9 Min Read
- Why Gray Divorces Happen
- Common Regrets With A Late Life Divorce
- How To Prevent Gray Divorce
- What To Take Away
Are you familiar with the term “gray divorce”? What about “silver-splitters”? These terms are commonly used when referring to divorce that occurs later in life. And these so-called gray divorces are becoming more and more common.
If you’re of a certain age, even if you’ve just been married for several years, the information below will either be preventative or immediately relevant. Either way, being familiar with gray divorce and the often-experienced regrets that result can potentially save you a lot of heartache and trouble.
Just ask Jerry and Kay.
After 30+ years of marriage and raising a family, Jerry and Kay decided it was time to split. It didn’t come as a huge surprise to their adult children, they’d seen their parents growing apart for years.
But for Jerry and Kay, each at retirement age, becoming statistical members of the growing trend of gray divorces presented many challenges. They each finally began to wonder if divorcing was the right decision or if they may eventually have regrets stemming from their later-life divorce.
Gray divorce is a term generally used when referring to couples 50 and older splitting. Clearly a reference to the changing hair color common to this age group, the instances of divorce after long marriages have doubled over the last 20 years.
With so many people choosing not to grow old together, it makes one wonder,
- What happened?
- Why split after nearly a lifetime together?
- Are couples who make this choice really prepared to handle the regrets that are common after a gray divorce?
Why Gray Divorce Happens
It may seem counterintuitive to those in the early years of marriage. If you’ve been married for years and years why would you call it quits after making it this far?
There are several reasons that couples moving into the second half of their lives choose to make a change. If you're 50 or older and have had a long-lasting marriage, the reasons below (at least some of them) will undoubtedly be familiar, even if you’re not divorcing.
These are all common reasons given for divorces during midlife and older.
We all know that life can be complicated. Marriages go through ups and downs, and as time goes on the complexities and day-to-day can take their toll on partners and their connection to one another.
By the time you're headed toward your golden years it’s very possible for a relationship to be more than a bit worse for the wear. There are also certain factors common to this time of life that can exacerbate the weak spots exponentially.
In the case of Jerry and Kay, their road to divorce started long before they entered the gray zone.
As the kids schedules got busier and they needed to manage work, finances, and family life, they began operating more as business partners rather than married partners.
By the time the kids left home they felt like two strangers sharing a home.
Empty nesting can be a big factor in a gray divorce.
For many couples raising children provides purpose and a reason to maintain a relationship. Staying married in order to provide stability for the kids and keep the family together is a common goal for both partners. Once the children have grown and flown, however, that particular anchor dissolves.
Suddenly it can feel like there’s nothing to keep you together anymore.
This played a big role in Jerry and Kay’s decision to separate and divorce.
Dr. Kurt works with couples in the "gray zone" quite often. Many are trying to figure out what to do next and where to go with their relationship. When asked about couples divorcing after a long marriage he had this to say,
Many couples just don't realize how much their kids and all that comes along with parenting has been keeping their marriage together. Kids are often the only connecting point between partners and when they're gone the relationship just can't function. It's not just becoming empty nesters though. Retirement, serious illness, and even time with grandchildren can become things that divide partners and lead to a gray divorce. A guy I'm counseling just ended his 37-year marriage partly over having very different viewpoints about their grandchildren. All divorces come with doubts and second guessing - and this guy has them. However, with gray divorces the regrets can be even more significant."
Another factor was Kay’s sudden concern about her appearance and desire to look younger and have new experiences.
It’s very possible that, after years of taking care of others, Kay found herself facing a midlife crisis. She suddenly realized that she missed her youthful self and wanted to try new things. Now that the kids were gone her current life seemed boring and without purpose. She felt like she was wasting the time she had left.
Midlife crisis for both men and women is often an instigating factor for a gray divorce.
The transition from young adult to older adult and the many changes that occur during this time can create a lot of turmoil. Most people will weather the transition fairly well, but some will experience a midlife crisis that can result in anything from affairs to career changes to a gray divorce.
Jerry never had a physical affair, but he did develop an inappropriate closeness with a female co-worker.
She became the emotional support and sounding board that Kay no longer was. This relationship may not be “cheating” in the traditional sense, but it is a type of emotional affair.
The connection he should have with his wife was now with someone else. As a result, Jerry felt like he was no longer in love with Kay. He loved her, after all they’d spent years together and raised two amazing kids, but he didn’t feel “in love” anymore.
Falling Out Of Love
After years together many couples, and not just those in the gray zone, can feel like the love is gone.
What most people don’t realize is that staying in love doesn’t happen without work. When a relationship is neglected love will fade. It doesn’t have to mean that it disappears completely, it's actually possible to fall back in love with your husband or wife, but it takes work on both parts to bring the love back.
Jerry and Kay are typical of most couples that are going through a gray divorce. Without even realizing it they managed to check all the boxes for marital discontent. The big question is whether they will end up with gray divorce regrets.
Common Regrets With A Late Life Divorce
Those who divorce later in life may have spent years dreaming about it and the exciting positives that will come from being single.
They’d be free to,
- Date other people
- Have sex with someone new
- Go wherever they want
- Have no one to nag them
and the list goes on.
But the reality is that divorce is never fun or easy, and those positives lose their luster quickly.
In fact, many people who divorce, especially those who divorce late in life, will experience regrets.
Below are some of the things partners often don’t take into consideration when they're contemplating divorce:
- The significance of the life they built together.
After years of ups and downs, arguments, kids, crises, and all manner of other things, it can feel like splitting up would bring a fresh start. What people fail to realize is that all those things you experienced together have created a bond between the two of you and are the foundation of your life. They are significant.
Most of us can sympathize with wanting to shake things up and have something new, but throwing away the years and experiences that brought you to this point isn’t the way to do it.
- You'll suffer financially.
Divorce isn’t cheap, especially late life divorces. By this point in your life, you've probably accumulated things, hopefully socked way some money, have pensions or retirement funds, and are facing diminishing earning potential due to age. A divorce can decimate your financial reserves. Not only are there legal fees to consider, but dividing assets typically means you end up with half of what you had while married.
- Dating when older is difficult.
You may have images of fun and romantic dates, new people, and a more active sex life, but sadly that’s more fantasy than reality as you age.
Not that older people don’t meet and find love, it absolutely can happen, but it’s a much greater challenge than many realize. And the older we get the more baggage we carry, so new relationships are fraught with potential problems and often don’t last very long. Even when they do there are significant financial considerations here as well.
It’s just much more complicated than it was in your 20s.
- Your health can be affected.
Aging comes with changes to your health as it is. Add the stress of a late life divorce and you're looking at a variety of potential mental and physical problems.
Stress can put a strain on the immune system, your heart, and lead to depression for both men and women. In addition, married couples tend to be healthier in general partly because, like it or not, they take care of one another.
- You'll probably be lonely.
Gray divorce means a major change to the life you have led up to this point. Suddenly losing the person you’ve been with for years can create shocking loneliness that wasn’t anticipated.
Even if they annoyed you, frustrated you, and you felt like you wanted them gone, actually being alone day after day won’t feel good. Loneliness and isolation are also major contributors to depression, especially in older adults.
All these factors can result in gray divorce regrets. Typically the utopia that divorce seemed to offer never materializes. And these are the things that Jerry and Kay are now starting to consider.
How To Prevent Gray Divorce
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to prevent a gray divorce, just time and lots of effort.
As mentioned (and as most of us know), marriage isn’t easy. The best way to ensure you don’t find yourself facing a late life divorce is to take care of your relationship before you get to that point.
There will certainly be times when this doesn’t feel easy, but the time you spend caring for and cultivating your relationship with your spouse will be well worth it in the end.
- Being willing to change.
- Respecting the changes in your spouse.
- Making effort to have new, fun, and interesting experiences together.
- Not taking each other for granted.
Yep, it can feel like a tall order. But the happiest, healthiest, and longest lasting marriages all have these things in common.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Well, that’s it. It’s too late for us, we never thought about those things.”
It’s almost never too late to try and turn things around. If you're considering a gray divorce and worried that you may regret it, there's still hope.
This may require participating in marriage counseling, however.
Often, at this stage of life, the issues you face that make divorce seem like the only option are complicated and difficult to sort through. The help of a professional marriage counselor can be invaluable during this process.
Back to Jerry and Kay. As time went on they started to think perhaps a gray divorce isn’t the best next step.
Things are tough between them, and they each have personal issues that need attention, but the regrets that a gray divorce brings are far harder to face than the work it will take to fix things.
What To Take Away
A relationship that’s lasted for years is like a coin – it has two sides, heads and tails.
- You know each other well
- Your love is deeply rooted (even if you can’t see it at the moment)
- You have a family, share friends, and have other heavily intertwined aspects of your lives
- You take each other for granted
- It’s easy for boredom to set in
- It can feel like there’s nothing new to discover about each other
When the relationship was new the heads side was shiny, and the tails side hadn’t presented itself yet. By the time you’re in the gray years, heads is tarnished and tails can be all you see.
If you’re middle-aged and thinking about initiating divorce, understand the following:
- It won’t be easy.
- It will be expensive and costly to your financial future.
- It can negatively affect both your mental and physical health.
- It may seem devoid of emotion, but it won’t be. Tearing apart a life built together is painful.
- You'll almost certainly have regrets.
- You have options. There are steps you can take to see if you can bring the love back and enjoy your marriage again.
I can now happily tell you that Jerry and Kay have decided to go to counseling. They’re working on their communication and relearning how to appreciate each other. They’ve even taken up hiking and nature photography together, something they’ve each had an interest in trying.
If you're facing your golden years and considering ending your marriage, stop and seriously consider all that you have to lose versus what you have to gain. Chances are, if you polish your coin, much like Jerry and Kay, you'll find that gray divorce regrets aren’t worth it.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published August 12, 2020. It has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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