Divorce can be hard and have a negative impact. But the same can be said for staying in a long-term bad marriage.
Over the last 20 years divorce rates have been declining. A striking contrast to this trend is a phenomenon known as the “Gray Divorce.” Gray divorce describes a rise in divorce rates for couples 45 plus who are choosing to end their marriages later in life. In fact, over the last 20 years the divorce rates have more than doubled in this demographic. The notion and norm from previous generations which valued staying together “no matter what”, and “growing old” with a life-partner seems to be shifting in favor of individual freedom and happiness in cases where a marriage has not been working for either one or both partners. The divorce rate continues to rise for couples over 45 in long-term marriages for several reasons. Research has shown a rise in life expectancy over the past few decades, and with couples expecting to live longer and healthier lives there is more time to consider the impact of the decision to divorce may have on their quality of life. While couples are continuing to stay in unhappy marriages “for the sake of the kids” in recent years there has shown to be increase in divorce rates when the nest is finally empty. The past stigma of divorce has become less potent over time which has impacted this trend. Second and third marriages have a significant likelihood to end in divorce which is a factor. Also, the impact of women earning more money and achieving more career success than previous generations has led to the continuing rise in divorce in the second half of life.
Gray divorce can lead to positive change, second chances and hope for a new fulfilling chapter for separating spouses. It can also have a downside that can be especially challenging for older populations such as isolation, depression, financial insecurity, health challenges, and new relationship issues with adult children who are dealing with the loss of their parents’ long-term marriage much differently than their parents may be.
1. Loss of a long-term dream. While both partners grieve the end of a marriage the spouse who initiates the divorce may seem to be dealing with the loss better than the other, as they may have had more time to process and accept their choice. This can be particularly challenging for the spouse for whom the divorce was not their choice but is now their reality. Although change is a constant part of life, many people find it to be difficult to manage and accept which and can lead to isolation.
2. Teenage and Adult Children. Many unhappy spouses with children struggle with the decision to either end the marriage while the kids are still young or wait to separate when the kids launch into their own adult lives. The “Empty nest” is big reason for Gray divorce. Children struggle to adjust at any age with their parents’ divorce, this can be more impactful and unexpected for teenage and adult children who assume that since their parents made it that far that their marriage would endure. Parents relationships with their older children can become challenging due to delayed divorce. It can be a struggle for all members of the once in-tact family to come to terms with the changes and loss caused by the break-up in and they may do so in much different ways.
3. Finances. Gray divorce can either take place during retirement or with retirement not too far into the future. Older couples may have had more time to save, but the impact of divorce can lead to a substantial financial hit and with less time to recover before retirement. There are likely more assets to divide which can be complicated at the very least and lead to animosity when the couple is not in agreement on how to untangle and divide what they have built over-time. Whether to keep or sell the family home is often a challenge, as well as making sure that both parties can continue to take care of insurance and healthcare needs that are vital for couples approaching an age where health concerns can be greater.
4. Difficult Emotions. Whether or not there may be positive changes on the horizon due to the split there is still grief and loss. Attending to emotional needs is crucial at this time, in order to successfully navigate the five stages of grief which are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It is vital to rely on an either an existing support system during divorce or create a new one if needed. Family and friends can be great support, but sometimes different perspectives or burnout can lead to a need to seek new ways to get emotional needs met. There are divorce groups and other support groups that can promote healing and prevent what may be the worst result of a divorce, which is isolation. Studies show that former spouses enduring divorce have higher rates of depression than those whose spouses have died. The risk of isolation in Gray divorce can be higher and with the likelihood of an increase in physical and mental health problems show up showing up connection is vital. Reaching out for help from an individual or family therapist can be very beneficial during the divorce adjustment and can lead to healing and redefining life and goals as your newly single-self.
Divorce, especially in the second- half of life can range from difficult to devastating. This can also be a time of reinvention and new beginnings as you make room for yourself and for new possibilities. You can start over and make changes that are important to your well-being. Divorce, at any age, is not what couples have in mind when making wedding vows. Nonetheless, by putting yourself first for the first time, or the first time in a long time, you may find that trading “happily” ever-after,” for “Happier” ever after, is not such a bad thing after all.
Written by Sharalee Hall, Marriage and Family Associate of Marina Edelman, LMFT.