I recently read an article discussing a current “phenomenon” of the Gray Divorce – a term used for couples divorcing in their later years. Although I can’t say I like the name for it, I was prompted to do my own research as to why older couples are now choosing divorce at a higher rate than in earlier years. Over the years there has been somewhat of a cultural shift when it comes to the traditional definition of marriage. The lines between acceptable and unacceptable have become blurred, including general views on divorce. In years past, there was a social stigma attached to divorce, and along with specific religious issues, divorce was not a viable option for many people. However, because a lot of those ideals have become more relaxed over the years, couples who might not have been able to divorce in the past can do so now. While cultural and religious changes can account for some divorces, there are other reasons to consider for older generations as well.
How much has the divorce rate gone up in recent years to even warrant the labeling of it as a “phenomenon?” In the past 10 years, the divorce rate among couples ages 55-64 has more than doubled. For those couples ages 65 and over, the increase has been about the same. In fact, according to a study done by Bowling Green State University, 1 out of every 4 couples going through divorce are couples aged 50 or older. Are social norms and religious beliefs the only culprits? The decision to get a divorce varies from couple to couple. For individuals in their later years, there are still many different reasons for divorce. A popular term when discussing older couples divorcing is a “light bulb moment.” This means that as we age, we sometimes evaluate our lives as a whole and there may be one milestone moment or event which causes an individual to decide that divorce is the choice. Whether it is retirement, the death of a close friend or family member, or even experiencing an empty nest, different events affect everyone in unique ways.
Although divorce is a sensitive and sometimes stressful process, there can be different considerations for older couples. For example, many older couples’ children (if they have children) are already adults, so items like custody and child support do not necessarily come into play. However, a divorce can still be emotionally difficult for adult children and considerable thought needs to be given to how the children will be told and how it will affect them. Whether in a written agreement or not, it may be important for the couple to have an open discussion on how holidays or other celebrations with the children will work. Another important consideration is the finances. Older individuals may find themselves in a very different mindset when it comes to the possibility of having to re-enter the workforce after retirement. It may not be nearly as easy to transition to a two-income household to a one-income situation. Items like health insurance and benefits may become more important for older individuals depending on the health of each spouse.
Aside from personal considerations, there are also some legal considerations which are more unique to an older couple. One legal aspect is how the process is handled. Many older couples who choose to divorce do not necessarily have hostilities and anger – they have been together for a long time and genuinely love and care for one another, so they hope to separate in the most peaceful and smooth way as possible. With this in mind, the couple may benefit from a collaborative divorce which allows experienced professionals to help navigate them through the process and make it a smoother transition and an equitable outcome. This can also be a valuable process because depending on the couple’s insurance or retirement benefits and how they have vested at that point, a professional can help both parties better understand how those items should be handled.
Divorce can be a difficult time no matter the age of the parties involved. However, this trend of older couples divorcing brings up some unique issues which other couples may not yet have experienced. Many couples that have been together for a long time do not want to fight when they end their marriage. Often they want to make sure that their spouse will be okay and that their children will continue to respect them and the decision to divorce.
The first steps are important because the process a couple chooses can make finding mutual solutions easier from a practical and emotional standpoint. Any couple considering divorce can benefit from an open discussion to better understand their options.