Late-life divorce: baby boomers start another trend

October 28, 2013
boomer divorce

They were the couple least likely to survive. People who knew them 20 or 30 years ago witnessed the fireworks in their marriage, the separation, the shaky reconciliation. They’d made it through the perilous 1970s only to have come asunder in a more conservative era. But here they were strolling along the beach together at sunset, the perfect couple: “You won’t believe it,” she said when I saw them recently. “It’s our 40th anniversary next month.”

It’s quite an achievement. But other couples who’d seemed so stable in comparison are now coming apart. Last week, the former NSW premier Nick Greiner and his wife Kathryn, announced their 43-year marriage was over. They’re joining the growing numbers of people in their 50s and 60s who are opting out of marriage. These brave souls are for the most part setting up as singles just when their married friends are mellowing into grey nomads or taking beachside strolls at 6 pm, a time we called the arsenic hour when the children were young.

Over the past two decades, the divorce rate among baby boomers in Australia has surged even as it has fallen for younger age groups. The Australian Institute of Family Studies demographer Lixia Qu has analysed divorce data for me from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the HILDA survey and this is what she found.

There’s been a doubling in the proportion of men aged 50-64 who are divorced (from 7 per cent in 1991 to 14 per cent in 2011); and for women of the same age the 125 per cent increase is even more dramatic (from 8 per cent to 18 per cent). You’re still more likely to get divorced when you’re younger. But a significant cultural shift has been underway that’s made divorce more common and acceptable at an older age. At the same time, a higher proportion of divorces is taking place after 20 years of marriage. More couples are waiting till their children finish high school before calling it quits.

You don’t need a degree in sociology to understand the forces behind this trend. Today’s 55 or 60-year-olds typically feel like youngsters; staying the course in a dead-end marriage can mean an unacceptable 20 or 30 years more of emotional numbness. Women are much more likely than in the past to have financial independence, and backed by a posse of female friends, the courage to strike out alone. As well, divorce has lost its stigma through seeing friends and relatives split up at earlier stages. By 2010 one-quarter of the men born in the baby boomer years (1946-1964) had experienced a divorce and 30 per cent of women, Lixia said. But why do some people wait so long?

The late-life splitters I know foundered in earlier years and sought counselling. But they hung in there: hoping for change, because their spouses were good people, because life was full and busy, because breaking up is hard to do and the consequences difficult. It’s also easy these days for a couple to live parallel lives yet to manage a household like civilized business partners. And they stayed for the sake of the children. We raised them in the era when divorce’s effect on children was a weekly news story (I wrote some myself); and the effect never seemed good.

“When I meet people in their 50s and 60s I’m more surprised to hear they haven’t been divorced than to hear they’re splitting up,” psychologist Anne Hollonds told me. “How have they survived all those life changes – is it luck, a genetic pre-disposition to stability; how is it neither party has been restless?” Anne said even though the rot may have set in decades earlier, sometimes it’s not until the children are grown that reality hits. Staring across the dinner table a couple may realise “they’ve nothing left.”

An affair can also be a trigger but mostly at this age it’s men, not women, who leave for another partner, Lyn Fletcher, director of operations for Relationships Australia NSW, told me. “Women are voting with their feet, choosing to leave without another relationship to go to.” And when the women bail out, some men are left in shock. “The wives say it hasn’t been working for ten years. The guys didn’t see the problem….” Sometimes the men weren’t listening, or the women’s co-operative behaviour supported the men in their deafness.

It’s an enormous leap into the unknown yet I’ve known several couples where both partners are happier apart than together. Freed from the pretence and coldness, the men and women feel lighter, more authentic. Some find new partners, again men more often than women, demographer Lixia Qu said. For others, a later-life split-up can be emotionally devastating, or leave one or both partners impoverished and facing a lonely old age. The ending is not always happy.

In between the splitters and the love-birds are the ambivalent couples stuck in marriages that are too good to leave, too bad to stay. They’re bound by shared history and finances, and feelings of loyalty. But they’ve drifted apart, lack a sex life and shared interests. What hope for them?

It depends, says Lyn Fletcher. Some resolve to leave and come to counselling merely to seek “a witness to the death of their relationship.” But for other couples with enough good will and openness to change, the possibility of strolling in the sunset, holding hands, is not out of the question.

What’s your experience of long-term marriage or later-life separation? Please add your Comment.

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