The Gray Divorce
By: Denise Tamir
Is it just me – or does anyone else feel like everyone they know is either divorced, in the process of divorcing, or contemplating divorce? Now empty nesters, my husband and I scratch our heads in dismay as we watch couples we have known for decades decide they have little in common once their children leave home. Instead of looking for ways to reconnect and find new common interests to replace the parental responsibilities that have all but disappeared, they decide they would prefer to chart the next phase of their lives solo. It has become our new sad guessing game at dinner: “guess who’s getting divorced?”
This trend isn’t limited to my circle of friends, or even South Florida. Sadly, the divorce rate among couples over 50 has skyrocketed from one in ten couples in 1990 to one in four today. Interestingly, two thirds of the time it is the wife asking for the “gray divorce.” Many sociologists are trying to explain why middle aged women are heading for the marriage exit and they have come up with several interesting hypothesis.
Though the fact that divorce has become more common and less of a stigma has some impact, that does not explain why the gray divorce rate is climbing while the general divorce rate is going down. One factor is the entrance of women into the workforce decades ago. As women became more financially independent, they felt less trapped in a marriage for financial reasons. Women can now support themselves and chose to do so when they are unhappy in the marriage. Another factor is that people are living longer. When a woman realizes she is unhappy at . . .say 50, she contemplates three or more decades of unhappiness and often decides being alone is preferable.
Susan Brown, Co–Director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University and author of “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” also raises an important sociologic factor; a change in the way society views marriage as an institution. In the 1950s and 1960s, marriage was “role orientated.” As long as the spouses fulfilled their roles as provider or homemaker, the marriage was considered successful. Personal happiness was less important. Today, couples focus on fulfillment rather than roles and are more concerned with what they get out of the marriage than what they put in.
Another factor Brown points to is the complex marital histories of the spouses. Most people divorcing after 50 are in their second marriage and having been married before statistically doubles the risk that the second marriage will also end in divorce.
Whatever the cause of this increase, gray divorcing couples have very different issues to grapple with than their younger counterparts. First, they will be dividing their assets to support two household at a time when they should be planning for retirement. They are close to, or already in, the phase when they are no longer producing and acquiring assets, and must plan to support themselves from what they have acquired. Sustaining two households from a fixed income is often more difficult than the couple expects.
The disruption in family relationships is also different. Though gray divorcing couples usually do not have to redesign the day to day logistics of co-parenting minor children, the impact on adult children is no less profound. They must think in terms of co-grand parenting and attending family functions like children’s weddings harmoniously. Also, even though they usually do not have legal child support obligations, many older couples provide financial support to their adult children or grandchildren, which will be reevaluated now that they must sustain two households.
On the positive side, couples who divorce later in life are often more rational and less angry than their younger counterparts. They understand the value of time and money, and choose not to squander either on a protracted court battle. They are, therefore, more likely to seek methods that will preserve the good memories of the years they spent together with dignity, like mediation.
Though mediation may occur at any time during the divorce process, pre suit (before the lawsuit is filed) pro-se (without attorneys) mediation provides the greatest benefits. A neutral and impartial mediator facilitates a discussion between the husband and wife to help them identify the issues they need to resolve and help them decide for themselves how best to resolve them. In this way, the couples reaches their own agreement before the lawsuit is filed, rather than waiting for a judge to impose an agreement on them. At the final hearing, the judge incorporates the couple’s agreement into the final order of divorce in a process that takes several weeks instead of months or years.
Though most couples could benefit from pre-suit pro-se divorce, gray divorcing couples seem to be embracing this method in greater numbers. Perhaps because so many of them have already been through a litigated divorce, they, appreciate the benefits of mediation like saving time, money, and the relationship as well as privacy, creative problem solving, and self determination. This trend validates the old saying “older and wiser;” though divorcees may be older, they seem to be making wiser choices in how they choose to handle their divorce.