June 5, 2012

Divorce and Boomers: The Trend Is Not Good

In the last twenty years, the divorce rate for those over 50 has doubled. For those who do separate, more than half have already done so once. After the kids leave couples are finding they have nothing to talk about and share no interests. Simmering unhappiness that was kept in check for years is finally expressed in ways that makes continuing the relationship impossible.


Interestingly, a study conducted by by AARP  seven years ago found that women were more often than not the ones who wanted out.....the reasons aren't definitive,  but some suggest they have been parents and caretakers of the household since the marriage began, and now they want to find out what else life holds. There is a strong desire to be independent. Spousal abuse, both physical and psychological, are always possibilities.

The behavioral problems that lead to empty nest divorce are no different from those for younger married couples—criticism without support , defensiveness instead of acceptance of blame or flaws, contempt for what the other individual does or is, and resentment for giving up "the best years of my life."

This tends to be a risky strategy since financially the average older women tends to end up  worse off than the man after a divorce. She was likely to have spent at least some of her married years as a stay-at-home parent, which affected her earnings, and therefore her Social Security payments. Her job skills may be several years out of date. But, continuing in an unhappy marriage is judged to be worse. 

Besides the emotional pain for the husband and wife and any children, this trend raises the odds of large numbers of older people living on their own just when their health needs start to increase. Without a partner they will be forced to turn to nursing facilities, home health care workers, and public programs. Singles are up to five times more likely to live in poverty, so the money won't be there for their care. The social circle of friends who could provide some support tends to splinter after a divorce.

Of course, there is a flip side to this situation. Continuing in a loveless or abusive marriage does nobody any longterm good. With a divorce comes the opportunity to discover new interests, make new friends, or find a new life partner who is in better sync with someone's needs. Long dormant skills can be explored. The separation may be the boost needed to go back to school to get a long-delayed degree or study a new skill. An idea for a new business can be pursued. Living somewhere else in a lifestyle that has always held attraction is now possible.

Regardless of these "benefits" of a late-in-life divorce, most of us would probably agree that dealing with the factors that trigger the desire to divorce  someone is preferable. The personal and societal costs make divorce, especially for those over 50, traumatic.

Betty and I will celebrate our 36th anniversary at the end of this month. There were a few periods when the pressures of my business and travel lifestyle put real strain on our union. But, our commitment to making the marriage work and our willingness to close down my business so we could change our lifestyle allowed us to pass those tests.

So, I cannot relate personally to this subject. But, two years of writing for this blog, answering comments, and responding to e-mails has given me a bit of an education. The problems begin well before retirement or the onset of an empty nest. Lack of communication about things that are important to both partners tops the list. Really listening the your spouse and his/her concerns and opinions probably shows up as number two. Allowing each person the time to be alone and follow separate interests is vital.

There are so many factors that can torpedo a marriage that it is impractical to list them all. if the marriage is doing serious harm to both partners, divorce may be the best choice. Society no longer judges a divorced person as a failure - it is just too common. But, if you both believe the union is worth trying to save, begin to strengthen your key relationship when the first signs of problems surface. In this case, time does not heal all wounds, it allows them to fester.

Divorce is a fact of life and increasingly so among those over 50. What we don't know yet is what the costs to society will be when millions of singles reach the age when extra care is required. If health care is already broken, what will happen then? 

Note: just as this post went live, I received a copy of the June edition of the AARP Bulletin. Starting on page 26 is an article dealing with this trend and how some folks are dealing with it.

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30 comments:

  1. I have been amazed at how many 20+ year marriages fall apart. You are right. Seven put of the eight that we know have been the woman's idea. I know several more 30+ marriages who are separated- no intention of divorce or getting back together. They are not seeking a new partner and do not see the need to pay a lawyer to live separate lives. Historically, it is not unusual for a wife to have an entirely separate life from the husband...but stay married.
    How you describe your marriage is far more rare than you might think.

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    1. Betty and I had a great role model: my parents were married for 63 years before mom died. Of our closest friends there are two couples within a few years of 50 years together. I realize these numbers are unusual in today's society but give us targets to aim for.

      Thanks, Janette.

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  2. Bob, I know you are talking about divorce here, but I need to say that about forty percent of retirees are single (many by choice, some through widowhood, some through divorce). Most of them end up okay. Losing a spouse (through divorce or widowhood) does not mean losing a support network. the individual still has family, friends, church. Admittedly there is often a lower income. But although my singleness was not by choice, it is possible to be happily single and retired. I should probably blog more about this. These numbers will rise as more and more people who are younger are choosing not to marry


    My other comment (not to pick on men, and Im sure a couple with have something to say about my comment) is this: I know wayyy too many men (intelligent, enlightened men who would think they are progressive and liberal) who have the attitude that you once mentioned in another post-they're the ones who worked, they're the ones who retire, and the other half can continue doing what she's been doing-only now it's under his supervisory eyes. Joking aside, it's kind of like when the family goes on a camping vacation. The boys go down to the fishin hole, and mom makes dinner and sets up camp.............

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    1. Being a retired single is an important topic. This will become increasingly common and affect society in many ways. As I note I can only report on this trend, I can't personally relate to it. You would be an excellent blogger to tackle this subject. As a widower you have an important perspective and insight you can provide to us all.

      As to your second point, yes I have blogged about that problem more than once. Though it could be either sex who respond this way, men typically make this "mistake." It is a serious problem in many households and I would guess responsible for some divorces or married and living separately arrangements.

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  3. Steve in Los AngelesWed Jun 06, 03:25:00 AM MST

    I have quite a bit to say about this matter. First, I did not get married so far. Second, I was engaged for a short period of time back in 1987. Third, I eventually realized that if I married the woman to whom I got engaged, then I probably would have made the biggest and worst mistake in my life. Even though she had a Bachelor's degree, she wanted to stay home, watch television, and talk with her mother on telephone during the day while I was plugging away at work. It is interesting what a person can learn about their future potential spouse just by listing to them. I was the person who broke the engagement.

    If I ever did get married, I doubt that I would be enjoying the "Satisfying Retirement" that I now am enjoying somewhat and that I will be enjoying a lot after I reach age 59 1/2 years. I will be age 59 1/2 years in less than three years and three months. One of the great things about living in Los Angeles is that life for single people, in my opinion, is very easy and that single people have a lot of social opportunities. Since I am financially well off, I will not risk my financial well being by getting married. Even prenuptial agreements are not foolproof. I have worked too hard to accomplish everything that I have accomplished. Contrary to what Barb said above, I do not want to be a supervisor. However, I would not want to be under a woman's "supervisory eyes."

    In addition to living for a long time, one reason I work hard to stay healthy is so that I limit my need for extra care as much as possible. Furthermore, I do have long-term care insurance.

    I do have one warning to other people, both women and men, with regard to long-term health. Do your best to stay healthy, because you may have to depend on yourself entirely and completely if you ever get ill, unless you have long-term care insurance. Unfortunately, long-term care insurance is expensive, unless you purchase the insurance at a relatively young age. I purchased my long-term care insurance policy back in 1998 at the age of 42 years.

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    1. Thanks, Steve, for your take on this subject. It is important to hear from folks in different situations, married, widowed, always single, or divorced.

      The impact of the shift away from marriage being the "norm" for the maqjority does have unintended consequences on society in so many ways.

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  4. I take my commitments seriously. As the Bible says I "make my yes mean yes". When I took my wedding vows so long ago I promised to be their for my spouse. Aside from severe physical or emotional abuse I plan to keep those vows, yes until death do us part.
    One thing that happens I believe in almost all marriages is that the definition of love changes over the lifespan of the marriage. Our early marriage had a strong erotic factor; not so much now that we are in our senior years. We didn't really know each other that well when we started but our mutual love for each other in that regard has grown deeply over the years.
    Sometimes we still get into some rather contentious "discussions" and words are thrown around. But we both quickly realize that we need each other now more than ever. We are committed to being there for each other now especially in sickness as well as health. Marriages mature over the years if we just stick to them :)

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    1. A perfect counterpoint to the previous comments, RJ. I can't think of anything to add, except thanks for sharing and I wish for you many more years together.

      BTW..please e-mail me RJ. I want to talk with you about being part of my new book but have no way to contact you!

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  5. One of the very best decisions I ever made was marrying my dear Joseph 44 years ago. He was and is my best friend and I love him more dearly as the years go by.

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    1. The key is "my best friend." Isn't that a necessary part of a long and happy marriage? Congrats, Florence.

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  6. Sometimes decisions are made for you. I had one foot out the door 12 years ago then Dave got cancer. God/the Universe, whatever you believe in, often work in very mysterious ways. It was a wake-up call for both of us and we're both grateful for it.
    b

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  7. What a powerful example of how certain twists of fate (or divine intervention!) can affect two lives. I know you have written about this on your blog. It is a moving story.

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  8. I think many couples grow apart because they have little in common except perhaps for their children. In the early part of our marriage (now on 33 years) I played tons of sports in a variety of competitive leagues. My wife did not and had no interest. We realized we needed to do something together and latched onto motorcycling. It could have been hiking, camping, whatever - it just so happened to be the Harleys. My point is that many couples need to find something or some things of interest to both of them that they can stay engaged on. Otherwise you continue to drift further and further apart, oftentimes resulting in divorce.

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    1. First, please contact me by e-mail, Chuck. I'd like to talk with you about being part of my upcoming book project: satisfyingretirement (at) gmail.com

      Shared interests are part of the glue that holds a relationship together. I couldn't agree more, Chuck. I read about couples that after the kids leave have nothing to talk about. It is very sad.

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    2. In addition to enjoying activities together, I would also recommend learning something new together. In our case, that was ballroom dancing. It provides us with challenge, structure, fun, and an unending number of things to talk about when we come home from a lesson or a social dance. There's something about the spark of learning something new that is a bit magical for our relationship. (30 years this June)

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    3. I can't let Betty see this comment. I've taken several sets of lessons because she likes to dance...and I am dangerous on the dance floor! Seriously, learning something new together is a great way to increase communication and bonding. Good idea.

      Another June couple..congrats Tamara and Mike! We hit 36 on the 26th.

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  9. Bob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful approach in presenting different sides of the decision to separate or stay together without judgement. We each make the decision that feel right for us, whether that is to stay in an unsatisfying relationship, work to create a coupling that satisfies our wants and needs, or choose to be on our own. It sounds like your readers are happy with their own choices, whatever they were, which is great.

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    1. This subject is not easy, but as you point out every couple and person needs to find the answer for themselves. I only caution to not take the easy way out, which sometimes divorce can be. But, if the relationship is truly broken, then status quo probably doesn't help anyone.

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  10. Divorce is devastating not only on the couple but on all those people around them. I would not wish it on any family ever.

    b

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    1. The ripple effect of divorce on all sorts of relationships and people can inflict damage for years to come. I don't believe it should ever be entered into without a serious effort and substantial time to resolve the problems because more than just two people are going their separate ways.

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  11. I married and divorced twice, both times when I was young and before I had children (adopted and foster). It was hard enough then, but I see friends now who have been married for years and have kids going through the heartbreak and upheaval of divorce. I'm the last person to comment on relationships and what makes them succeed or fail. I know it wasn't in the cards for me and I've made my peace with that.

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    1. Thanks for your open and honest assessment of your situation and what you see around you. Marriage is not right for everyone, though society sort of makes you feel that way.

      Things are changing though. Among the 20's & 30's up to a third are single and many plan on staying that way. The times are changing.

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  12. I diidn't think I could relate to this topic since we're still happily married at 61, having gotten married at 19. We delayed kids until 25, a big plus. But then how divorce affects us hit me...

    My wife's mother divorced her father probably in her late thirties. He was a lawyer who passed away five years ago. She went on to odd jobs, remarried and then divorced (and remarried the same man again and divorced him again...go figure!). To her credit she did support herself until 80, but then could no longer work her retail job of 30 hours a week because of back. At that point we took her in and it is a HUGE effect upon our retirement. Had she stayed married to wife's father her financial situation would likely have been vastly different. Best anyone can tell her original divorce decision was one of those "mid life" type crises.

    No, it wasn't a latter life divorce but now that we're retired (I do some part time) it puts a major crimp on being able to enjoy the resources we've accumulated. We would love to travel but bringing in outside help while we're gone is just too much cash out of pocket to make the travel enjoyable. Anyway, a different perspective on how divorce can affect one's retirement....

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    1. I am grateful you shared this side of divorce that is often overlooked-the direct financial and emotional effects on relatives. Your mother-in-law's situation has changed your life every bit as much as if you were the one without resources at this later stage of life.

      Thanks, Allan. This is an important discussion.

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  13. Lucky me, we were married at age 23 and are still going strong after 30 years. Our nest emptied 3 years ago and we have grown even closer since then. It's interesting that we don't necessarily enjoy the same activities, but we each enjoy making the other joyous so we each adjust. I reflect that we do have very similar core values, and that foundation seems like a great anchor for our marriage. Best regards.

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    1. The core values issue is so important to a healthy, long-lasting relationship. My wife and I are independent by nature and have a strong need for solo time. But, the core values that have kept us together for 36 years are the same. Good point, Rick.

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  14. Bob, Very eye opening and frightening in a way. A relationship takes time and attention and it seems as though many of us lose the art as time passes by. It seems this will have a major impact on a society that tends to be blind to the elderly.

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    1. What seems to happen is a couple settles for routine and predicibility. The time and attention you refer to just slip away. We get lazy.

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  15. I was in my 30s when I divorced, and raised two boys alone for ten years until I remarried. Wouldn't want to do it again. I think the "still married, separate lives" might actually work in some circumstances. Certainly the financial aspect of a later-in-life divorce sounds daunting.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I didn't realize you had gone through this process before. You and Art seem to have found a perfect match. The two of you couldn't travel the way you do or work on a book together without having developed a solid relationship.

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