Expert Q&A: Getting Divorced Later in Life
Q: Even though I'm glad I split from my husband after 35 years of marriage, how do I handle the loneliness?
A: At first, Violet felt relieved and confident when, at the age of 52, she ended her long-term marriage. She had had enough of his cheating, lying and insensitivity. She lost weight, changed her hair, and took life by storm. "But then the loneliness set in," she said. "I didn't doubt my decision to leave Frank, but I didn't expect to feel so, well, alone in the world."
It's tough to end it with any intimate partner, but calling it quits on a long-term, unhappy marriage intensifies issues of loneliness, money, and relations with your adult children. Yet, more and more people from the Boomer Generation are having Gray Divorces—later in life split ups.
In March 2012, the Wall St. Journal had a lead article in their Review section highlighting some of the statistics, reasons, and problems of getting divorced after the age of 50. Let's look at some of the facts and causes first, and then I'll discuss what I've learned from my clients' struggles, triumphs, solutions, and missteps of breaking up later in life.
Facing the Facts
According to Bowling Green University sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin's research paper, "The Gray Divorce Revolution," the divorce rate for people over 50 has doubled since 1990. Findings from the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistics Report and the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey found that 1 out of 10 of all people divorced in 1990 were over the age of 50. By 2009, 1 in 4 people over the age of 50 were divorced. Even though the overall divorce rate is down now due to the poor economy, over 600,000 people over the age of fifty decided to divorce.
Understanding the Reasons
Guess who usually initiates the divorce—and why? If you said that women file for divorce and that one of the top reasons is cheating, then you're pretty smart! The AARP's 2004 national survey found that 66 percent of the women of divorced couples between ages 40 and 69 said they were the ones to initiate divorce proceedings. Not surprisingly, 27 percent of the divorced said one of the top reasons for the break up was infidelity.
But cheating is not the only cause of late-in-life divorce. For one thing, advances in science and medicine have created generations of people who are living longer. I remember how "old" my mother seemed when she was in her late forties. Unhappily married couples are taking a long view of their lives and saying to themselves: "I have at least ten good years left—and I don't want to spend them with my current partner."
Yet, longevity doesn't quite capture the heart of the feelings and beliefs of Boomers. This generation—mine—transformed the expectations of marriage more than any generation previously. In the past, people married out of economic security and society's cultural norms. Yes, falling in love was important, but the so-called "Me Generation" of Boomers—not my attitude—focused on the notion of finding "The One," "Mr. Right," or "My Soul Mate." They expected that marriage to be a major pathway for happiness and personal fulfillment and growth.
Once married, many Boomers realized contentment wasn't so automatic. They struggled to balance the concept of "Me, You, and Us" in the relationship. This concept seems so self-evident today that we forget that the "Me" part was relatively weak before the late 1960's.
The dashed hopes of marital expectations, combined with longer, healthier lives and empty-enough nests, increased the divorce rate. Many of my clients, for example, said that they "were waiting for the dog to die and the kids to leave" before calling it quits. But how happy are all these older, newly divorced? AARP's study revealed that 56 percent of divorced people between the ages 49 and 79 rated their satisfaction as 8 to 10, with 10 being high. Sounds good at first—but that's still just a little more than half. So, what's the downside?
Discovering the Fall Out
Loneliness. The AARP study found that loneliness was one of the top drawbacks to being single again. Good friendships are hard to make in general, but getting older can impede forming new ones. After all, you and your spouse shared the same friends, and your social life often revolved around other couples. Dividing up or sharing them can often be awkward.
Family changes. Divorced alters the parents' relationships with their children, including adult children. The Wall St. Journal article mentions a University of North Florida study that found that fathers reduced their contact with the children. And even though parents do fall in love and remarry, the children of divorce often harbor negative reactions to the new stepparent. One of my clients Chloe is close in age to her new husband's daughter. "My stepdaughter doesn't know what to do about me," Chloe said. "My maturity level is well beyond my stepdaughter's. She sees me as an act she can't follow."
Economic changes. Most studies show a decline in women's economic status. "Getting the house" in the divorce is not necessarily the boon to women that it once was. Women are inheriting debt and drop in the home's worth. Having an adult child move back home due to the economic downturn might sound appealing at first, but an unemployed person does not add to the income. Perhaps having a warm body in the house can cut back on loneliness, but it might also add financial and emotional burdens. For one thing, that joyous privacy you wanted just might fly out the window.
And just to rub a little salt in the break-up wound, remarriage for older women is still lower than in men
Before you decide to call it quits, you have lots of homework to do.
Wise decisions. Ask yourself: Have I really tried to address the unhappiness? Have we received counseling? Have I really changed and improved my way of communicating? Many marital studies show that criticism, stonewalling, blaming, and denying are kisses of death to love. I was taught in life not to volunteer to close a door. Don't leave unless you know it is truly the right-enough-thing to do for all people in the family. My clients who did not regret their decision really did some serious self-examination.
Children's reactions. Learn about the potential impact the divorce will have on your children. What problems can you predict and what will you do about them? Hundreds of my clients felt blindsided by the negative reactions of their adult children. Younger children misbehaved in school. Older children tried drugs or let their grades slip. Adult children even refused to accept the new spouse. Sit down with your children to discuss the changes and keep the communication on-going, no matter how unpleasant.
Economic plans. Make sure you understand and prepare for the economic impact of divorce. How will you pay for your expenses? Do you have to sell the house? Does someone have to go back to work? Just how long will your money last? Many of my female clients, for example, were dismayed at having to go back to work at a time when they thought life would be easier.
Social connections. Since loneliness is one of the top fall-outs of divorce, how will you manage it? My older, happy post-divorce clients worked hard to reinvent their lives. They returned to school, took up hobbies, started new careers, volunteered at charities, and traveled. Those who were most successful discovered three crucial factors: finding passion about something, forming new and reinforcing existing friendships and family connections, and facing their own demons and doubts.
Ultimately, you are in charge of—and responsible for—your own happiness. Life is short, unpredictable, and scary—but it is also beautiful and filled with adventure, hope and joy. Just make sure you are prepared and have done your homework so that you minimize regret.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie—a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. You can follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
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