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The Gray Divorce: Calling It Quits After Decades of Matrimony

How to avoid it — or how to make the most of it.

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animation of couple splitting apart, divorce
Guillem Casasús
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Imagine you are Melinda Gates, Paulina Porizkova or MacKenzie Bezos. A confident, empowered celebrity over 50, long settled in an outwardly happy, multi-decade marriage to one of the world’s most admired men. Your life is full of limitless choices.

Given the option to choose anything, what’s the first thing on your list? Surprisingly — or perhaps not — these women, and many others with far fewer resources, chose what’s becoming known as a “gray divorce.”

The numbers speak for themselves. Divorce rates in the United States are declining — except for people over 50. Twenty years ago 1 in 10 splitting spouses were over 50. Today it’s 1 in 4.

Midlife or “gray” divorce is skyrocketing. According to an AARP Magazine study, 66 percent of post-50 divorces — which have doubled overall since 1990 — are initiated by women.

However, for anyone, at any income level, the decision to divorce in midlife is more complex than the numbers show. It’s also more preventable. Here’s how to avoid a gray divorce or to make the most of it.

Timing is everything

It helps to anticipate the rockiest periods in any relationship arc. The data is clear that most gray divorces occur during two transitional phases: kids leaving home for good, and after retirement. In a way it’s logical. Children no long bind you together with the same intensity. A couple suddenly face a blank slate after years of a daily routine. Life experiences have changed both partners, sometimes dramatically. One may decide, quite rationally, “No, I do not want to spend the rest of my life with this person.”

Give me one good reason

Unlike divorce in your 20s, 30s or 40s, gray divorce is not usually precipitated by a crisis, such as infidelity, addiction or financial pressure. Kate Anthony — creator of the podcast The Divorce Survival Guide, the Facebook coaching group Should I Stay or Should I Go and an upcoming divorce advice book — explains why women initiate a split after 50. “Many women in long-term marriages have been unhappy for a long time,” she says. “Older women are fed up with, and exhausted by, putting everyone else first for decades. In our 20s, it was a romantic notion to spend the rest of our lives with one person. But after 50, it becomes an actual, literal reality: the rest of our f--king lives. Not surprisingly, many women over 50 choose to put themselves first, because now we can.”

Laura Stassi, creator and host of the WUNC-NPR podcast Dating While Gray, launched her second career at 53. She met her husband in sixth grade and married at 22, fulfilling the expectations of a Catholic upbringing in an extended family that had never experienced divorce.

“I was terrified,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anyone who was divorced. Who was I — how would I earn a living — without my husband?” Although Stassi fought the end of her marriage, she is now grateful for her “divorce wings,” which led to her broadcasting success.

Through the podcast, Stassi has seen unhappily married men take a different tack from women. “Men are socialized to provide economic stability and security,” Stassi explains. “This makes it harder for them to contemplate leaving a marriage.” Many have a narcissistic reason to stay: They believe that accumulated capital is primarily theirs and they don’t want to share it with an ex-wife. Instead of splitting assets and paying a lawyer, some married men develop what Stassi calls workarounds. They stay late at the office, have affairs, take up time-consuming hobbies like road biking, ice fishing or golf. These men don’t want to get divorced, but they also don’t want to participate in relationships with their wives.

What if you could avoid gray divorce?

Every expert I talked with offered similar advice for women: Invest in yourself — your education, your earning ability, your self-esteem. Analyze your life as a pie chart. Are you 50 percent mom, 30 percent work, 20 percent husband?

Usually, we women leave 0 percent for ourselves. Don’t succumb to the pressure to put yourself last. Be frank with your partner about your needs and your level of happiness in the relationship, from the beginning. Take good care of yourself, especially if no one else is! Men, as much as we love some of them, are not going to take care of us. It’s not smart or fair for women to assume they will.

Husbands have a role here, too. Many American men are encouraged to use relationships to stoke their egos. Too few are taught to nurture women. One study showed that a whopping 53 percent of women in midlife pursued divorce because of emotional or psychological neglect. It’s the unique partner who understands that women in long-term relationships want and need a deeper level of compassion, care and connection. So listen up, married men: Appreciate your wife and tell her what you love about her, work on your own issues, and shoot for greater intimacy with your partner.

If you go for it

“The emotional upheaval of divorce can’t be overestimated,” says Dorie Fain, the founder and CEO of &Wealth, a boutique financial advisory firm dedicated to helping women in midlife rebuild their lives.

In reality, with divorce, the guilt and fear come crashing down the first time you ruminate seriously about leaving your spouse. Sometimes the hardest step is to give yourself permission to imagine life on your own — without him. No matter what a good father he is. No matter how much your mother liked him. No matter how much you adored his laugh when you were 26 or 33 or 49. This is your life.

So, let me give you permission, right now, to let go of your failed marriage (or at least contemplate it). Even if you decide to stay, knowing you have the freedom to leave can make life feel more like a choice than a jail sentence.

Now back to practical advice from experts.

“In the midst of these intense emotions, it can be tempting to focus on ‘what’s fair’ in divorce. Forget about fairness,” Fain stresses. “The legal process cannot capture equity in the wake of marital disappointment, betrayal or broken hearts.” She advises women to focus instead on facts and forensic accounting. What are your assets? Debts? Financial priorities? What’s in the retirement account? How much is your house worth?

And speaking of houses, forget about keeping yours. Or at least, assess carefully how much it means to you. Maintaining a marital home can quickly drain your assets. Emotionally, it’s tough living in a museum to a past life, which is why it’s often better to make a completely fresh start.

Even Ivy League campuses and corporate America rarely encourage women to take charge of their happiness. In fact, we women are often taught it’s unfeminine to be bold, to compete, to dream about a future alone. This hurts us in divorce. Self-care means developing a network to cheerlead you through the often grim, grueling mediations, legal sessions and courtroom dramas. Surround yourself with positive, affirming resources. It’s critical to have friends and advisers who think that you and your future merit intense negotiations. Because they do.

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