Divorce goes grey

Ending a marriage later in life is no longer a social disgrace as divorce rates rise for those people 50- or even 60-plus. Here’s why some long-married couples call it quits.

When 65-year-old Margaret Lewis used to imagine her senior years, she saw herself outside a pretty bungalow shared with her husband, tending peonies in a big straw hat while her grandchildren frolicked in the garden. Instead, she lives in an apartment, all alone but for a dog. When she’s outside, she’s not clipping garden flowers but strolling along the nearby southern Ontario lakeshore and reflecting on her future.

A year ago, Lewis walked out on her 35-year marriage and turned her life on its ear.“We always think that when you get to a certain age, you have it all together, and you just live out the rest of your life,” says Lewis (not her real name). “Sometimes, I frighten myself because something inside me has changed.”

Lewis’s decision to leave her marriage later in life might be considered a bold move, even a scandalous one, by generations before her. But society’s increasing tolerance of separation and divorce is one reason why men and women her age are much more likely to end a bad marriage than they used to be.

The fact is the divorce rate among couples over the age of 50 has been steadily rising in the last 10 or so years. Divorce in other age groups fell or went up only slightly in the same time period. Pauline Lake, a counsellor who works with separated and divorced people in St. John’s, N.L., says over half the people in the divorce and separation groups she leads are now over 50. And most of them, she says, have come from long-term marriages.

Why are these men and women waiting so long to pull the plug on their marriages? After all, they’re about to enter their golden years. That around-the-world dream cruise is within reach at last. The kids are grown and gone, and retirement is just around the corner.

That is actually a big reason why these couples decide to call it quits, says Barbara Mitchell, a sociologist at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University. “The children have grown up and left home, so there’s less incentive to stay together for their sake.” Couples may finally feel they are free to do something about marital problems that have been brewing for years.

That’s essentially what happened in Lewis’s marriage. “We drifted terribly apart,” she says. “Our value systems changed, our expectations in a relationship. Suddenly, after we were all alone, it was like a light came on. Hey, we don’t have anything.” These differences can be exacerbated if husbands have spent years in the workforce while wives raised the children and developed their own personal interests.

The division hasn’t always happened over decades, however: In this age group, some of these breakups are second marriages, which tend to have a higher divorce rate than first-time unions.

With the slackening of social stigma in our society, many older people no longer consider divorce to be such a disgrace. And declining religious values may mean there’s also less faith-based pressure to stay in a miserable marriage. The result: a new surge in what’s being called “grey divorce.”