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Saying “I Don’t:” Gray Divorce

Not every couple in their golden years will have a golden anniversary. Here's why more and more long-time marrieds are calling it quits—and how they recover.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

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Even decades later, a trip down the aisle can lead to a trip to the lawyer.

After years of working together in their computer software business, Mary Olson and her husband sold the company, retired to a barge on the picturesque Saône River in France and knocked around Europe for months.

Back at home in Minneapolis after their romantic adventure, he worked as a company consultant. She enrolled at a culinary institute to reinvent herself as a gourmet cook.

Married life past age 60 was good, she says. “He was my best friend, and he told me I was his. On our 40th wedding anniversary, I remember thinking, 'I guess we've made it.'”

A year later, she arrived home one day after work to find her husband gone and his closets empty. “I had a note,” she remembers. “It said 'Goodbye.'” He left little behind, she says, not even an explanation.

An Exploding Phenomenon
Olson is one of many people past midlife who see their relationships self-destruct after 20, 30 or 40-plus years of marriage. A buzz about the phenomenon has coined the term “gray divorce,” a trend some say is growing.

In Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over (Random House, New York), author Deirdre Bair taps into the experience via 400 interviewees, calling it an “exploding phenomenon.”

AARP attracted attention to divorce past midlife with its study that plumbed the reasons for it and “assumed” an imminent rise in later-life divorces, given the track record of an aging baby-boom generation so far. Chalk that up to a propensity for valuing self-expression over tradition that earned boomers—now ages 42 to 61—the “me-generation” label.

Keep in mind that another baby boomer turns 60 every seven seconds. And remember boomers' history up to this point of initiating more divorces than generations up the line. Why wouldn't the rate of later-life divorce be on the rise?

Very likely it will, said Xenia Montenegro, director of the AARP study and the organization's manager of marketing research. She said the 2004 survey of people ages 40 through 79 “assumes there will be more divorces” among Americans past midlife as boomers continue up the age ladder.

(Meanwhile, the 2005 U.S. Census reported 15.4 percent of women and 12.4 percent of men past age 45 as divorced. Those numbers don't measure the divorce rate per se, only the number of people divorced at a given time, without documenting the date that they divorced.)

“Boomers have been more likely to do things that go against social mores,” Montenegro said. With credit, no doubt, to the boomers, “Divorce is easier now,” she said. “The stigma is less.”

Somewhat surprisingly, 66 percent of 1,147 participants in the AARP study said the wife initiated the divorce. Among top reasons they gave for divorcing were abuse, particularly among women, along with differences in values and lifestyles, cheating and alcohol or drug abuse.

Among couples who hung on through years of dissatisfaction before making the break, both men and women said they persevered for the sake of their children, waiting until they left the nest or settled into their own lives.

Along with personal reasons for later-life divorce, researchers and writers point to societal factors that up the ante for “gray divorce”: Growing longevity has spawned a feeling among people in their 50s, 60s and older of “staying younger” longer, coupled with a belief that they have several more years to live. We live in an era of new beginnings when once-traditional mainstays—jobs, family homes and marriages at any age—just don't last as long.

The new “superwoman” who spent much of her adult life working outside the home probably has her own financial security, something her mother only dreamed of, in addition to a sense of independence, confidence and a comfort level with calling the shots.

Reacting to Life's Curve Balls
The last gasp in a marriage comes as a surprise for some. Others describe a sometimes long series of events that eventually leads to a defining moment.

Those two patterns crossed for Jim, director of marketing for a real-estate investment firm in Dallas, who asked that his last name not be used. His grown son had left home, and his wife, a musician, took a job performing on cruise ships. The cruises were short at first, but gradually got longer.

Then the surprise landed. “You could've hit me with a baseball bat,” he said. “I found out there was an affair going on, and she had signed up for a four-month cruise.”

He suggested they work things out, but she said her work was important, and insisted that she go. “It was a very hard time for me,” Jim said. When she returned, she told him she was going on another four-month cruise. He learned of other relationships, too, he said. “At that point, I said, 'I need to do something here.'”

He never issued an ultimatum, but at 54, he felt he had no choice but to file for a divorce. “When you're married over 30 years, the last thing you want to do is break it up,” he said. “I just knew I wasn't going to continue living that way.”

His attorney told him there was another option. “He said, 'You can stay married and stay unhappy. There are people who do it. You'd be surprised how many people are doing it.'” But Jim chose the divorce. He credits counseling, prayer, a fellowship group and bible study for helping him make a tough transition. “You go through all the different phases of it—anger, disappointment, disbelief, compromise—a thousand different emotions.”

A counselor told him he had to go all the way down, to feel all his emotions, in order to recover. “He said, 'You can't hide the anger and bitterness. It will reappear.'” Jim worked at not looking back, at not feeling resentful. “A man always wants to control,” he said. “I thought we'd get back together.

But when trust is gone, it's very difficult to get it back. Curves get tossed to us in life. It's how you react to them. You've got to change and get hold of things. Finally, you deal with it. You say, 'It's OK.'”

He found himself lending an ear to other men struggling with problems in their marriages. Several began confiding in him. “I can count at least a half-dozen guys in their 50s who've been married 20-plus years and their wives don't want to be married any more,” he said. “They say, 'There's nothing left in our marriage,' or 'There's another man.'

If there's any peace in this, it's that I was able to mentor other guys, understand where they are and help them through it.” He partly blames what happened in his marriage and what he hears from others on “an attitude of permissiveness given to us in today's society,” he said.

Fortunately for him, the divorce's financial impact “wasn't devastating,” he said. In Texas, a common-property state, he and his ex-wife split their assets 50-50. Still, he didn't end up with what he’d spent 30-plus years planning for. Any way you count it, it's half as much, he said, “with fewer years to recover it.”

In other ways, Jim, now 61, has recovered nicely. Some friends pushed for him and a single woman they knew to meet each other. When they did, “we laughed about it over lunch,” he remembers. “We had no intention of getting into a serious relationship.” They were married two years ago. “She's wonderful,” he says of his new wife.

Emotional Changes...and Newfound Wisdom
“Divorce is a terrible thing if you didn't want it, and sometimes if you did,” said Leda Sanford, a Sausalito, Calif., writer who for 10 years addressed a nationwide audience of single older women in her newspaper columns, now compiled in her book, Look for the Moon in the Morning (2006 Elders Academy Press, www.elderspress.org).

“You fall to your knees, and then you get up again,” she said. “Friends are very important."

So is walking away from a marriage with enough money to live on comfortably, said Stuart Webb, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who has helped hundreds of people negotiate divorce settlements. He assists couples in getting a collaborative divorce, in which both partners—each represented by a lawyer trained in collaborative law (collaborativepractice.com)—work together to negotiate a divorce settlement, and no court appearance is required.

With child custody seldom a factor in later-life divorces, dividing a couple’s money is likely to become the sticking point. For some people, he said, it’s a form of “sticker shock.” Most people think they know how much money they have.

However, said Webb, “All of a sudden, it’s half that.” While money doesn’t necessarily inhibit a divorce, he said, “It puts a reality to it.” Some people end up with more than they ever dreamed they would. On the flip side, the division is hardest in cases that dictate spousal maintenance, where one partner must pay long-term out of his or her pocket to support an ex.

For money-related or other reasons, some couples decide not to divorce. Some end up saying, “Let’s hang in together,” Webb said. “Others find creative ways to stay married but live more separately.”

Financial security isn’t the biggest fear for people who divorce later in life, the AARP study found. “It’s getting old alone,” said Montenegro, the study’s director. Forty-two percent of men and 47 percent of women in the study said what they fear most is being alone. “But at the same time, life after divorce is freedom and independence,” she said. “It cuts both ways.”

Loss of Love, Loss of Respect
A St. Paul, Minn., man credits close friends and his first taste of independence with helping him to rebuild self-respect—and his life—after the breakup of his 32-year marriage. Don Schmitz, a former schoolteacher who now runs a pair of businesses, said he internalized his divorce six years ago as a personal failure.

“I think when you get divorced, you lose confidence in yourself,” he said. “I was supposed to be this guy who was always in control, always in charge. And I couldn't even keep my marriage together.”

Breaking up is hard to do: Divorce in later life can cause an unexpected loss of self-confidence.
Breaking up is hard to do: Divorce in later life can cause an unexpected loss of self-confidence.

He saw warning signs for many years, he said, that he and his wife were growing apart. “We used to have discussions on 'OK, what can we agree on?'” he remembers. They got to a place where they couldn't agree on much, he said. “There became so many things we couldn't talk about. All of our conversation became superficial.”

They began asking, “Why should we stay together, other than that we've been together for 32 years?” Schmitz said. “That scared the hell out of both of us.

It isn't something we dealt with lightly,” he said, partly because of concern about how it would impact others. “We were very well-respected in the community. We had a huge circle of friendships, both in the business and education world.”

The couple worked together for several years in a family-owned business where, according to Schmitz, “she was the boss.” Some of that carried over into the marriage. Looking back, he believes he let too much of himself go. “I compromised on things I didn't want to. When you give up part of yourself, you can lose part of why that person loves you.”

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