Barbara and Jack got married twenty-four years ago. Barbara is fifty-one and Jack is fifty-two. Their oldest daughter is in college and their younger daughter, a high school senior. Over the years Barbara and Jack have drifted apart, avoiding each other in an attempt to keep the bickering to a minimum. Barbara’s numerous efforts to bring about more emotional closeness have been mostly unsuccessful. In her frustration, she has turned to her sister and women friends to meet her needs for connection. Jack has grown bitter due to Barbara’s repeated rejections of his sexual overtures. He diverts his pent up energy into sports. Despite their parallel lives, the tension in their home is high.
When Barbara contemplates her future, she can’t imagine spending the rest of her life feeling this unhappy. After months of deliberation, she concludes that she will be better off living alone than continuing to experience the anger, resentment and boredom that she anticipates will characterize her remaining years. Shortly after her birthday in March, she informs Jack that she wants a divorce. He offers little resistance to the idea and they put their house on the market. Six weeks later they are living in separate households. Barbara and Jack have become another in an increasing number of examples of a phenomenon that has become know as “Gray divorce”.
“Gray divorce” is the term used to refer to those who divorce after the age of fifty. In 2009 this included over 600,000 people. And the numbers are growing while divorce rate of nearly all other age groups is falling. According the Wall Street Journal’s March 3, 2012 edition, this group has doubled in the past twenty years. In 1990 only one in ten of all divorces involved people over fifty. In 2009 it was one in four.
Hitting fifty is empty nest time. Like Jack and Barbara, a large portion of these couples have found a way to overlook their differences and tolerate emotional distance and disagreements because they were committed to bringing their children up in an intact family. For many of them however, it wasn’t a real marriage, but an arrangement, an uneasy truce in which both partners tolerate conditions that were far from ideal. And 66% of the time, it is the women who are initiating most of these breakups.
Infidelity is not a major factor that accounts for the spike in divorce in later years. The rate of infidelity in this age group is the same as the general population (27%) who cite it as one of the top three reasons for divorce. The crucial variable seems to have to do with greater life expectancy. Baby boomers are living significantly longer than previous generations. Thus they are spending more time living with their partners. In 1900 the average life expectancy for a man was 47 years, for a woman, 49 years. Men born in 1960 could be expected to live until the age of 71, women, 74.
Many researchers divide marriages in three categories: institutional marriages, compassionate marriages and the individualized marriages. The institutional marriage arose in the decades prior to World War II, and was primarily grounded in economic concerns (two can live cheaper than one). Compassionate marriage is based on the idea that the male’s role is essentially that of the provider with the female being the homemaker and primary parent. We are currently in the phase of the Individualized marriage in which the primary focus has to do with the satisfaction of individual needs, personal growth, fulfillment, and shared intimacy.
The notion of marriage as a means to self-fulfillment is a legitimate and worthy goal provided it is not held as an entitlement that everyone has a right to. When this is the case, there are the makings of a set-up for disappointment and the likelihood of blame and faultfinding. Happiness is not something that comes to us simply because we want it, but rather is a function of a willingness to take responsibility for the fulfillment of a desired outcome and making the effort to bring it about.
If we hold our partner as being responsible for providing us with fulfillment, it’s likely that we will end up feeling let down and that they will feel resentful and burdened. While many of these gray divorces may be necessary if the partners are genuinely mismatched, many of them may be giving up simply because they don’t have the necessary vision or skills to grow their relationship into something that can provide for their deeper needs.
What often sets successful couples apart from others is their commitment to dealing with issues when they arise and not allowing “incompletions” to accumulate. This process requires them to have developed the skills, traits and personal strengths necessary to communicate and engage each other with sensitivity, honesty and respect on an ongoing basis. The cultivation of these competencies can be the difference between a divorce and a great marriage.
Fifty-three percent of those who divorce after age 50 have been divorced at least once before. If someone has been divorced one or more times, they have a 150% greater chance of their next marriage ending in divorce than do first marriages. With divorce having become de-stigmatized and more socially acceptable than it had been in previous generations there is less incentive to work to deepen the quality of connection when things begin to deteriorate. The temptation is to believe that if I can find the “right” person next time, that things will turn out better. More often than not, it’s not that simple. The responsibility for a broken marriage never rests entirely in the hands of one person. Whenever a marriage breaks down there is always a part that each partner has played in the breakdown, even though it might not be 50/50. As long as the focus is on what the other person did wrong rather than what each person can do to contribute to the improvement of the marriage, it is unlikely that the necessary lessons will be learned, thus making it probable that mistakes will be repeated in future relationships.
Many of the older couples that are choosing to remain unmarried after their divorce would prefer a life shared with a partner, to a life without one. What often prevents them from creating such a partnership, married or unmarried, is mistrust in themselves and/or others to establish the kind of relationship that is truly fulfilling and mutually enriching. The single life may be preferable to life in a bad marriage, but what might be more preferable of all is living in a good marriage. Such an outcome requires the willingness to learn from our experiences and put those lessons into practice. Love is a wonderful thing, but it’s not enough to ensure mutual fulfillment. It does take work to keep the fire alive, but doing it can mean the difference between a gray divorce and a golden anniversary.