I’m sure you’ve read about the increased divorce rate among people post-50. One study by Bowling Green State University cited it at more than double what it was twenty years ago.
Last week, people across generations were shocked to learn that the 27 year-long marriage of Bill and Melinda Gates had come to an end. With the spotlight on these two over-55s, some expressed confusion at the decision: “Why even bother getting divorced at that point?” they quipped. “You’ve made it this far already, why not just stick it out?”
This mindset only has a place in the past.
Many people are realizing in their fifties or sixties that they potentially have several decades still ahead of them, which can lead them to reevaluate whether the marriage or partnership is everything they want it to be, whether they both really want to be together for all that time. Some people realize that they do not want to be married or even spend the rest of their lives with a single life partner. Sometimes starting a new chapter is necessary for a fulfilling life – and that may not be with someone you met in your 20s!
No matter how you look at it, the fact cannot be denied: millions of Baby Boomers are single.
CNN did an interesting segment on this trend of increased divorce rates. One Boomer divorcee, Margie White, commented that while she was married she thought one of them would get a second chance at love when the other died. Eventually, White realized how sad this thinking was and what it said about their relationship. Her “aha” was that they both deserved second chances.
Boomers aren’t willing to “settle” for less in love. I didn’t. Now, after over forty-five awesome years together with my true love, my second husband, we are ever more deeply in love with each other than when we first fell in love.
Reevaluating our past, present, and probable future love stories can be painful yet freeing, especially if we are open to recognizing that our relationships don’t have to fit the cultural narrative, that we can create our own love stories that look nothing like the fairy tales in which women are powerless to change their destiny.
Most divorces among older couples, as in younger ones, are initiated by women. It was Melinda Gates, in fact, who first initiated the separation in 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal.
This trend was corroborated in a 2004 national survey conducted by AARP. The numbers show that among divorces by people ages 40 to 69, women reported seeking the split 66 percent of the time.
Furthermore, the New York Times reported that, for the first time, more Americans 50 and older are divorced than are widowed, and the numbers continue to grow as Baby Boomers live longer. Sociologists call this group “gray divorcees.”
Most of the reasons for divorce among Baby Boomers are similar to those of people divorcing at any age, such as growing apart or one person falling in love—or just into bed—with someone else. For Boomers, additional factors come into play:
- After the kids leave home or after one or both people are home more often, couples often see their relationship in a new light, one that can reveal weaknesses or complete disintegration.
- Women are more financially independent than in the past, so they are not tied to a marriage for security.
- Boomers in general value independence and personal development, so it makes sense to many that they shouldn’t stay married if they are unhappy.
- With the combination of facing mortality, and the potential for a longer, healthier life ahead compared with past generations, people realize they don’t want to spend the time they have left with each other if the marriage is now no longer fulfilling.
In a Reuters article titled “Gray Divorces Rising as More Baby Boomers Opt to End Marriages,” one quote stood out from family lawyer, Lynne Gold-Bikin, who noted that a third person is often the catalyst for someone to end a relationship.
“They may need that push to get them out, what I call the springer. You need somebody to spring you from the marriage.” For some people, this “springer” was the third person in an affair, something that usually occurs long after the marriage has started to fall apart.
Giving ourselves permission to break commitments made in good faith before reaching this point could save a lot of pain and heartache. If more couples could end an unhappy marriage by reaching loving closure before reaching the point of finding someone else, both could move on without carrying the painful baggage with them. The would-be cheater avoids the spiral of collusion and betrayal. The person who would be cheated on is saved the hurt and deceit. Both avoid falling into the martyred victim role, giving up power over their life choices by blaming the other (for cheating, for driving the other away, etc.). All easier said than done, of course!
Unfortunately, the presence of a new love interest is a recurring theme in post-50 marital ruptures. This “springer” offers an excuse, an easy way out, for the spouse who is unable to tell the truth that the love is gone and who can’t admit the relationship is irretrievable. Unwilling to face the truth head on, denial and avoidance reign. Without a way to find closure, the new love interest becomes the only way out.
Feeling trapped is a recurring theme in life post-50 that goes beyond relationships to other domains as well:
- Feeling trapped in a job you no longer or never did love, just putting in your time until you can retire.
- Feeling trapped by the very idea of retirement when you want to keep working, leading, contributing, making a difference.
- The sandwich generation feeling trapped by the needs of their kids and their parents, wondering when they’ll have time to pursue their own visions.
- Feeling trapped in our bodies, which no longer look or work quite as they used to, and the fear of these changes accelerating down the road.
Sometimes we need another person to spring us from whatever it is that restricts our Agelessness. How many of us have knowingly stayed trapped because we have deer-in-the-headlights syndrome or we simply do not know which steps to take next?
A third party (or several people) can be our “springer” to empower us to leap into a new future. No need to go through this discovery and disengagement, sometimes dis-entanglement, process alone.
Be proactive and seek out a springer who will be the catalyst, support, and guidance needed, depending on the situation. For example:
- A mentor or coach to guide you to redefining your career or retirement.
- A caretaker with new ideas or simply hands-on support for sandwich situations.
- A women’s group to share your personal, visceral experiences as well as solutions for the trapped feeling (if not solutions for some of the changes in your body, particularly those related to health).
I do not think it is wise to wait around for this person to find you, however. If you know you are trapped, start reaching out. Even if you do not feel trapped, reaching out may open doors you didn’t even know existed and could provide the support and guidance you could need down the road. In the midst of a situation that seems to be all about breaking away and dividing, we can take away a valuable lesson about coming together by reaching out—and up.
If you decide to reach out for support and guidance, then do your due diligence so you find a professional who is a perfect match and has the experience and know-how to get you through your dark night of the Soul, illuminating the way so you can journey forward. If you know trusted sources who can provide a reference, ask for confidential support. Know that the answers and way forward are already within you. All that is needed as you begin your quest is a safe sacred vessel and a trusted veteran to light the way forward.
There are a variety of specialists that can guide you, such as an ICF Master Certified Coach, a licensed therapist, a mediator, an experienced career counselor-coach, your religious leader or spiritual guru… Whomever will be your anchor and wind beneath your wings until you can fly on your own again.
A cautionary note: Never, ever give up your power. Only work with a professional who will illuminate the way forward to bring your own inner knowing into the light of day.