Gloria S (name changed), 66, a well-heeled matron in New York City, appears to have it all: financial security, adult children doing well, a career, and a successful husband. Why, then, is she seeking a divorce?
The answer to that question is not entirely clear, but the phenomenon of late-life divorce is documented and growing. "Grey divorce," as it's called, is on the rise in America. According to the US Human Resources Services Administration, Americans over the age of 55 are divorcing in higher numbers than ever before.
During the 1980s, when the trend first became apparent, marriages of 30 years or more showed a sharp increase in the divorce rate. While divorce among couples married for less than 30 years rose by 1.4 per cent, there was a 16 per cent increase in divorce among those married for more than 30 years.
The trend continued in the '90s. And, the number of Americans (aged 65 and older) who separated or divorced in 2001 rose to 10 per cent from seven per cent in 1999.
Some divorce lawyers and marriage counselors believe that living longer, healthier lives has made both women and men seek a quality of life that they thought could no longer be theirs in "old age". Older adults now seek satisfying and fulfilling lives that can include libidos boosted by drugs. Women may feel freer to initiate divorce now that they have more economic independence than they once did.
Deborah Lans, a lawyer in New York City, says that a recent client of hers, married 50 years, had simply "had enough". Lans says that the majority of her clients are looking to the future and they see many healthy and productive years left after retirement or when their children are grown. "They often say, 'I don't want to live like this anymore'. Sometimes there's another person involved, but mostly the separation is amiable." Most clients, she says, tell her that their spouse is a decent person and that they still love and respect their former partner. They aren't looking for a huge fight; they just want out.
In New York state, women can now leave their marriage without the same fear of poverty that once gripped them because as Lans says, the courts there have "adequately taken care of women in divorce proceedings". She points out that "women are now initiating divorce in cities like New York because they are no longer confined to alimony payments. They now have a share in property rights which leaves them with more assets post-divorce."
A recent, nation-wide study undertaken by the American Association of Retired Persons suggests that women seek divorce in higher numbers than men do. The study found that among older couples (40 to 80 years), divorce was usually initiated by the wife. That makes it hard on the kids, Lans reports. One of her recent clients was a man of 70, whose wife left him. "The adult children were devastated," says Lans. "They wanted to know why it happened, and when the trouble started. It can be very hard on kids at any age."
In a New York Times report on late-life divorce (August 8, 2004), however, Dr William Doherty, a Minnesota marriage counselor noted that most of his older patients tend to be successful men in their 60s who want to get involved with younger women. Doherty told Times that "the culture of self-actualization has spread upward to older people." Men now take cooking classes, yoga, and Viagra, he says, and they divorce for what he calls "soft" reasons, offering "feeling unfulfilled" or being bored as a rationale for leaving their long-term mates.
Lorna Wendt understands the pain of such a parting. She founded the Equality in Marriage Institute in New York after an ugly public divorce in the late 1990s that left her without sufficient resources, from her point of view, after being a full-time wife, mother and manager of her home for 32 years. Overnight, she says, she went from "corporate wife" to "one of the most visible women in America and a pioneer in the quest for equality before, during and after marriage." Wendt was married to the chief executive of General Electric Capital. When he initiated an end to their marriage, he offered her 10 per cent of their assets.
But Wendt fought back. "It was never about the money," she says. "It was about someone implying that I was a 10 per cent participant in my partnership. In reality, I gave 100 per cent, putting my career on hold to raise children, manage the household, and support him in his business endeavors." Wendt's public feud with her husband put her in the spotlight nationally and she founded the Institute in 1998 to provide information, support, and resources to women, and men, "before, during and after marriage".
When asked what's driving the increase in grey divorce, she says, "People just want something different. And they're not willing to work out their relationship problems." Often one partner becomes bored or restless. That's why she often counsels women to "take part in the financial picture" during their married years. "If a woman instigates a divorce, she needs to be ready. Is she financially prepared? Mentally, can she take it? Does she have all her ducks in a row?"
Claudia Arp and her husband David hope that many older couples contemplating divorce will rethink their decision. "You don't have to get divorced, there are other options," says Arp, a social worker and co-founder with David, of Marriage Alive, an organization that gives marriage seminars internationally. "We try to help people re-invent their marriages," says the co-author of 'Ten Great Dates for Empty Nesters', a book she and her husband published in 2004. They have also written `The Second Half of Marriage' (1996), which has been translated into Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.
The Arps believe that there is a stage in lengthy marriages when "you don't know each other." It's a transitional time, they say, and those times are always risky in a relationship. "Old issues resurface and you wonder if you still have an emotional connectedness."
For those older adults who decide they don't have that connection any longer, the social stigma to divorce seems to be a thing of the past in American culture.