While divorce rates have flattened for most age groups, there is one segment of the population where divorce rates are actually increasing – couples in long-term marriages.
A phenomenon known as gray divorce.
Certainly divorce is difficult no matter how long you’ve been married or how old you are. But if you’re divorcing after a long-term marriage, there’s a whole lot you need to know – and watch out for!
In this post you’ll learn:
- What is a gray divorce;
- How does your education level factor into whether or not you’ll divorce;
- The 8 most common gray divorce reasons;
- 3 reasons why divorce mediation is your best option for divorce later in life;
- And the 7 critical legal and financial gray divorce issues you need to be aware of.
Let’s get started.
What is a Gray Divorce?
When the term was first coined, it referred to men and women who divorced after 40 years or more. The assumption was that anyone married for that long must be an older adult “starting to gray,” hence the name.
But these days, it’s more commonly used to refer to the divorce wave among baby boomers, regardless of the length of their marriage or the color of their hair.
As a point of reference, most of our clients falling into this category have been married between 20 and 30 years.
Over the past 20 years, the divorce rate in the United States has actually declined. But for the over-50’s, the divorce rate has actually doubled.
In fact, of all of those who went through divorce in 2009, 1 in 4 individuals was age 50 or older according to a paper, “Gray Divorce: A Growing Risk Regardless of Class or Education” written by two sociologists at Bowling Green State University – Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin.
8 Grey Divorce Reasons:
In my experience, there are 8 reasons long-term couples typically choose to have a late life divorce and none have anything to do with being a baby boomer.
Reason #1: “We’ve Simply Grown Apart.”
Some couples can pinpoint the exact cause of the demise of the marriage. But in a grey divorce, there was no infidelity and no major blowout that led to the decision to get divorced. Instead, the spouses have simply grown apart over time.
The couple chooses to begin divorce proceedings when one of two things happens:
- They have adult children or their last child goes off to college (aka “empty nest syndrome.”)
You’ve spent the better part of your marriage raising kids and now you’ve found yourself without a child to focus on. Leaving only your spouse.
“Who is that stranger sitting across from me?” you wonder to yourself. And suddenly you find yourself uncomfortable being around “this person,” you no longer know.
When a couple is working and/or raising kids, they’re busy. Perhaps so busy that they don’t notice they are growing farther apart with each passing year. But now that one or both are in retirement, they have a lot more time on their hands and again, realize they no longer know their husband or wife. Of course, a lot of this can be eliminated if the couple participates in pre-retirement life planning.
If you and your spouse are seeking a gray divorce because you’ve grown apart, consider using divorce mediation.
Couples who fall into this category are low-conflict and are able to successfully work together to come to an agreement in a fair and cost-effective manner.
Reason #2: Age
We’ve all got one (or maybe more) of those friends who every time we ask them how they are, they launch into:
- How bad their feet hurt; or
- How they pulled their back out; or
- How their eyesight isn’t what it used to be.
I get it – aging stinks. But being around someone who acts old can make us feel old. So for some, when they see their husband or wife aging (or repeatedly hear them complaining and being negative), it can be an unwelcome reminder that they’re getting older, too.
So perhaps they think if they divorced their spouse for someone younger, it will reverse time for them as well.
In these cases, mediation can work, but it will depend in large part on the mindset of their husband/wife. Once again, retirement coaching can help here.
Mediation requires both parties to actively participate in gathering discovery, completing forms and worksheets (the “pre-work”) and working together to negotiate the terms of their agreement.
So if your spouse has an “old-fashioned” mindset, he/she may not be open to the modern concept of divorce mediation.
Reason #3: Self-Improvement
There’s a great line from the Bruce Springsteen song “Dancing in the Dark” that goes:
“I check my look in the mirror, I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face…”
After so many years of of looking, dressing or feeling the same way, some people want to make changes to the way they are living their life (lose weight, exercise, improve their appearance). But in order to do that, they need a spark lit under them to get them motivated to make their desired changes.
And that’s where interest in a new “special someone” comes into play. Sometimes people think meeting or pursuing someone new will make them try harder in life, lose weight, dress better, etc. and help them achieve the changes they seek.
Again in this case, mediation can work, but really depends on the emotional state of your current spouse. There may be a lot of hurt feelings and resentment because you’re leaving them for someone else.
And your spouse may not be in a “sit down together and work through the terms of the divorce as adults” frame of mind.
Reason #4: Money and Spending Habits
When couples are in their prime earning years, a lot of financial missteps can be overlooked. Because the money keeps flowing in, the bills somehow get “taken care of” and the overspending spouse is ignorant to the couple’s precarious financial situation.
But once the income stream stops and the couple is forced to live on a fixed income or whatever they’ve managed to save for retirement, it can be quite sobering. Differences in spending habits become abundantly clear. And may lead to one spouse wanting to get divorced.
Working together to prepare and review a series of budgets that show what your marital spending looked like and what your projected separate spending will look like post-divorce can be quite eye opening.
This approach is quite effective in helping the “spendthrift spouse” understand that things need to change, as in my experience, numbers don’t lie. And an added benefit is that mediation is far more cost-effective than a traditional attorney-driven divorce.
Reason #5: Sex
Just like differences in spending habits, differences in sex drives can also sink a marriage.
As spouses get older, their sexual appetites may differ, sometimes dramatically. Regardless of what you see on those commercials touting the latest ED drugs.
This can lead to frustration and ultimately the desire to divorce.
Divorce mediation can work in these situations, but only if your spouse is not so apathetic that they do not have the motivation to actively participate in the process.
Reason #6: Longer Life Expectancy
According to data compiled by the Social Security Administration as of 2016:
- A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3.
- A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.
- About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90.
- One out of 10 will live past age 95.
For couples seeking a grey divorce, it’s quite possible each spouse could live another 30, 40 even 50 years. So one thinks, “Why spend the time I have left on this earth miserable in an unhappy marriage?”
Once again leading them to want to divorce their wife or husband. Mediation will be a viable option, but only if their spouse is willing to actively participate in the process.
Reason #7: Undo Past Regrets
“Try to marry a nice boy,” your mother said.
“Find a good mother for your children,” your father said.
Being the good son or daughter, you did the “right” thing and married the person you were “supposed to.” And whom your mom and dad approved of. Thing is, they weren’t necessarily the person you wanted to marry. And now here you are, stuck in a long-term marriage, filled with regret as you reflect back on your life.
You’ve now decided after all these years that being unhappily married is no longer acceptable to you.
Many of our clients fall into this category and in these cases, it’s usually not a surprise that a divorce is coming as both spouses have been unhappy for a very long time.
By the time they decide to divorce, the fighting has subsided and they’re both in the camp of simply wanting to move forward separately with their lives. That’s why mediation is ideal for situations like this.
8. Active vs. Passive Lifestyles
“He just wants to sit on the couch and watch TV, but I want to go on cruises, get dressed up and dance!”
“She just wants to sit home all day doing crossword puzzles, but I want to go on vacation and see all those places we talked about going to but never did!”
When one of you wants an active retirement and one if you refers to it as “re-tired-ment,” you’ve got a real problem. Because one of you wants to get out there and live it up, and the other has no interest.
If this is your situation, there’s a 50-50 chance mediation will work for you.
Half of the time, the passive party simply wants nothing to do with the divorce. And places the burden of getting a divorce on the active spouse. And since mediation requires two parties to actively participate, if this is your situation, mediation won’t likely be a viable option for you.
But, there are passive spouses who fall into the “whatever you want” camp and will go along and work with you. So if this is your situation, don’t rule out mediation for your no-fault divorce just yet.
So when determining an amount of alimony in a long-term marriage, the total compensation a spouse receives needs to be taken into account.
Not just their base salary.
You may have heard that when spouses in long-term marriages divorce, one party can collect Social Security off of the other party’s earnings.
So now you’re in negotiations on alimony. And you’re the one set to receive it. So you figure since you’ll be getting $X amount per month in Social Security, you agree to take a lower alimony amount. Only to find out after your divorce is final, you don’t qualify to receive benefits from your ex-spouse’s earnings.
And now you’re out of luck and so are your finances.