‘Grey divorce’ on rise as older women refuse to stay in unhappy marriages

Kate Emery
The Nightly
‘Grey divorce’ is booming as older women unwilling to spend their golden years in an unhappy marriage leave their husbands in greater numbers than ever.
‘Grey divorce’ is booming as older women unwilling to spend their golden years in an unhappy marriage leave their husbands in greater numbers than ever. Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

“Grey divorce” is booming as older women unwilling to spend their “golden years” in an unhappy marriage leave their husbands in greater numbers than ever.

Changing expectations about what marriage should look like and a lack of stigma around divorce are helping fuel the trend, with one in three recent divorces in Australia now happening in couples over the age of 50. Of those, two-thirds are being initiated by women.

The findings were based on a survey of 1240 people commissioned by Australian Seniors for its Love After 50 report.

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Couples therapist and psychiatrist George Blair-West said the trend of older couples breaking up was “something new” and there were many factors at play, including empty nest syndrome, changing expectations for what a modern marriage should look like and a desire for independence.

Couples who married at a younger age were also statistically more likely to get divorced, he said.

“Another significant factor at play is, as couples get older they start to think more about the long-term future and you think, what are you going to do for the last stage of your life?” he said.

“If you realise that your partner doesn’t have your back and they’re not looking after themselves and, perhaps, you’re going to have to look after them, all of a sudden the future doesn’t look so rosy.”

Women in particular, he said, might have gone into the marriage at a time when their role was to look after the house, their husband and the children. That idea of marriage might no longer look so appealing to them, he said.

“If you think about when this cohort was getting married, even though women’s liberation was well underway, society was still very much about women being the childcare providers and home providers,” he said.

“They (women) are living in a world now that’s very much supportive of being a single, late-middle-aged woman and there’s never been a better time in history for them.”

Perth dating and relationship coach Debbie Rivers divorced after more than two decades of marriage.

“I didn’t leave because I wanted to be with someone else, I left because I wanted to live the life I’d always imagined that I would live,” she said.

Through her work now, Ms RIvers said, she often talked to men who felt their wife’s request for a divorce had come out of nowhere.

“A lot of the guys I speak to are absolutely blindsided that they have been left, even though the woman has said been saying, ‘I’m not happy’,” she said.

She said she believed another factor driving later-age divorce was that older people were more likely to see their later years as a time for travel than a time for “lawn bowls and crochet”.

Divorce rates are, in general, going down since the start of this century — a trend attributed in part to the fact that people are marrying later in life. Where once Sex & the City normalised and glamothe single life for women in their 30s, the series’ spin-off, And Just Like That, is now doing the same for women in their 50s.

The Love After 50 report found the primary factors leading to “grey divorce” were empty nest syndrome (48 per cent), financial strain (35 per cent), retirement adjustments (34 per cent) and changing needs and expectations around intimacy (32 per cent).

It found one in four seniors in a relationship had seriously considered the possibility of separation or divorce, and more than half had observed divorce among their peers

Of those who have been divorced, separated or widowed, three in five said it had a negative financial impact on them.

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