The only age group in which divorce is on the rise is people over 50. Couples used to stick it out. Not anymore. Enough is enough.
BY ANNE KINGSTON AND PHOTOGRAPHER MACKENZIE STROH
Viagra has replaced Geritol as seniors' pick-me-up choice. “Sixty is the new of forty” (soon to be “the new thirty”). Gail Sheehy’s Sex and the Seasoned Woman instructs the post-menopausal to embrace “passionate second adulthoods.” So there should be little surprise that the latest marital trend is divorce among those over 50, dubbed “grey divorce,” a label itself awaiting a youthful makeover.
Twenty-seven-, 37-, even 47-year itches have long been popular among the rich: Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone divorced at age 79 after 55 years of marriage, investor and philanthropist George Soros divorced at age 74 after 21 years, Sir Anthony Hopkins called it quits at 64 after 29 years. All found new mates. Now the masses are following suit, according to the first book on the topic, Deirdre Bair’s Calling it Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over, to be published next week. (See the Maclean ’s Interview, page 14.)
In Canada, the only age group that is seeing a rise in divorce is people over 50. The overall divorce rate, which hovers at 38 per cent, declined 11 per cent between 1993 and 2003, the latest year for which statistics are available. Yet it rose 34 per cent for those 50 to 54, 47.8 per cent for those 55 to 59, 31.7 per cent for those 60 to 64, and 9.2 per cent for those 65 and older. This isn’t to say a “Happy Divorce, Grandma!” greeting card is imminent. Traditionally low rates of divorce among those over age 50 give any increases exaggerated buoyancy. It remains a statistical verity that the longer a couple stays together, the greater the odds that they will. But even in the absolute terms of “incidence of divorce per 1,000 population,” a drift to older divorce is evident for both men and women aged 50 to 65: rates inched up by a percentage or so between 1993 and 2003 in all age groups. That may seem minuscule, but demographic shifts tend to be glacial, says Leslie Geran, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada.
A similar pattern is evident internationally. U.S. census figures show the divorce rate among those over 65 has doubled since 1980; it grew to eight per cent in 2004 from 6.7 per cent in 2000. Manhattan lawyer Peter Bienstock has joked that his waiting room can resemble a “geriatics unit.” Bienstock says late-in-life divorce, which he defines as over 60, was rare when he started practising family law in 1989. Now it’s increasingly common, though it constitutes a small portion of his business. In 2005, he represented a 86-year-old man divorcing his wife of 35 years who was in her late 70s.
Britain’s Daily Mail has gushed that grey divorce is an “epidemic” in the U.K. In Italy, the number of people aged 55 or over asking for legal separation rose by 3.5 per cent and those seeking divorce increased by three per cent between 2000 and 2004. Even France, known for its don’t-ask-don’t-tell marital sangfroid, is witnessing an increase in divorce among older couples. No country has been more galvanized by late-life divorce, however, than Japan. The number of divorces among couples married for 20 years or more hit 42,000 in 2004, double those recorded in 1985. Divorces among those married for more than 30 years quadrupled during the same period. The phenomenon of jukunen rikon (“mature divorce”) has been linked to Japanese women’s frustration with their newly retired husbands, nicknamed “wet leaves” for their propensity to cling. The theme resounds in popular culture: Why Are Retired Husbands Such a Nuisance? is a bestseller, and the popular television drama Jukunen Rikon featured a woman who dumps her husband after he retires. The enactment of a law later this year allowing a Japanese woman to claim half of her husband’s retirement pension is expected to unleash a jukunen rikon deluge.
Grey divorce is so new a trend that there’s barely any research, says David Popenoe, cofounder and director of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project. The most extensive survey to date is “The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond,” published by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in May 2004, based on questionnaires given to 1,147 men and women aged 40 to 79. It grabbed headlines with its finding that 66 per cent of women instigated divorce, often blindsiding their husbands. Many spoke of reaching a breaking point, after which they could no longer endure alcohol and drug addiction, physical or emotional abuse or infidelity. Men who left were more likely to say they had met someone else or were looking for “greater meaning.” When describing their decision to divorce, both men and women used the words “freedom,” “identity” and a need for “fulfillment.” Three in four surveyed said they believed divorce was the right decision, despite experiencing fear beforehand and stress after.
Given the shifting attitudes toward both marriage and aging, a trend to grey divorce was inevitable. The academic Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History, has said matrimony changed more in the last three decades than it did in the preceding 3,000 years—from a dependent partnership based on the exchange of labour to an ostensibly equal union expected to provide personal fulfillment, a belief Toronto lawyer Stephen Grant calls “one of the greatest myths of the 20th century.” Over the second half of the century, marriage became the arena in which the value placed on individual freedom, on starting over, on the pursuit of happiness squared off against the ideals of commitment, building communities and stable families. Even within marriage, the desire for independence is evident in new configurations such as “living apart together,” as detailed in the upcoming Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing by four Pennsylvania State University sociology professors.
Divorce lawyer Bienstock speaks of the current focus on “self-identity” as a determinant in divorce: “More people are understanding that if the marriage is subsuming or suppressing their individuality they have to get out of it.” Most of this change applies to women, he says. “There are many more professional women who can be financially independent and who one day wake up and smell the coffee.” Deirdre Bair’s subjects spoke in similar terms. One woman who divorced after 29 years compared herself to Huckleberry Finn.
Marital trends such as the tendency to wed later and to delay child-raising figure in the grey-divorce phenomenon. What lawyers call the typical age-of-divorce “bell curve”—low in the 20s, rising in the 30s, peaking in the 40s then dropping—is being pushed back. The “empty-nest syndrome,” a common point of marital breakdown, is occurring at a later age. Family law practitioners used to tell the joke about an 85-year-old couple explaining their decision to divorce with, “We were waiting for the children to die.” Now that kids hang around for decades, the punchline is: “We were waiting for the children to leave.” “The marriage gets neglected in child-rearing years and there’s no way back,” says Toronto psychotherapist Cecile Fennell. Bair quotes a woman in New Zealand the day after her children left home: she looked at her husband and thought, “I don’t want to be here, I don’t need you, and I really don’t like you.”
As with all demographic trends, grey divorce is propelled by boomer entitlement: the first wave—for whom “workaholic” is praise—is turning 60 and facing retirement, prompting how-tos such as Mary Louise Floyd’s Retired with Husband: Superwoman’s New Challenge, The transition from hard work to less work often shakes up a marriage,” says Bienstock, noting looming retirement can trigger “a second mid-life crisis”: “We see it in the guy in his late 50s who is retiring and feels he hasn’t sowed his wild oats so he trades in for a younger model.” Incompatibilities are highlighted when a couple is thrown into 24-7 contact or one partner remains in the workforce. “It’s a huge issue for men who bank their identities on their careers,” says Fennel.
The marital dynamic has also been strained by the fact that people live longer, healthier lives.“Til death do us part” takes on new gravitas when female life expectancy in Canada is almost 83 years and men can expect to live to nearly 78. “I don’t think we’re intended biologically to live in such close proximity such a long time with one person,” says Grant. “It was fine when you married at 16 and were dead by 30.” Over decades, tolerances are strained as chronic diseases such as alcoholism become more pronounced. A Toronto woman says she and her siblings encouraged their 70-year-old mother to leave their father in 1989 after 40 years of marriage when deteriorating mental illness made him abusive. She did, and lived alone happily for 15 years before her death.
Later life is now seen as the “Third Age,” a term coined by Margaret Drabble in The Seven Sisters, a novel about a woman who redefines herself post-divorce. Framed in the vibrant imagery of a Freedom 55 or Cialis ad, it is idealized as a time of reinvention and sexual vigour. “Thirty years ago, the notion that people could be sexually active in their 60s wasn’t discussed,” says gerontologist John Cavanaugh, president of the University of West Florida and author of Adult Development and Aging. “The stereotype was that once women hit menopause that was that. Now people want to stay active sexually, and if that’s important then a meaningful relationship helps.”
Cavanaugh observes couples’ unwillingness to live out their final years imprisoned in stony indifference or mutual misery reflects an unwillingness to accept the reality of many long-term relationships. “In former days people would stick it out,” he says. “Now divorce is a more acceptable alternative.” Indeed, divorce is viewed as a new beginning, reflected in the fact that January, a month fuelled by New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, is also the peak month for initiating divorce. A woman in her late 50s who left a 24-year marriage repeats the mantra: “It’s better to be unmarried than in a bad relationship, no matter what age you are.”
What constitutes a “bad” marriage, however, is subjective. One in four respondents in the AARP survey said there were no major problems, they had simply fallen out of love or believed greater satisfactions beckoned. Bair talked to many who had fled comfortable marriages because they couldn’t “go on living the same old life in the same old rut with the same old boring person.” Yet divorce doesn’t always offer a panacea: almost 30 per cent in the AARP survey spoke of loneliness and depression; almost half expressed fear of being alone; 28 per cent of women feared financial destitution. And for all of the lip service given to late-life mojo, 38 per cent reported having no form of sexual contact, the vast majority being single women.
What late-life divorce statistics fail to reveal is whether the breakup occurs in a first or subsequent marriage, the latter being more vulnerable to breakdown. Thus it isn’t clear to what extent the uptick in post-50 divorce reflects the cumulative effect of the divorce revolution working its way through to the older population, just as the sexual revolution did. Children returning to the family home after their own divorces, for instance, can place stress on an already strained marriage. Pressures also arise when children and stepchildren from previous marriages create conflict over their share of the inheritance. “There’s always an interested next generation or next two or three generations intent on comparing the results in divorce to the results in death,” says Bienstock.
It remains to be seen whether On Golden Pond, that movie in which crotchety, devoted lifelong partners spend their last days together, will become a quaint period piece. Grant believes it will; at a family-law conference he attended in Chicago last year, it was posited three marriages will be the norm 50 years hence. “You’ll have a starter marriage. You’ll have a marriage to raise the children. You’ll have a third marriage for companionship,” says the thrice-married lawyer. Popenoe believes the more likely scenario will be a first marriage followed by multiple cohabitations. “As marriage goes out of fashion, the tendency is not to remarry but to live together,” he says, noting remarriage is often complicated by finances and children from previous marriages as couples get older. Bair, who herself divorced after 43 years, interviewed an elderly man who left a 51-year marriage and was about to embark on his third. He told her he was seeking “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thanks to the alchemy of late-life divorce which, as Bair writes optimistically, turns “the end of a dream and a certain kind of failure and loss into the beginning of a new and successful endeavour,” he can always hope.*
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