What is ‘gray divorce’?


Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce announcement 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?

Even though overall divorce rates in the US have fallen since the 1980s, the divorce rate among people over 50 has risen to historic levels. Over the past two decades, the rate has doubled. Now, one in four divorces is a “gray divorce.”

Marriage in an empty nest

There has been a generational shift in the way people in their 50s and 60s think about their relationships. With the stigma of divorce diminishing over time, couples no longer feel compelled to put up with a bad marriage. With a longer life expectancy, there is a feeling that there is a lot to do and time is passing quickly.

Couples have often already achieved career or parenting goals. Prolonged disconnection in marriage can be just one of many catalysts for the couple to leave.

Couples whose children have gone to college sometimes feel adrift. The 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 23-year-old wife, talked in a session about trying to reconnect with each other. They were “mom and dad” for the past 20 years. Raising their two children had been their only common focus. That empty nest has many possibilities, but it can be a lonely place for many couples.

A new chance for independence

Another factor driving the rise in divorces later in life is the greater 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 No longer tied to a spouse for financial security, women are considering their next 20 or 30 years and weighing an outdated marriage with what could be an exciting new chapter. “I stopped trying to get Luis * to take a vacation 15 years ago. It just didn’t make sense. He was just arguing with me, ”my client Chloe * told me. “Now that I am retired, I want to pursue my dream of traveling. Now we are so far apart that I don’t even want him to join me. “Chloe and Luis are an example of a type of couple that was observed in Dr. Gottman’s research, the divorce relationship at a later stage, in which it did not there is a lot of conflict, but there is little positivity between the partners.

Three tips for staying together

If you are in a long-term relationship, here are some research-based suggestions on 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 spend some time together having fun. This is twofold for parents. They need to spend time together without the children. This keeps your relationship in the foreground so you don’t become a victim of parenthood. It also keeps you in touch with how you and your partner are changing over time.
  • Address differences in a timely manner to avoid generating resentment. Research shows that conflict is normal and expected in any relationship. The quality that separates happy relationships from unhappy ones is the ability to repair themselves quickly.
  • Focus on how you would like the relationship to be in the future. Share the hopes and dreams of what each of you wants to achieve, separately and together. Creating a shared sense of meaning that evolves over time and throughout the life cycle is another hallmark of a thriving relationship.

Final thought

For many couples, the decision to divorce after years of being together is absolutely the right decision. No longer bound by obligations, expectations or finances, unhappy partners can find a new opportunity in life by being apart. For couples who are reassessing their long-term relationship and who want to stay together but see the need for minor adjustments or major revisions, keep in mind that your relationship is constantly evolving as you are. As partners, you can intentionally create and change that relationship in small ways every day.

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