While the divorce rate in the U.S. for couples overall has declined in the past 20 years, the divorce rate for couples over 50, also known as “gray divorce” has more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease control and Prevention. Why is this? How can marriage that has endured 30, 40, or even 50 years disintegrate? Consider this:
- People are living longer. Our life expectancy is 30 years longer than it was in 1900. An additional 30 years presents many opportunities as well as the obvious challenges.
- The Baby Boomers were the first generation to marry for love and personal fulfillment, not just survival and procreation. Once the children have left home it often becomes apparent, most frequently to the woman, that these needs are not being met. Divorce at this age is more often initiated by women.
- Couples who have been in loveless marriages for decades realize they may live another 20-30 years and are not willing to stay any longer.
- More women are or have been in the workforce and have greater financial independence than in previous generations.
- While “growing apart” is a common reason for gray divorce, acts of infidelity are also a prime cause.
- There is far less stigma attached to divorce in general. In 1950 the word was hardly mentioned. Today it would be impossible to say we knew no one who had been divorced.
How does a post 50+ divorce differ from couples of younger ages?
- Children. In general, couples 50+ have children who are in high school, college or grown and on their own. Consequently, the battles over child custody are not usually a factor. Don’t assume however, that because a child is older the divorce does not affect them. If can have profound impact on their own interpersonal relationships as well as those with their parents.
- Money. Even in these challenging economic times, people 50+ may be in a better position financially to divorce than younger couples who cannot afford to live separately on their own or go through the expense of divorce. At the same time, the financial considerations that come with retirement and the division of assets in later life add a layer of complexity not found for younger couples who have longer work lives ahead and potentially longer time to recover financially.
- The Emotional Toll. The emotional toll from a later divorce very much depends on the circumstances and who initiated it — in general the initiator may have an easier time than the spouse who has been left. A long marriage that has ended because one spouse has cheated is especially painful and results in a profound sense of betrayal and diminished self-esteem which can take a long time to work through.
What are some strategies for coping with divorce at this age?
Money. The financial concerns relating to grey divorce can be more complex and burdensome. Retirement accounts like pension plans, 401(k) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are typically treated as marital property in a divorce. The process by which they are divided depends on a number of issues. There are federal guidelines that dictate how 401(k) plans are redistributed, but IRA division depends on state laws. Dividing pension plans is the most complex process when it comes to retirement accounts, and is decided on a case-by-case basis. For more information see “Divorce After 50: Your Guide to Unique Legal and Financial Challenges” by Janet Green. www.nolo.com
Emotional Coping. The aftermath of divorce often parallels the “five stages of grief” model originally posed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At first it may be all about the anger and depression, but as time passes there is more energy to move forward.
Tips for coping with emotions include:
- Prioritizing (creating a “to do” list)
- Putting things away (start living as a single person)
- Talking about it (support groups, psychotherapy or coaching)
- Supporting yourself (maintaining healthy routines, journaling, self-care, distracting yourself)
- Pursuing interests you may have put aside
- Avoiding self-destructive and defeating behavior (drugs/alcohol, diving into a new relationship, making big decisions, seeking revenge on your ex-spouse)
Coaching can help you cope with the challenges of a break-up, separation or divorce.