New Year’s resolutions for many middle-aged Americans look like this: Go to the gym, cut back calories, and get a divorce. With the holiday season over, many couples call it quits in January, which long has been dubbed Divorce Month.
But it isn’t younger couples who are most likely to untie the knot. Rather, it’s older generations who are driving a phenomenon known as “gray divorce.” The divorce rate for people aged 50 and older has doubled, with this part of the population making up a growing share of U.S. marital splits. By 2015, one in four people getting divorced was 50 or older, up from one in ten in 1990, according to sociologist Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
Many marriages unravel because people are seeking fulfillment in wedlock like never before. Baby boomers are focusing on what marriage is doing for them, not what they can do for their marriage. When gender roles were rigidly defined in the 1950s, it was enough for a man to be a good provider and a woman to be a good wife and mother. But now married couples want more in a mate, including a best friend, confidant, career adviser, sounding board, sidekick, and lover. Today, we want our spouse to “meet our needs for passion and intimacy and to facilitate our voyages of self-discovery and personal growth,” says Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel, author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. But that tends to be too much for one person.
Houston divorce lawyer Susan Myres, who reports an uptick in divorce inquires this January, says couples are quitting ‘if enough of their expectations are not met.” She chocks up growth in gray divorce to baby boomers being idealistic about having a soul mate, while communicating poorly about marital expectations. “We expect our loved ones to read our mind,” says Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
Greater longevity is boosting gray divorce rates. People who have made it to age 65 can expect to live another 20 years and can find “that’s a long time to spend with someone you’re not that into anymore,” Brown says. Americans are living longer because of a decline in cigarette smoking, a heightened ability to detect and treat medical problems like heart disease and cancer, and improved air and water quality. Today’s mid-life marriages are probably no less happy than they were 25 or 35 years ago, Brown says, but people expect to live longer and are counting on a second act.
Living together for years is tough if a couple hasn’t carved out enough time to nurture the relationship. But many modern-day marriages have been “kid-centric,” with couples leading their lives “wedding not to each other, but to the children,” says Marjorie Schulte, a Scottsdale, Arizona psychotherapist who has counseled couples for four decades. Marriages that revolve around the kids and leave little time for a spouse take a toll on marital bliss and put the kibosh on marital intimacy. “You then become second,” Schulte says. “And never in life should you be second.” Schulte says couples who fail build a solid connection and a strong foundation, discover the empty nest is a confrontation and a trauma and feel like strangers, “a huge wake-up call and very, very disconcerting.”
Both male and female empty nesters cite “growing apart” as one of the top reasons for untying the knot, says Jocelyn Crowley, a public policy professor at Rutgers and author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid- Life Splits. Both men and women mention adultery and the mental health of their partner as reasons for going separate ways, according to Crowley’s study of forty men and forty women, most of whom had kids older than age 18.
Each gender has its own hot-button issues. Men often initiate divorce because of money management clashes and “lingering resentment about the ways the children were raised,” Crowley says. Women who have weathered gray divorce cite their ex-husbands’ infidelity, addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, and emotional and verbal abuse. Crowley found women who knew their husbands were “serial cheaters looked the other way because they had kids.” But when the kids go, many feel there’s no reason to endure the discord.
Conflicts also arise when women in their 50s and 60s, who have taken the “mommy track” or cut back careers to raise kids, re-enter the workforce full-time. That can put them at odds with a husband who has sacrificed family time to make money and yearns to retire.
Lots of mid-life marriages break because one spouse has focused on child-rearing and the other on breadwinning, says Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Divorce Busting. These couples can gradually lose touch and “evolve into very different people than they were in their 20s, 30s and 40s,” she says. She recommends they put their marriage first. “If you don’t, there won’t be a marriage left,” she says.
Judy Holland has been a journalist for more than 30 years, including in the Washington Bureau of Hearst Newspapers as national editor and Capitol Hill correspondent, where she prepared stories for 600 newspapers over The New York Times wire. Her stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Tampa Tribune, and Washingtonian magazine. She was president of the Washington Press Club Foundation, a nonprofit celebrating female pioneers in journalism. She also was founder and editor-in-chief of Parentinsider.com, an online magazine for parents of teens, for which she wrote stories, edited columns, and co-produced videos. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband John Starr and their Great Dane, whom her three children, Lindsay, Maddie and Jack, left home to fill the empty nest.
HappiNest: Finding Fulfillment After Your Kids Leave Home is available February 15, 2020 via Amazon and other retail outlets.