Why Gray Divorce Is on the Rise in the U.S.

E.B. Johnson

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Has your decades-long relationship suddenly come to a screeching halt? What is known as “gray divorce” in couples over 50 is on the rise. Since 1990, these divorce rates have doubled in the U.S. And now? Researchers expect the number of later-life divorces to triple by the year 2030. What has caused this dramatic rift in relationships that have withstood the pressure of collapsed economies and child raising? There are a lot of different reasons, and they all link back to new perceptions of self and the shifting expectations of a society in transformation.

Why late-stage divorce is becoming more common.

We are a in a place of flux, both as people and as a society. Things are changing, and we are changing with them. That includes our relationships and the way we relate to one another. Our partnerships are breaking down. High atop that pile are the marriages of those who have been together for decades. Those who should ride into their golden years together are opting for divorces instead. Why? It all comes down to changes in self, changes in society, and changes in the way we perceive our need for happiness.

Recognizing happiness

It’s no secret that we are changing as a society and a species. There’s a higher value on personal happiness than there once was. On a greater plane, we understand that we have an individual right to happiness that’s defined by our own needs and wishes. People are waking up and realizing they aren’t living a life that makes them happy. And that’s a problem. No matter what stage of life they may find themselves in, people are taking brave action to get the lives they’ve always wanted for themselves. It comes at a cost, though.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty Nest Syndrome (or ENS) is an actual thing and it can send ripples and shock-waves through our relationships that are hard to overcome. Partners find themselves standing alone in a deserted wasteland, facing people they don’t know (and no longer understanding themselves either). When you and your partner are feeling the effects of an empty nest, it can cause disappointed expectations and confusing misunderstandings that push you apart.

Loss of trustworthiness

Oh, yes. Cheating in the golden years of a relationship is more common than you think. You can put in decades of commitment with someone, only to find out they were never really committed in the same way. It happens. In these instances, a gray divorce is often not long to follow. What’s not to understand? Putting that much faith in someone is a lot of energy. Discovering that they were willing to betray that is devastating across the board.

Becoming a burden

Our relationships are not immune to stress, no matter how much you love someone. This is especially true of financial stress, mental and emotional stress, etc. Some of these situations are caused by circumstances beyond our control, but they can also be created by abusive partners, poor decisions, and ill-fitting relationships that have made it further than they should have. All of this stacks up to create a pressure and collapse that puts us on a path to a late-stage divorce.

Longer life expectancy

We are living longer than ever, and with that longer life expectancy comes more choices. Think about it. There are a lot of people who get themselves to a place of stability, only to find they have decades of smooth sailing ahead with someone who doesn’t fit their needs. Rather than settling for 30–40 more years of complications and upset, they opt for an investment in themselves or their dreams. Again, though, this comes at a cost and with a lot of upsets, not only to partners, but to adult children as well.

Changing social standards

As society shifts, so do the standards that govern it. In some respects, we are becoming more open and more progressive. Gray divorce falls into that margin. It’s more acceptable to divorce and start over than it ever has been before. In part, this is tied to an increased need for personal autonomy and self-defined happiness. On some other planes, it’s tied to the partial advancements of gender equality in intimate relationships and marriage.

Total lack of fulfillment

Like all other divorces, a lot of the later divorces we’re not seeing are centered on a lack of satisfaction and fulfillment. Wanting to be happy, partners go their separate ways (by hook or by crook) because they want to find someone that they truly connect with. It’s understandable. Whether you have a long time left on this planet, or a little time left on this planet, you want to spend it with people who understand you and support you in the ways which you value.

Increased personal autonomy

There is more individual autonomy now in our relationships than ever before. Partners are more equal and financially independent. In your standard heterosexual relationships, women are now free to work outside of the home and earn incomes that even exceed their partner’s. This gives them the power to choose their futures, include the futures they build for themselves in the over-50’s bracket. Women of every age are finding their power.

Damaged connections

Our relationships change over time. That’s just the natural scheme of things. There are natural shifts that we just can’t change. We grow apart and then we come back together. But sometimes that “coming back together” doesn’t happen. In some instances, these shifts take us in very different directions, and the drifts are permanent. That’s the way life happens. The people we start off with are not always the people we finish the race with. And that’s okay (even though it can hurt a heck of a lot).

How to approach your late-stage divorce.

Are you the victim of an unexpected gray divorce? Losing hold of your relationship when we are over the age of 50 is scary and uncertain. You’re entering a world you don’t quite understand anymore, but that’s okay. It can still be the right decision, and the best decision. Before you leap, make sure you have crystal clarity on what you want and then confront your realistic options and the trickiness of the situation at hand.

1. Process before you act (or react)

Has the moment come to face your divorce? Before you launch into action or respond to your partner’s heartbreaking desire, you need to get crystal clear on what’s going. You need to be up-close and personal with your emotions. When you’ve had some time to work through those, then you need to consider how you want to respond. From there, you can form a plan of action and avoid a lot of major pitfalls and emotional detonations.

Get crystal clear on what you’re doing before you act — or even react to your partner. There’s a lot of processing that needs to go into our journey through a gray divorce. Cradle yourself emotionally. Slowly, research and take your time. Make sure you’re looking at your relationship from all angles. Make sure you know what you want and what direction you plan on going in the aftermath.

This is an important strategy to employ when you’re confronting your partner and working through the myriad of emotions and complications that are inevitable. If you find yourselves in heated moments, or serious conversations, give yourselves time to process before you react. Walk away before things get too heated. Don’t take things to a petty place. Keep it civil by keeping it clear with yourself. Leave the situation in which it gets hot, take a deep breath, consider how you feel in this moment (and what may be a better way to feel). Come back to the table only when you can communicate yourself civilly and effectively.

2. Be realistic about your options

While it may be romantic to imagine yourself riding off into a Julia-Roberts-does-Tuscany sunset, that’s not the case for most who find themselves in unexpected divorces. At any stage, these are complicated uncoupling that bring up complicated emotions. This becomes even more true when you’ve spent decades together working as a team. As you move into this next phase of your life, you need to be honest about what that will look like and what the process of getting there will look like as well.

Once the decision is made, confront your realistic options. There’s no point in thinking what comes next is going to roll like a romantic comedy. It’s not. People are going to be really hurt by these decisions. Your financial situation may change. Certainly your living situation and even your friendships are going to change.

Be honest about what comes next. What are you going to do in terms of money? Saving and spending? How about your retirement? Do you have enough set aside to start over in a new home? Will that leave you with enough to look after yourself and any other loved ones you may be responsible for? There is a lot to consider, and you need to have several plans (and backup plans) ready before you take action. Confront your realistic options and address them for what they truly are. If you need to save, save. If you need to get a financial advisor — don’t hesitate.

3. Invest in serious help

If you weren’t the one who started the divorce, then odds are you are completely devastated by this recent change of life. You have a right to be. Even if you don’t have a right to stop your partner (or change their decisions) you have a right to be hurt by them. That hurt takes time to process, but it also takes know-how. You don’t have to do it alone. This is the stage in your journey where you need to reach out for help. You don’t have to suffer alone.

Don’t avoid getting some serious help. Not everyone is on the winning side of a gray divorce. And even when you are — it’s still one of the most challenging experiences you’ll ever go through. There are a lot of memories to be sorted through, and on top of that, you have decades of shared financial and material investments.

Get yourself a counselor, a therapist, a coach. Make sure you get legal help that is familiar with gray divorce and the intricacies that are involved. Enlist the helped of friends, family, and loved ones to get yourself setup for success. There’s no shame in reaching out and admitting that you need help. You do. This is a journey that is going to ask a lot from you mentally and emotionally. Even when you are the one starting the divorce, there’s a lot to be considered and a lot that has to be let go of. That’s a major obstacle. Treat it like one and give yourself the help you need to grieve and move on.

Putting it all together…

Divorce is on a steep incline in the over-50 bracket. More people than ever are choosing to go their separate ways in their golden years, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Outside of the societal shifts in expectations and standards, we are learning (more and more) the power of being happy on our own terms. Rather than settling for partnerships that don’t give us what we need, we’re forging paths of our own. But that comes with complications of its own and can be a lot to process.

Before you leap in any direction, make sure you take some time getting crystal clear about your needs. Care for yourself. Don’t rush. Take the time you need to figure things out on your own terms. Confront the realistic options that you have in front of you. Pursue those paths to self-actualization that you know will be most effective for you. You can rebuild at any age. You can find love and surround yourself with love. Get help and invest in someone who can show you the light again. When you’re feeling more stable, focus on building a firm foundation for this new life that you have. The climb back to stability won’t be easy. Surround yourself with people who love you and want the best for you, so you can remember that you still have so much left to give.

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Writer. Host. Certified coach. Host of the Practical Growth Pod. Master Practitioner NLP. Get all my books and resources at the link below.

Pelham, AL

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