Hilary Stephens was 57 when she decided she had had enough—enough of her job, of caretaking, of her marriage of 28 years. So she did something many people fantasize about: She walked away from it all.
“Sometimes it’s the only solution,” said Stephens, now 58 and the mother of two adult children. She moved from Washington to the Philadelphia area, where she is now vice president for development at Woods Services, a nonprofit.
Late life divorce (also called “silver” or “gray” divorce)is becoming more common, and more acceptable. In 2014,people age 50 and above were twice as likely to go through a divorce than in 1990, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. For those over 65, the increase was even higher.
At the same time, divorce rates have plateaued or dropped among other age groups.
One explanation is that many older people are in second marriages; the divorce rate is about 2 1/2 times larger for those who have remarried and are often grappling with blended families or greater financial challenges.
Life expectancy also plays a role. In the past, “people died earlier,” said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the love, sex and relationship ambassador for AARP. “Now, let’s say you’re 50 or 60. You could go 30 more years. A lot of marriages are not horrible, but they’re no longer satisfying or loving.They may not be ugly, but you say, ‘Do I really want 30 more years of this?'”
Besides realizing that “adequate” does not suffice,separation no longer holds the stigma it once did. Just look at Al and Tipper Gore, who split in 2010 after 40 years of marriage and four children (they have yet to make it official). Or Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and his wife,Dianne, who filed for divorce in August, one month after their 50th wedding anniversary.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the increase in late-life divorce is the changing status of women, who initiate about 60 percent of divorces after age 40, according to AARP. This does not mean that the men aren’t disenchanted too. It just means that women actually take the decisive step.
“I think men don’t want to rock the boat, and they’ll put up with a not ideal situation,” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, 54,whose marriage dissolved five years ago and who runs 20-first, a gender consulting firm in London. ” Part of the shift is that now women have been liberated, empowered,moved around, know how to get what they want. They are increasingly breaking up the relationships to find someone else or to be on their own.”
Schwartz agrees. “Women have higher expectations for their emotional life,” she said. Schwartz, 70, has personal insight into the issue: She and her husband divorced 15 years ago. They had been married for 23 years, she said, but “the marriage had run out of juice.”
Schwartz added that she and her former husband were still friends and often celebrated holidays together when their two children were younger. She is currently engaged to her boyfriend of nine years.
By the time most couples enter their mid- to late-50s,children usually have their own lives, and it becomes painfully clear that their parents don’t need to stay together “for the kids.” Not that adult children don’t want their families to remain intact. They usually do, experts say, no matter how old they are, unless the relationship is exceedingly hostile or volatile. But many “happy enough”people feel that their children no longer get to dictate the terms of their relationship.
Many women also feel they should be good role models for their children. “What you are really showing your kids is whether to live for love or for fear,” said Wittenberg-Cox,who remarried in the spring. “Will you stay because you love what you have or because you fear the unknown? In the end, I chose love. I hope they will, too.”
Beyond the emotional toll, personal economics factor in,both in keeping people in unhappy unions and in inspiring them to check out. Women still earn less than men. Because they also tend to live longer, they face greater economic risk on their own.
“After retirement, male spouses are around 24/7, the cracks in the relationship deepen into crevasses, and the emotional distance becomes more apparent,” said Julie Schwartz Gottman, a clinical psychologist at the Gottman Institute in Seattle. “As women gain financial independence, they feel safe leaving an unhappy union.”