it wasn’t.  A combination of empty nest syndrome, a semi-retired husband and I was about to start a business.  Then Covid happened and this just set the stage for our marriage breakdown.  I should have been celebrating my 35th wedding anniversary, but instead we had a date with divorce attorneys.

YEI member “Sharon”

Jane, Godfrey and Sharon’s late-in-life divorces are heart-breaking, but as it turns out, not unusual.  The HSRC (South African Human Sciences Research Council) found that divorce rates amongst adults aged 50+ have increased by 20% in the years up to 2013, which is a significant increase.  And not only that, baby boomers i.e. those born between 1946 and 1964 are divorcing more than any other generation. 

Marilyn Hallett of YEI says “I was quite shocked by these statistics.  I knew that gray divorce was on the up-and-up, but had absolutely no idea that the divorce rate in this generation was actually so high.  And interestingly, on research, this is a worldwide trend.  In addition, the older you get, the rate of divorce nearly quadruples, according to a study in last year’s Journal of Gerontology:  Social Sciences.  Apparently the phenomenon of older couples divorcing used to be rare, and on a little more digging, I found that it has everything to do with society’s evolving tolerance of divorce and women’s evolving status as financially and emotionally independent”.

What are the most common reasons for “Gray Divorce”?

Many of the reasons for gray divorce are not unlike why younger couples divorce, such as infidelity, abuse and addiction.  But there are some reasons that are unique and more complex to couples who have been married for many years.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Some couples unwittingly drift apart from each other while the children are in the home.  Once the children leave the home, these couples find it very difficult to adapt to a life and marriage without children and often find they no longer have a strong connection to each other.  The absence of children can lead to a feeling of emptiness, the struggle of which can lead to irreconcilable differences that may lead to a divorce later in life. 

Financial stress

Financial stress can take many forms – disagreements over investments, how to spend retirement funds, medical expenses, budgeting and caring for their aged parents.  This kind of stress can put a huge strain on relationships, and be particularly challenging and often leads to gray divorce. 

Intimacy issues

A lack of intimacy in a marriage, be it emotional or physical, can tear people up and push them apart, and ultimately lead to a breakdown in the marriage, or infidelity which can break trust and cause irreparable damage to a married couple.

A need and desire for a happier life

In days gone by, married couples felt that they needed to remain in the marriage, despite how unhappy one or the other, or both, were.   Today, it seems much easier, to find fulfilment in one’s work, leisure and hobbies, and therefore easier to embrace life after divorce.

Changing values and priorities

As one ages, one finds new passions in life, priorities change and one focuses on new and different experiences.  Many couples manage to align these changes and differences with their partner.  If one can’t align these changes, or share the same goals and interests, then it’s pretty hard to maintain that spark that you once had.  The strong connection can sever, the little hurts and resentments build up, and apathy can take hold.

A stagnant relationship

One has to work hard at marriage in order to keep that relationship alive and well.  It’s very easy to settle into a routine after being married for a long while.  Couples can get to a point where their relationship feels stagnant which can result in gray divorce. 

A gray divorce is one of life’s profound stressors.  The emotional and practical complexities can stack up.  If these complexities and challenges are too much to cope with, it is wise to consult with a professional person who can help you navigate your way through these changes.  Changes such as eroded connections with family and mutual friends who are also emotionally impacted in different ways, your sense of belonging, grief, loneliness and financial concerns.

Gray divorce is not all doom and gloom. Many older adults experience many positive aspects as well.  These can include an improvement in overall happiness, independence, freedom and a sense of liberation from their ex-spouses.

This is such a huge topic that You’ve Earned It/YEI will be covering this in four parts 

  • In YEI’s next article on “Gray Divorce”, we hear the perspective of a YEI member who divorced at the age of 60.
  • In the third article, an experienced divorce attorney speaks to the process of gray divorce and how to make it as painless as possible.    
  • In the fourth article, YEI seeks the opinion of a Counsellor who assists spouses to heal from the trauma and stress of gray divorce, and gives them coping mechanisms to assist them in the period of adjusting, adapting and recovering from divorce.

Interesting snippets on this topic

  • It appears that “gray” spelt with an “a” is the official terminology, although the word “grey” is interspersed in the research on this topic.
  • Another name for divorcing older folk is “silver splitters”
  • In Japan, gray divorce is referred to as retired husband syndrome.

 

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