I had a relative who divorced his wife after more than 60 years of marriage. We all knew they’d been emotionally separated for years but I thought a divorce that late in the game was an odd move to make. Turns out I was wrong—it isn’t unusual at all. Baby boomers are ending their marriages in record numbers.
In a study done in 2014, researchers at Bowling Green State University were shocked to discover the divorce rate for Americans over the age of 50 has doubled since 1990 and the rate for those over 65 is even higher. Part of the reason is the number of second marriages (which have a higher failure rate) for people in this stage of life but that doesn’t explain why more than half of “silver” divorces occur between couples who have been married more than 20 years. What’s up with that?
- The stigma is gone. As separation and divorce have become common, more people are willing to risk it. I recall my confusion when a boy who had been my classmate for 3 years began our 4th grade year with a different last name. Over the summer his mother, whose divorced status was a well kept secret, had remarried and his new stepfather had adopted him. It kept the school gossips in business for weeks. Now no one would notice.
- There’s a long road ahead. Let’s say you married at 21 and now you’re 60. With increased life expectancy you could be around 3 more decades. Your marriage isn’t horrible but it’s not great either. You look ahead and think, “Do I want 30 more years of this?” Often the answer is “no.”
- The nest is empty. Some couples’ lives revolve around their kids and their activities because they can’t stand each other but they stay together “for the kids.” When the kids leave home that reason for staying married goes with them.
- The roots are dead. Relationships are like plants—they require care and attention to flourish and grow. When they are neglected they wilt. If nobody notices, eventually the roots die and the once beautiful plant is history. These are the couples who have limited conflict but have simply grown apart and by the time they retire and/or the kids leave home they realize they are strangers. Other times the roots die because they’ve been exposed to toxins like infidelity, alcoholism or abuse.
- The bridge is out. Retirement is stressful. Roles have to be renegotiated, routines change and the differences between you come into sharp focus. As one psychologist put it, “The cracks in the relationship deepen into crevasses.” Sometimes those crevasses can’t be crossed.
- The female factor. Research shows that divorce in every age group tends to be initiated by women. Today, more women have an independent source of income which allows them to make decisions about their lives that simply weren’t possible a few decades ago. On the downside women also assume the most financial risk because of reduced earning power or lost benefits.
As a therapist I always hope solutions to couple problems can be found and the relationship restored before the roots are dead. But I’m also realistic enough to know that sometimes the wisest decision is to call it quits. The determination to live a meaningful life is strong for baby boomers. In an AARP study, 3 out of 4 divorcing boomers said they made the right decision.
“It’s better to look back on life and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that’ than to look back and say, ‘I wish I’d done that.”
I have a close friend who ended her 40 year marriage a few years ago. She explained it by saying, “I thought about how many years I might have left and decided I did not want to spend them the way we’d been living. I knew things wouldn’t change so I opted out.” Of course it was a big adjustment but now she says she has no regrets. She’s like a bird out of a cage traveling and having adventures—it’s hard to keep up with her—and I can see she’s happier than she has been in a long time. All those years she spent attending to her husband’s needs and ignoring her own are over. Enjoy, amiga. It’s your turn.