Late-Life Divorce

It might be more common than you think. Why some older couples are calling it quits after decades of marriage.

Back when Al and Tipper Gore announced they were separating after 40 years of marriage, the news came as a surprise to many. But some experts say this may be indicative of a growing trend: as life span increases — along with the acceptability of divorce — more older couples are saying, “Enough.”

While the divorce rate among long-married couples is not as high as for newlyweds or parents overwhelmed with raising children, it is becoming more commonplace for people to call it quits after investing 30 or 40 years or more in a relationship.

“Staying in exactly the right relationship to one another is a very hard thing to maintain every decade,” Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, told CNN. “People think you only get closer over time, but that’s not necessarily true.”

Schwartz, who is also a relationship expert for the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), believes that a longer life span may be one reason some long-married couples are deciding to divorce. While previously, many older couples sought to avoid the turmoil of such a disruption so late in life, a longer life expectancy — and with it, the hope of finding a new, more fulfilling relationship – may lead more people to choose divorce.

“Half a century ago, an unhappy couple in their mid-60s might have stayed together because they thought it wasn’t worth divorcing if they had only a few years left to live,” Schwartz writes in an article on the AARP website. “Now, 65-year-olds can easily envision at least 20 more active years — and they don’t want them to be loveless, or full of frustration or disappointment.”

The dissolution of a long-term marriage is often less of a sudden blow-up than a result of many years of decline. “It’s more like a balloon that has been seeping air for a long time,” Schwartz says. “After a while, it’s totally deflated.”

Divorce, once viewed as a social taboo, has over the years become more acceptable and easier to attain — which could be another reason why more long-term couples find themselves drifting toward divorce.

Women often the instigators

It may be that more women than men are making the decision to leave their marriages. An AARP survey of 1,147 people aged 40 to 79 — all of whom divorced between their forties and sixties — found that women initiated divorce more often than men.

The most common reasons cited for choosing to divorce include abuse (emotional and physical), a difference in values or lifestyle, and infidelity. When asked of their hopes for a better life after divorce, both men and women mentioned ‘freedom,’ ‘identity’ and a need for ‘fulfillment.’

And while many reported divorce to be an emotionally devastating experience (including bouts of depression and loneliness), three in four surveyed said they believed it was the right decision in the end, despite their feelings of fear beforehand and stress afterward. And many who said they left their marriages to find love or companionship were eventually able to find it, the survey found.

Not failure, but opportunity

In her book Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over, author Diedre Blair also explores some of the reasons why more older, long-married couples are electing for divorce. It is, she says, not just a North American phenomenon, but also a global one.

Blair’s research also indicates that more women than men are disenchanted with their marriages and are looking for more ‘freedom’ or ‘control’.

“In general, my findings supported the AARP survey in that the greater percentage of divorces among the long-married are initiated by women,” she writes. “Most of them stressed the positive and told me they were ‘pleased’, ‘satisfied,’ or ‘downright happy’ with their lives (after divorcing).”

Many of the men she spoke to, however, appeared to have been blindsided, further dispelling the myth that it is usually the woman who is left behind or traded in for a younger model. Both men and women, however, who wanted new companionship after divorce easily found it, Blair says, adding that she was surprised at the courage many showed as they left the supposed security of being married twenty to sixty plus years.

“To them, divorce meant not failure and shame, but opportunity,” she says.

Additional Sources: The Canadian Encyclopedia; Calling it Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over excerpt;

Photo © foodandwinephotography

Living apart together
Fewer Zoomers saying “I do”
Financial stress and sex