Silver Divorces by Martha Pitman
Divorces for couples over 60 years old (now known as Gray or Silver Divorces), have dramatically increased in the last two decades in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK , and one can assume that Bermuda is not immune to the trend.
Sociologist Dr. Susan Brown, author of the research paper “The Gray Divorce Revolution”, states that baby boomers (those currently between 55 and 75 years old), who make up the bulk of late-life divorces, entered marriage with very different expectations than previous generations. In the 1970’s, for the first time, there was a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy. She notes that over the past century, there have been three phases of our views of marriage. Before WWII, there was the “institutional” phase, when marriage was primarily seen as an economic union. In the 1950s and 60s, there was the “companionate” phase, in which a successful marriage was defined by the degree to which each spouse could fulfill his or her role. Husbands were measured by their success as providers, and wives were measured by their success as mothers and homemakers. (How many women can remember ads in women’s magazines recommending products and extolling the virtues of having the shiniest kitchen floors?). In the 1970s, baby boomers initiated the “individualized” phase, with the emphasis on the satisfaction of personal needs.
Another major factor in silver divorces is our longer expected life span. Longer lives no longer equates to longer marriages. In the past, many people didn’t live long enough to reach the “40- year itch”. Not that long ago, it was not uncommon for a husband to die before, or not many years following, retirement, and a wife to live for several decades alone as a widow. Not only are people living longer, but they’re also living in better health and with more opportunities. When the children are no longer dependents, and couples are facing retirement, they may be looking at the prospect of living another 20 or 30 years. Not only have couples had a different expectation of marriage, but their expectations of the future have changed also.
It is not uncommon nowadays to see people engaged in high activity sports, such as skiing and cycling, in their 70s and 80s. When my father had his first heart attack when he was 55 (55 years ago), he was told to take it very easy- not exert himself, and only use the stairs twice a day. There was no coronary bypass surgery available, and he died from his third heart attack at the age of 60. Now, with coronary bypass being a common and safe procedure, and patients being advised to keep active, they can expect to live long and active lives.
Divorce no longer holds the stigma it once did. With longer and healthy lives to look forward to, some spouses decide that they can’t, for whatever reason, face the future with the status quo. If they are unhappy, feel that their situation is not going to improve, and believe that they have the resources to cope, they may decide that their best recourse is to end their marriage. Marriages may not be horrible, but are no longer satisfying or loving. Adequate no longer suffices. According to psychologist John Gottman, author of “What Predicts Divorce”, the behavioral precursors to late-life divorce, are no different from those of younger couples – criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. And the longer this behavior has persisted, the more deeply it becomes ingrained in the couple’s dynamic.
One of the biggest reasons for the increase in late-life divorces is the changing status of women. According to a 2004 study by AARP, 60% of divorces are initiated by women. Men may be unhappy also, but don’t want to “rock the boat”. Women tend to have higher expectations for their emotional life, and will take the decisive first step. Women have become more liberated and empowered, compared to previous generations. Women of the baby boomer generation moved into the workplace in record numbers; many developing professional careers – becoming more confident and financially secure. However, for many, the traditional roles remained rigid at home, and women often found they were still carrying the weight of child-care and domestic chores. After years of taking care of family and home-life, they are looking for less of a care-taking role, and want to reclaim aspects of themselves that they sublimated for the benefit of family well-being and stability.
During retirement, cracks in the marriage may deepen into crevices. Leading parallel lives or burying their issues may be tolerated in a couple’s younger years, because there is so much focus on earning money, career development, and raising a family. However, being together 24/7 during retirement creates an entirely different reality, and a need to adjust to the new challenges. As we know, the one constant in life is change, and as marriages exist over time, they change.
In good marriages, spouses respect and care for each other, and are willing and able to adapt as circumstances change. In retirement, people become more aware of the passage of time and their own mortality. If a marriage becomes (or continues to be) unhappy or unfulfilling, then a spouse may decide that time is running out and he/she needs to leave the marriage in order to lead a more authentic or happy life.
By Martha Pitman
MARTHA PITMAN – Olderhood Consultant Counsellor
Martha was a counsellor, and then the Executive Director of the Employee Assistance Programme of Bermuda (EAP Bermuda) for fifteen years, which provided counselling services for employees and families of member companies and their families. She retired nine years ago, but has recently opened a limited practice as a counsellor/therapist under the umbrella of Solstice, which is a holistic wellness centre in Hamilton providing a wide range of psychological and other evidence-based therapies.