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."
The reality is 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 Her job skills may be several years out of date.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 long term 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?