'Gray Divorces' Increase as Baby Boomers Age
Last updated 11/11/2023 at 12:45pm | View PDF
When you sit around in your empty nests, the kids long flown away, your career drawing to a close and thinking about a retirement plan, it's natural to take a long, hard look at your life. Now that your life no longer revolves around chasing goals and checking items off to-do lists, you may finally have the time to take stock of the hits and misses. In these moments of introspection, a lot of couples realize that they have been stuck in an unfulfilling relationship for far too long, and find themselves staring at the possibility of a gray divorce.
For others, the inability to reconnect with their spouses and adjust to the new dynamics of the relationship sans the distractions of a busy life push people to end their marriages after 20, 30 years or more. While it's not exactly new, the divorce rate among couples over 50 has certainly gone up in recent years, inviting a lot of scrutiny and analysis.
Today, we contribute our two cents to the discourse around couples parting ways after decades of shared lives. With a little help from lawyer Tahini Bhushan, we delved into the reasons for gray divorce, along with friendly and practical tips on how to understand and navigate it better, if you're planning or going through one yourself. What is gray divorce, and what does it mean for you?
What is Gray Divorce?
Bill and Melinda Gates became the poster elders of gray divorce when they decided to dissolve their marriage of 27 years at the ages of 65 and 56 respectively.
You have probably seen the term being bandied about in the wake of their split and wondered, "What does gray divorce mean?" It refers to the phenomenon of (gray-haired) couples over 50 getting divorced. It's also known as silver splitters or diamond divorce.
With Gates' divorce came a slew of stories and statistics that showed that while they're one of the best-known examples of gray divorce, they're not alone. According to Pew Research, the divorce rate among 50-somethings has doubled from 1990 to 2015. Another study shows that people over 50 were far more supportive of divorce in 2012 than they had been in 1994, showing a major shift in attitude toward dissolving a marriage.
So, baby boomers choosing to walk out of decades-long marriages isn't merely a phenomenon in isolation, it is rooted in a complex consortium of cultural and psychological changes taking place over several decades. Besides, the long companionship and a lifetime of shared existence can make this divorce process emotionally and logistically far more complex. The gray divorce regrets and joys often go hand in hand, so it's hardly ever an easy, straightforward choice to make.
Common Reasons for Gray Divorce
Alice and Jasper have been married for over 20 years. Alice is 54, Jasper is 57, and they are in the process of divorcing. "I think most of our friends were rather shocked," Alice said wryly. The couple has two children and shared a beautiful home in California. All in all, they seemed the very picture of a happy, stable family.
"We just weren't compatible anymore," Jasper explains. "We changed and grew apart, and initiating the divorce process seemed like the right and healthiest path to go down. We did think about alternatives to gray divorce, like a trial separation. But then a clean break seemed best."
As with any form of separation, personal dissatisfaction and unhappiness are often the most common reasons for gray divorce. But, since the couple is older and has spent a better part of their life together, there are deeper roots to uproot and the prospect of rebuilding a life all over again can be daunting. This surely does present a unique set of challenges for a couple, however, sometimes the gray divorce reasons far outweigh the challenges. Some of these reasons are:
1. Empty Nest
If your entire life and relationship revolved around your children, and if every interaction, every family holiday was planned around them, it's possible you're at a loose end once they left the house. The house is empty, too big for just the two of you. You realize you have very little to say to each other, that you no longer have very much in common.
In fact, maybe you start to realize you fell out of love a long time ago, and never noticed because you had the kids. The empty nest syndrome is one of the gray divorce reasons because it's hard to look across the breakfast table at your spouse who is now a stranger to you, every single day.
2. Financial Reasons
For women especially, divorce at any age could mean a sharp drop in finances, especially if they've given up working. "In so many cases, the woman gives up working when the children come along," Tahini said, "And therefore, she has to wait till she's at a stage where she can afford to divorce her husband."
This also becomes the reason many couples look at alternatives to divorce or even choose to stay in an unhappy marriage for longer. Money matters at any age, but the older you get, the more accustomed you are to a certain way of living, and the more comforts you need. On the other hand, once the kids are grown, childcare isn't as much of a concern once college expenses have been settled.
Either way, money becomes an important consideration when a couple is contemplating divorce at any stage of life. However, if both spouses are financially independent and know that the divorce settlement won't burn through their retirement savings, it becomes easier to choose freedom and happiness over staying unhappily married at a later stage in life.
3. Lack of Physical Intimacy
A drop in sex and sexual desire is common with age, but let's not generalize – there are enough and more 50-year-olds having sex and enjoying it. However, if there's no intimacy whatsoever, it can ring the death knell for a marriage, especially if one partner's sex drive is still up and running.
"After 50, marriage tends to be more about companionship than sex, at least in most cases I've seen," said Tahini. "Having said that, if one partner's needs are not being met, the risk of infidelity is rife. When issues like child support and protecting the kids from the emotional trauma of parents' divorce are no longer a factor, a couple may find fewer and fewer reasons to put on the facade of a happy family."
Adultery isn't the only reason for the breakdown of marriage, mind you, but it does mean that you've lost interest in your spouse and that's been grounds for divorce at all ages. So, one answer to "why are older couples divorcing" could be a lack of physical intimacy.
4. Kids are Grown
"There are marriages that are dead for all intent and purposes, and spouses are only waiting for the kids to turn 18," said Tahini, "In at least 70% of gray divorce cases I've seen, the woman was fed up and was waiting for the kids to grow up so she didn't have to be a single mom and raise a child without the stigma of a broken home."
Once the children have reached an age where there's greater understanding and maturity, couples may feel more comfortable setting the divorce process in motion.
"There are even cases where the kids have approached me and said they want a divorce for their parents. I've had sons approach me and say I want a divorce for my mother," she adds.
The retirement age signals a major life change that not everyone is prepared to tackle. It means spending a lot more time at home with each other than you have before. A lot of couples find that hard to cope with.
"My husband, Paul, retired at 65, and I got to know him outside of the guy who went to work for eight hours a day," said Lena, "I realized I didn't particularly know or like the guy I now had to spend all my time with. He didn't take well to retirement – he felt insecure about not being the breadwinner and was often bad-tempered. I didn't want to deal with it."
Managing retirement and/or managing a retired spouse can be a chore and also the final nail in the coffin of a marriage. In this case, it might be better to break up at an older age than spend your golden years bickering and being at each other's throats every day. Dealing with an insecure husband or wife, day in and day out, can take an emotional toll. So, carefully weigh the gray divorce issues vis-a-vis the toll of staying together to arrive at the right decision.
Issues to Consider Before Making a Decision
Long-term marriages are harder to walk out of. Having spent decades together, your lives can become so deeply intertwined that you may not know where to begin tearing them apart. Choosing between the restlessness of staying unhappily married and the nerve-racking yet exciting prospect of starting afresh can leave you torn. When you find yourself at such a fork in the road, it's vital to weigh your options carefully before making a choice.
While the divorce rate among older couples may be soaring and many may have found happiness walking out of long-term marriages, you need to figure out if this is truly the best decision for you. Ask yourself, do you really want a divorce? Are you ready for single life in your 50s or beyond? Would you want to dip your toes into the pool of senior dating at some point or do you want to embrace singledom for the rest of your days?
If parting ways seems like the right choice, are you equipped to deal with the financial challenges along the way? Do you need spousal support, or are you equipped to offer it? Do you have enough emotional support to get through the divorce? The questions you need to address before taking this leap can be endless. However, here are a few gray divorce issues you must factor into your decision:
• Sources of Income: How are you going to sustain yourself after the divorce? Even if you have been financially independent all your life, your income prospects at 50 can be markedly different from what they were in your 30s or even 40s. You may already have hit your career peak. Do you have enough to get by for the rest of your days?
• Retirement Benefits: How will getting divorced impact your retirement benefits? The reasons for divorce may be emotional but you have to factor in the practical aspects such as its effects on your 401(K)s and IRAs. Will cutting your nest egg in half eat into your tax minimizations? Will you have enough to get by comfortably? Are you and your spouse on the same page about how to deal with these aspects of divorce?
• Splitting Your Assets: The longer you are married, the more assets you likely share. Unless there is a prenuptial agreement in place defining who gets what in the event of a divorce, you need to figure out how best to separate property, bank accounts and other assets. Working with a certified divorce financial analyst can be immensely helpful in arriving at a mutually beneficial agreement.
• Health: With longer life expectancy in today's time, you may be looking at spending an average of two decades as a divorced person if you part ways from your spouse in your 50s. Not just any two decades but a time in life where your physical and mental health will begin to deteriorate. Do you have the means to cope with these challenges without a life partner by your side?
• Family and Kids: Granted you're empty nesters now and your kids are all adults with lives of their own. Even so, parents' divorce is never easy on the children, no matter their age. Have you considered the impact on your family or floated the idea with your kids to gauge their response?
Eight Tips to Survive
a Gray Divorce
Even if you've weighed all the pros and cons, hired a family law attorney, moved out, and set the process of divorce in motion, coming to terms with such a huge change isn't easy. Unraveling a marriage and a shared life of so many years is always painful and messy. Add to this the fact that you're older and probably don't want to deal with all the paperwork, and you could likely use a little help navigating your divorce.
Here are some tips to get you through without losing your mind and make sure you don't end up with gray divorce regrets:
1. Have Your Legalities in Place
"I was 52 when I found out my husband had feelings for another woman. He eventually left me, and honestly, I was so shocked and dazed, I couldn't think about what I was entitled to in terms of gray divorce alimony. I didn't even know if the house was in both our names or only his, or how to separate property and other assets," said 60-year-old Jill.
Fortunately, the family law attorney she hired made her sit down and face things. "No matter how acrimonious things are, we get the couple to sit down and figure things out," said Tahini. "In a lot of cases, the property is only in the husband's name and he doesn't want to give it up. If the wife hasn't worked in a while, there's also a sense of entitlement from the husband, as though she doesn't really own anything because he paid for it all."
You might not need to fight for solo or joint custody of the kids any longer, but be aware of your legal rights such as spousal support, alimony, shared social security benefits, etc. Get yourself a lawyer who's in your corner and don't let your grief blind you to everything else.
2. Sort Out Your Finances
Money matters even when a relationship is robust, and it certainly matters when you're dissolving a marriage of so many years. "Sit down and figure out your assets clearly," advises Tahini, "Draw up relevant paperwork and do the division as fairly as possible."
Make a list of assets and investments, and see what's shared and what's solely yours. It might also be a good idea to consult a certified divorce financial analyst to assess how best you can overcome the financial challenges if any. Ensure your health insurance, the kids' college fund, etc. are in place and that you have enough for a place of your own in case you're not getting the house.
Trust us, once you know your finances are sorted out, you'll be better able to heal and look at other things. Don't bury your head in the sand when it comes to money matters, you deserve clarity and all the facts, and possibly some gray divorce alimony. Surviving a gray divorce might not be pretty, but it needs to be practical.
3. Find Your Community
"If you're going through a gray divorce, you're probably at an age where your parents are gone or too old to offer much support. If you have siblings, that's a support system, but they too will have their own lives. A strong, close-knit circle of friends, therefore, becomes vital," said Tahini.
A strong, loving support system is important to stay sane during a divorce. You're undergoing enormous life changes and you'll need people around you. Hopefully, you've built up a wonderful network of people who know you and will always have your back. Reach out to them and let them be there for you. Surviving a divorce at any age, isn't easy. You need friends, so don't shut people out.
If you feel that the people closest to you can't relate to what you're going through, consider joining a divorce-after-50 support group in your area or online.
Jill tells us, "Picking up the pieces of my life after a divorce I didn't see coming wasn't easy. Out of desperation, I started looking for divorce support groups near me, and this close-knit community of people who've all had very similar experiences became my strength to carry on."
4. Be Honest with the Kids
Having your children in your corner or at least onboard with the idea of your divorce can make it easier for you to move forward. "Your kids might be all grown up and know all about divorce. And yes, maybe their mental health won't be affected as much. But even if your marriage has been dead for many years, you still have to talk to the kids. After all, it's still easier to convince a child that a marriage is over than to have that conversation with an 18-year-old," said Tahini.
Follow the rule of never bad-mouthing your partner to your kids, but be honest with them. Tell them things aren't working out and that you need to find a different path for yourselves. Have the conversation together with your partner if possible. With grown-up kids, it's also a little easier to explain that one or both of you will find a new partner at some point.
5. After a Gray Divorce,
Go Back to Work
It could be for financial reasons to get into a routine, or just to keep you busy. If you've retired or been out of the workforce a long time, dipping your toes back in could be a big help and could help mitigate any gray divorce regrets. Even if your social security and retirement benefits are enough for you to get by, having a job can give your newfound life some structure and purpose.
"I used to be a full-time English teacher before we had kids, and then I quit. By the time I got divorced, I was 55 but I still loved telling stories and books were my passion. I started working part-time at my local library. I organized readings and small literary events and formed a book club. It was incredibly fulfilling and really gave me a sense of purpose," said Suzanne.
You needn't dive back into 40-hour weeks. In fact, you could even volunteer at a shelter if finances aren't an issue. And hey, if you're not worried about money, now you can work at what you love. Life after divorce needs to be vital and interesting, this could be one way to do it.
6. Learn to be Alone
You've been a spouse and a parent for so many years, and now it's just you. Your friends and support system are there, but it is important that you learn to be on your own as well. You probably haven't spent time with yourself in a while and it will get scary and lonely at times.
It's tough to see yourself as separate from the roles of spouse, parent, family member, etc., roles that you've occupied for so long. But as this new chapter of your life unfolds, spending time alone and learning to be comfortable with it is imperative. Go for walks, travel solo, take yourself out on dates even. This is a time to get to know yourself all over again. And guess what, you'll have a lot of fun doing it!
7. Seek Help
Professional help is always a good idea when major life changes are underway. Gray divorce definitely falls in this category, and there's nothing better than an impartial ear to hear you out. Divorce counseling can help you work through any insecurities, confusion or loneliness you may be grappling with.
"I don't think men of my generation are too comfortable with therapy," said 58-year-old Raul, ruefully. "But my daughter made me go see a therapist after my divorce, and I have to say, it's really nice to have a safe space where I didn't have to smile or act brave. Plus, I got to figure out what divorce meant for me at age 58, and what could come next."
There's no hiding in therapy, and that's truly the best thing you can do for yourself right now. Even if the end of your marriage was a long time coming, even if you feel like it's a burden off your back, it's a good idea to seek help and talk things over with a professional.
8. Focus on Moving On
"I still find that it's easier for a man to move on after a gray divorce," said Tahini, "He might get a younger woman or be a sugar daddy, but it's tougher for a single 50-something woman to find love and trust again."
It's true that divorce continues to come with a stigma for women, especially if it comes at a certain age, the rising divorce rate notwithstanding. But women, never lose heart! If you're open to new love, there's every chance it will come your way. But bear in mind that moving on isn't only about finding a new relationship.
Maybe you'll find solace in solitude, a new project or an old comfortable group of friends. Maybe moving on, for you, looks like a quiet Sunday afternoon where you read and nap with no worries or thoughts of your ex. Or maybe it looks like dying your hair purple and traveling to a new country. Maybe moving on is just you becoming you.
Gray divorce refers to the phenomenon of a changing trend where people believe it's possible to start over at any age and any stage of life. Where it's all right to say, "This isn't working," even if you've been together 20 years. From that perspective, it's almost hopeful rather than depressing. So, don't let regrets and what-ifs consume you, embrace the choice you've made for yourself, and focus on building a better life for yourself.
1. Why is gray divorce so common?
Are you still wondering, why are older couples divorcing? Well, gray divorce has become more common over the last few years, since people now believe it's financially and emotionally possible to start over after the age of 50. Some even believe it's a better choice to wait till the kids are grown and then file for divorce.
2. Can one avoid gray divorce?
Like any separation, gray divorce can be avoided with good communication and putting in the effort to keep the relationship fresh and alive. However, if love and compatibility have died out entirely, there's no point in continuing a marriage that makes you unhappy. Surviving a divorce isn't the easiest thing but it beats a miserable marriage in most cases.
3. What are the alternatives to gray divorce?
You could opt for a trial separation instead of pulling the plug entirely. Maybe give it three months and see how it goes. You could also opt for marriage counseling to try and resolve your issues, or try an open marriage where your needs are met outside the marriage, but the marriage remains in name.
Tahini Bhushan is an author and lawyer. If you are looking for help, need to talk with an experienced counselor or want more information about navigating the complexities of human relationships, visit http://www.bonobology.com.