Elena had been trying to talk to her husband for five years about their unhappy relationship. Each time, he would tell her that the problem was only in her mind and that there was nothing wrong with their marriage. At 50, she decided to move out.
"My husband had flings while away on work - three days a week. I didn't want him to be in a position to say that he wasn't coming home. I wanted to take control of my life before it was too late", says Elena, who is one of the growing number of 50-plus Australian women initiating separation and divorce.
According to Ruth Weston, a research officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), "Our studies over the last 20 years have suggested that close to 60 per cent of all divorced respondents maintain that it was the wife who initiated the separation. Both male and female respondents most commonly indicate that the decision was mostly made by the female partner."
Interestingly, only seven per cent of women aged between 50 and 59 years divorced in 1985, but that figure jumped to 16 per cent in 2005. On the other hand, while 11 per cent of men aged between 50 and 59 years divorced in 1985, the number jumped to 20 per cent in 2005, according to AIFS.
Coming from a generation where marriage meant, "till death do us part", Elena had waited for years, hoping things would change. She says, "I couldn't trust him any more. He would bring me flowers and I would wonder how many bunches had he bought this week? I began suffering from depression, anxiety, insomnia and hated myself for spying on him. I felt I was becoming a lesser person."
Couples in their 50s and 60s are beginning to take a fresh look at what they want from life. With life expectancy at birth for Australian females at 83 years and males at 78.1 years, they no longer want to spend the next 20 to 30 years in a stressful relationship. This is a new trend even for marriage counsellors.
"Women at 50 are at a stage when they begin to question a lot about their lives, about their relationship with their husbands and their children. The feeling of the empty-nester sets in as the children are grown up and don't need their constant care and nurturing. Physical changes like menopause are sometimes a contributing factor. They begin to question the very basis of how successful their marriage has been and whether they feel fulfilled," says Lyn Fletcher, New South Wales Director of Operations for Relationships, Australia.
"One of the impetuses for change is they feel less than satisfied. There is something inherently missing from their marriage. They don't seek solace in an affair or seek companionship outside of their marriage. Loyalty, fidelity, continuity and commitment are values they hold dear. They are leaving not because the grass is greener on the other side, but [because] it is a deliberate choice," adds Fletcher.
On re-partnering, a Relationships Australia research suggests men, having already raised a family, feared taking on more financial obligations; while women were concerned about having to look after somebody again.
Moving out is not easy. "I struggled with the emotional stress of dealing with him and keeping my employment. Being in public relations, keeping the personal life separate from professional was very difficult. I had a job, but it was never a career; so financially, it was a challenge," says Elena.
The economic fallout of divorce depends on the financial situation at the time of the divorce. Women are better off if they had good jobs, investments, property and the children have moved out. Older women experience post-divorce economic disadvantage in cases where they are living alone or are sole parents.
Today, women have more opportunities and career paths compared to some decades ago when they didn't have the financial independence to leave difficult and abusive marriages. Jane, 62, worked part-time, juggling between children, home and work. She longed for a partner, who would be supportive of her dreams and desires. "I longed to be more creative, but my husband's utter dependence on me was holding me back. He needed constant looking after and was like a child who would never grow up," she says.
When a woman leaves the marital home, men are often left in a state of shock. They have been so focused on their careers that they haven't seen the signs of their marriage breaking up. On the other hand, women have been thinking about it for a long time and hence are more prepared for the break-up.
After 28 years of marriage, when her children had grown up, Jane moved out and has trained to be an artist. The Australian government is encouraging women without family commitment to gain work skills. The rate of participation of women in the labour force increased from about 47 per cent to 57 per cent in the last 20 years. More women are participating in the workforce during their peak childbearing years (aged between 25 and 34 years). Over the past 20 years, their participation rate has risen from around 59 per cent to 72.5 per cent.
Fletcher says, "Some things are specific about the nature of long-term relationships - there is no spark. It also reflects the throw-away society we live in, where we don't repair things anymore." She feels the media also has a role to play by portraying an unrealistic expectation of marriage whereby every desire and need is met.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of divorcing couples in 2004, 16 per cent were married less than 5 years, 25 per cent between 5 and 9 years and 59 per cent were married for 10 years or more. Around 16 per cent of divorces occurred to couples that had been married for 25 years or more.
Irrespective of the number of years, separation is always traumatic. Even adult children react strongly to their parents splitting. It can add anxiety and uncertainty to their lives. Elena says, "Keeping my daughters oblivious of my husband's affairs was most difficult. I didn't want their relationship with the father to change."
While most men take marriage for granted, women acknowledge that making marriage work is hard work. After 20 years of marriage, Kate, 56, questioned what kept them together. She voiced her thoughts to her husband, who wasn't receptive in the beginning, but then agreed to accompany her to a marriage counsellor. "Now when there is a crisis or change, we talk about it and move through these changes together. I have taken further training in nursing and full employment after all these years. I have got a fresh marriage and best of both worlds."
Similarly, Elena feels being on her own has made her an emotionally strong person. "I derive my strength from the many women friends I have. Together, we have fun and enjoy creative pursuits. I am also friends with my ex-husband."