From the web: After Full Lives Together, More Older Couples Are Divorcing
After Full Lives Together, More Older Couples Are Divorcing
HILARY STEPHENS was 57 when she decided she had had enough — enough of her job, of caretaking, of her marriage of 28 years. So she did something many people fantasize about: She walked away from it all.
“Sometimes it’s the only solution,” said Ms. Stephens, now 58 and the mother of two adult children. She moved from Washington to the Philadelphia area, where she is now vice president for development at Woods Services, a nonprofit.
Late-life divorce (also called “silver” or “gray” divorce) is becoming more common, and more acceptable. In 2014, people age 50 and above were twice as likely to go through a divorce than in 1990, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. For those over 65, the increase was even higher. At the same time, divorce rates have plateaued or dropped among other age groups.
One explanation is that many older people are in second marriages; the divorce rate is about two and a half times larger for those who have remarried and are often grappling with blended families or greater financial challenges.
Life expectancy also plays a role. In the past, “people died earlier,” said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the love, sex and relationship ambassador for AARP. “Now, let’s say you’re 50 or 60. You could go 30 more years. A lot of marriages are not horrible, but they’re no longer satisfying or loving. They may not be ugly, but you say, ‘Do I really want 30 more years of this?’”
Besides realizing that “adequate” does not suffice, separation no longer holds the stigma it once did. Just look at Al and Tipper Gore, who split in 2010 after 40 years of marriage and four children (they have yet to make it official). Or the Alabama governor Robert Bentley, and his wife, Dianne, who filed for divorce in August, one month after their 50th wedding anniversary.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the increase in late-life divorce is the changing status of women, who initiate about 60 percent of divorces after age 40, according to AARP. This does not mean that the men aren’t disenchanted too. It just means that women actually take the decisive step.
“I think men don’t want to rock the boat, and they’ll put up with a not ideal situation,” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, 54, whose marriage dissolved five years ago and who runs 20-first, a gender consulting firm in London. “Part of the shift is that now women have been liberated, empowered, moved around, know how to get what they want. They are increasingly breaking up the relationships to find someone else or to be on their own.”
Dr. Schwartz, the sociologist, agrees. “Women have higher expectations for their emotional life,” she said. Dr. Schwartz, 70, has personal insight into the issue: She and her husband divorced 15 years ago. They had been married for 23 years, she said, but “the marriage had run out of juice.”
Dr. Schwartz added that she and her former husband were still friends and often celebrated holidays together when their two children were younger. She is currently engaged to her boyfriend of nine years.
By the time most couples enter their mid- to late-50s, children usually have their own lives, and it becomes painfully clear that their parents don’t need to stay together “for the kids.” Not that adult children don’t want their families to remain intact. They usually do, experts say, no matter how old they are, unless the relationship is exceedingly hostile or volatile. But many “happy enough” people feel that their children no longer get to dictate the terms of their relationship.
Many women also feel they should be good role models for their children. “What you are really showing your kids is whether to live for love or for fear,” said Ms. Wittenberg-Cox, who remarried in the spring. “Will you stay because you love what you have or because you fear the unknown? In the end, I chose love. I hope they will, too.”
Beyond the emotional toll, personal economics factor in, both in keeping people in unhappy unions and in inspiring them to check out. Women still earn less than men. Because they also tend to live longer, they face greater economic risk on their own.
Current research by Susan L. Brown, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green, has found that “gray divorced” over-62 women receive smaller Social Security benefits, on average, than other single women and men. And more than a quarter live below the official poverty line.
On the other hand, more than half of women from 55 to 64 are employed, which means they have an independent source of income.
“After retirement, male spouses are around 24/7, the cracks in the relationship deepen into crevasses, and the emotional distance becomes more apparent,” said Julie Schwartz Gottman, a clinical psychologist at the Gottman Institute in Seattle. “As women gain financial independence, they feel safe leaving an unhappy union.”
Other women, even if they might have to struggle financially, said they still felt that it was worth it to leave.
Celia Jeffries, an editor, writer and teacher in Northampton, Mass., married shortly after she turned 20, in 1970. Thirty-seven years later, she and her husband split.
“He went in one direction and I went in another,” said Ms. Jeffries, 64, who has a son and four grandchildren. “You reach a point where you say, ‘This is not the way I want to live.’”
In retrospect, she points to her diagnosis of breast cancer at 45, which led to a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, as the first fissure in their marriage.
It didn’t help that her former husband, who had been in the tech field, had sold his company and they made a lot of money on paper. During that period they were living parallel lives, which was not ideal but manageable. But then the stock tanked, and they lost everything. “When the money ran out, we had to face each other,” she said.
Although she is not financially secure, “I’m certainly living a much better life than I would have if I were still married,” Ms. Jeffries said. She moved to a new home. She finished her master’s in creative writing. She spent two years in Botswana with the Peace Corps, where she received the most questioning of her divorce.
“No one knew what to make of me,” she said with a laugh. “I was a 63-year-old white woman walking around the village. When I told people I was divorced, they were like, ‘Really, you can do that at this age?’ The other response was, ‘You’ll never find a man, you’re too old.’”
That, Ms. Jeffries said, is the least of her concerns. “I’ll never say no, but it’s highly unlikely,” she said.
Similarly, for Ms. Stephens, remarriage is not a high priority. It was scary to take the leap into the unknown, but she is thrilled with her newfound freedom, and her new town.
“I had to take this giant leap of faith and believe somehow that I would be O.K. when I came through it all,” she said. “It was a very, very frightening experience.”
But it was worth it. She has taken up horseback riding again, a childhood passion that she never expected to revisit. Recently, she competed in her first horse show in 38 years and won first place in her division. “I would never have had that opportunity to ride if I had stayed in Washington,” she said. “It’s given me such joy to go back to doing that again.”