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The gray divorce

More couples splitting after 50, with boomer women likely to initiate split

Two years ago, Becky was a married woman on the verge of retirement. A year later, she did what previous generations of women her age would not have considered an option. At age 63, she divorced her husband.

Today, more than one in four people who divorce are 50 or older, according to a study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research. Becky, now 64 and living in Fort Wayne, never expected to be one of them.

“You can plan your life down to the smallest detail,” says Becky, who asked that her last name not be used. “But you can never predict how your life will change in a year.”

Only a year ago, Becky and her husband of 17 years were living in Florida, planning to retire to the Tampa Bay area. They loved the weather, she says. The couple’s circle of friends was growing and there was enough in the couple’s savings account to buy a small house back in Fort Wayne so they could visit family and friends a few times a year. It was a “dream come true,” she says.

“The two of us were going to stay in Florida forever,” she says. “This is exactly what we’d planned for and saved for. This was our dream.”

Then, on a Sunday morning last year, Becky noticed a voicemail notification on her husband’s cellphone.

Assuming she’d missed a call from a family friend, she picked up the phone and listened to the message. What she heard was the voice of a young woman calling Becky’s husband “sweetie.”

“I asked him, ‘Why is a woman calling you “sweetie” on a Sunday morning when everyone thinks you’re at church with your wife?’ ” she says. “But I was willing to forgive. I wanted to work on our marriage. I went to counseling, but he wanted no part of it.”

With no hope of reconciliation, Becky regretfully filed for divorce and prepared to move back to Fort Wayne.

“It felt like torture,” she says. “I cried constantly. I sat and drank coffee and cried. I lost 32 pounds. But there I was, still making his dinner for him every night. Old habits die hard.”

The National Center for Family and Marriage Research study also found that roughly half of the boomers who divorce are in short-term remarriages. This was true in Becky’s case and in many others, says Cindy Mullins, a director of local DivorceCare seminars and support groups. Mullins says the average participant in her groups is a woman, usually in her 40s or 50s, many of whom have been married at least once before.

“It’s very common,” she says. “That wasn’t always the case, but it is with this generation.”

Boomers – a generation that came of age during a time of dramatic social change – have a reputation for bucking tradition. Their focus on individualism and self-fulfillment (no matter what their age) has contributed to a change in society’s response to issues from birth control to cohabitation to divorce, says local mental health counselor Jessica Zimmerman.

“When the baby boomers got married, divorce – especially late in life – wasn’t as accepted or as common as it is today,” she says. “Now that they’re in midlife, boomers are taking a step back and looking at marriage in a new way. Have I done what I wanted to do? Am I happy and, if not, what changes should I make?”

The majority of “gray divorces” – 66 percent – are instigated by women, according to a 2004 AARP survey. This comes as no surprise to Zimmerman, who says that many of her female clients admit they’ve been unhappy in their marriages for years.

“The women decide they want more out of life and that marriage is prohibiting that somehow,” she says. “It’s usually something a person has been thinking about for a long time. Unfortunately, oftentimes they never suggest counseling. They just quietly accept the unhappiness and then, by the time they’re ready to leave the marriage, counseling is a loss. They’ve already checked out of the relationship. And that is really unfortunate.”

Women, too, are more likely to continue to work past midlife and surround themselves with a supportive network of friends and family, both of which help ease such a dramatic transition, Zimmerman says.

“Unlike in the past, women have the opportunity to survive outside of the marriage now, both financially and emotionally,” she says. “They can still work. They can support themselves and enjoy their friendships. They feel empowered.”

That was the case for Becky, who relied on friends and fellow church members after moving back to Fort Wayne. Using money from her IRA, Becky bought a house, filled it with furniture and began doing odd jobs for friends.

“Money will always be an issue for me now,” she says. “But I have a beautiful home. I’m setting goals and saving money. And I have friends I can call at 3 a.m. when I feel like crying.”

Social aspects aside, perhaps the most logical reason for the increase in midlife divorces has to do with increased longevity. Baby boomers, as a group, are living longer than their predecessors, which increases their chances of divorce, says Donna Holland, assistant professor of sociology at IPFW.

“The longer you live, the longer you’re exposed to the possibility of divorce,” Holland says. “A 25-year-old couple may not think of divorce as an option for them, but an older person may. They’ve seen so many people go through it and survive it. They know that, immediately, the adjustment is rough, but that people overwhelmingly adapt and survive it.”

The trend of midlife divorce will continue to grow even after the baby boomers have reached old age, Holland says.

But the numbers do not mean that older generations care less about marriage than younger ones.

The reason divorce rates in the general population have stayed the same or decreased is because people are increasingly using another option – cohabitation – for their first long-term committed unions.

“In the big picture, yes, it looks like we have become more conservative,” Holland says. “But we’re really just opting for a different model. If cohabitating couples had chosen to marry instead of live together, overwhelmingly our divorce rates would be much, much higher.”

It’s safe to say that society’s entire approach to marriage – from the sex of the participants to the age of the divorcees – is undergoing transformation, Holland says.

“Religions have become more tolerant,” she says. “Friends and family are not pushing people to stay married or mandating they get married in the first place. Things are more flexible than in the past.”

Becky agrees. Flexibility is one of her goals. After all, it takes flexibility to learn how to ballroom dance, she says.

“In my ballroom dance classes, I don’t have a partner and I don’t need one,” she says. “No one gets jealous. Everyone is friendly, just like life should be. My only rule with relationships is to be flexible with your plans. You never know who God will put into your life.”