What is ‘Gray Divorce’?

When couples split after decades together


When couples split after decades together

When couples split after decades together

Gray Divorce

The divorce announcement by Bill and Melinda Gates took many people by surprise. From the outside, it seemed that the couple’s lives were very intertwined. Why do this now after 27 years of marriage?

Despite the fact that overall divorce rates in the U.S. dropped since the 1980s, the rate of divorce among people over 50 climbed to historic levels. Over the past two decades, the rate doubled. Now, one in four divorces is a “gray divorce.”

Marriage in an Empty Nest

There’s been a generational shift in the way that people in their 50s and 60s think about their relationships. With the stigma of divorce lessening over time, couples no longer feel bound to stick it out in a bad marriage. With longer life expectancy, there’s a sense that there’s a whole lot of living to be done and time goes by quickly.

Couples often accomplished career or parenting goals by now. Long-standing disconnection in the marriage can be just one of many catalysts for partners to leave.  

Couples whose kids have left for college will sometimes feel adrift. Routines, roles, and rituals that organized their lives for years come to an abrupt halt. “We don’t even know each other anymore,” my client Nate* told me, as he and Lily*, his wife of 23 years, talked in a session about trying to reconnect with each other. They were “Mom and Dad” for the last 20 years. Parenting their two kids had been their only common focus. That empty nest has lots of possibilities, but it can be a lonely place for many couples.

A New Chance at Independence

Another factor driving the increase in later-in-life divorcing is the increased financial independence of women. According to the AARP, two-thirds of these divorces in heterosexual marriages are initiated by women. No longer tied to a spouse for financial security, women are looking at their next 20 or 30 years and weighing a stale marriage against what could be an exciting new chapter. “I stopped trying to get Luis* to take vacations 15 years ago. There was just no point. He would just argue with me,” my client Chloe* told me. “Now that I’m retired,  I want to pursue my dream of traveling. We are now so far apart that I don’t even want him to join me.”  Chloe and Luis are an example of a couple type that was observed in Dr. Gottman’s research—the later-stage divorcing relationship—one in which there isn’t a lot of conflict, but there’s little positivity between the partners.

Three Tips for Staying Together

If you are in a long-term relationship, here are some research-based suggestions for how to create and maintain a vibrant relationship that thrives over the years:

  • Maintain a good friendship with your partner over time. Make sure you’re spending some time together having fun. This goes double for parents. You need time together without the kids. This keeps your relationship on the front burner so that it doesn’t become a casualty of parenting. It also keeps you in touch with how you and your partner are changing over time.
  • Address differences in a timely way to avoid building up resentment. Research shows that conflict is normal and to be expected in any relationship. The quality that separates happy from unhappy relationships is the ability to repair quickly.
  • Focus on how you’d like the relationship to be in the future. Share dreams and hopes for what you each want to accomplish, separately and together. Creating a sense of shared meaning that evolves over time and throughout the life cycle is another hallmark of a thriving relationship. 

Final Thought

For many couples, the choice to divorce after years of being together is absolutely the right choice to make. No longer bound by obligation, expectation, or finances, unhappy partners can find a new lease on life being apart. For couples re-evaluating their long-term relationship and who want to stay together but see the need for minor tune-ups or major overhauls, keep in mind that your relationship is constantly evolving just as you are. As partners, you can intentionally create and change that relationship in small ways every day.

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Sinead Smyth, LMFT is a Certified Gottman Therapist and Level 3 Trainer in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Her counseling practice, East Bay Relationship Center, has offices in Pleasanton and Alameda, CA, and works with couples, families, teens, and individuals. You can visit her website here.