By Grace Cooper
“As I walk this land with broken dreams
I have visions of many things
But happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion
What becomes of the broken-hearted
Who had love that’s now departed?
I know I’ve got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
Maybe . . . ”
—”What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”
(Song by Jimmy Ruffin)
TEN YEARS ago, my attorney was the first person to use the phrase “‘gray divorce” during my initial divorce consultation. He casually noted that Boomers abandoning long marriages were rapidly making up the bulk of his practice. Considering he charged $400 per hour, I was not surprised. I mean, who else could afford an 18-month legal slugfest at those rates than older individuals with sizable investment portfolios? Don’t even get me started about the absurdity of dealing with the trauma of divorce by driving down the marital off-ramp onto route Highway Robbery.
Anyhoo, that phrase inspired a bit of research. According to a Bowling Green University sociology study, “in contrast to the seeming stabilization of divorce rates for the general population over the past two decades, the gray divorce rate has doubled: Married individuals aged 50 and older, including the college-educated, are twice as likely to experience a divorce today as they were in 1990. For married individuals aged 65 and older, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990.”
A friend just told me about one of her financial services clients who on his 82nd birthday decided he wanted a divorce after 50 years of marriage. “Why now?,” she asked him. He replied that he wants to live his final years in peace. Modern marriage expectations in the last half-century are that one marries one’s best friend and confidante, building happy, fulfilled lives together. However, after the reality of a lifetime of the stress that comes with juggling parallel careers while raising children, how many successfully run that ball over the goal line?
Essentially, Boomers have grown up with higher expectations and more wealth. We live longer; many women work and have come to expect parity and satisfaction, in the workplace and at home. I know countless women who, after successfully raising children, are tired of facilitating the aspirations of everyone in the family unit but their own. No longer content to play their socially sanctioned supportive roles, these gals are looking to rewrite their own scripts for fulfillment.
Divorce has also lost the stigma of previous generations, although those in first marriages are much less likely to bail than those “echo divorcées” who’ve divorced more than once. Interestingly enough, though, advanced education has no protective effect when it comes to divorce rates.
Moreover, today, opportunities to find intimate fulfillment outside our marriages abound. Married men and women working side by side as partners in the workplace has led to common monikers such as “office wife” or “work husband.” Social media outlets such as Facebook make finding old flames easy. Temptation in the form of more discreet internet sites—including online dating sites—often creates the fantasy that the grass grows so much greener on the other side of marriage.
And so, for better or worse, we Boomers are putting asunder what no longer works for us.
With the urging of a professional counselor, I was ready to make the leap into singlehood—or so I thought. Unanticipated anxiety and depression sent me into a tailspin that lasted several months. I lost 20 pounds and started to drink too much. I knew for certain I didn’t want to be married any longer, but I never anticipated how everything about my life was about to change as well, and how painful that transition would be.
Whether you are the spouse who was left, or did the leaving, big relationship upheavals are the norm. Friends suddenly became frenemies, gossiping about you when your back is turned. My children, even though they knew we were unhappily mismatched, felt caught in the crossfire between their angry parents. Their dad took them on expensive vacations and bought them expensive gifts, while I struggled to find firm financial footing, terrified I might lose a roof over my head, unsure I’d have enough money to finance a comfortable modest lifestyle in my golden years.
I became acutely aware of how my decision to radically change my own life was dissected privately and publicly, and judged harshly. Many times I wondered if I even had any right to seek my own shot at happiness. I’d imagined living a romantic, albeit older version of Eat, Pray, Love, not a raucous episode of The Jerry Springer Show, as it sometimes resembled in those early days.
Then I stumbled upon a wonderful book that described my situation and accompanying roller-coaster emotions perfectly—Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life by Abigail Trafford.
First published in 1982, it is a timeless tale of divorce and its aftermath, and is currently in its third revised edition. In the prologue Trafford writes, “The Chinese word for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. In our culture, that’s the definition of divorce.”
In a blame-free manner, she details common causes of the irreparable rifts in marriages, the trauma that accompanies the dissolution of a marriage and what to anticipate in the healing journey. Lastly, Trafford reiterated that divorce, although clearly an ending, also marks a new beginning. And with any new beginning, there’s a learning curve to mastering the art of survival, then the art of thriving.
Divorce represents the death of a marriage and all the hopes and dreams that went into it. And the death of a marriage, like any death, requires a grieving process for healing. During divorce, an emotionally astute person will pass through a grieving process resembling Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). When experienced temporarily as part of the process of grieving, each step has benefit. But, in almost every divorce filled with unending rage, conflict, and injury, at least one spouse, if not two, resists this process and becomes stuck. This is where psychotherapy—or at least some good written roadmaps to how to move on—are invaluable to successfully negotiating the middle passage of life, now further complicated by the trauma of divorce.
However, once the healing process is in the rear-view mirror, what lies ahead is up to you. Reinventing a life can be complicated and even derailed by all the psychological impulses still buried in one’s subconscious, that led you to marry that shitty ex in the first place. Yet, there are many methods one can learn to release those terrifying flying monkeys of your mind. More about those methods later. Note that on average it takes two years post-divorce to get your land legs back on terra firma.
Or, like me, you could take the road littered with landmines as a route to a new life—a/k/a online dating—long before you know how to negotiate the dangers. I do not recommend this strategy, but thanks to my wonderful therapist, who held my hand through all those—ahem—”opportunities for growth,” what does not kill you makes you stronger and wiser, and provides you with enough material to entertain your friends for years to come. In all my 151 first and last dates, I shed a few tears, made a few good friends, laughed a lot, loved a bit, and uncovered a more joyful and resilient Grace. Namaste.
Next up: Grace will discuss how to create an online dating profile to attract the right man for you, while avoiding the crazy types.
In the meantime, questions or comments? Send them on to us in the Comments box below.
—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 67, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.
6 thoughts on “Late Dates #3: Gray Divorce”
Wonderful article full of commentary on the off ramp of divorce through the maelstrom of churning attorneys and other pitfalls on your path to a new life. The psychological perspectives are very helpful.
Dear EJS, Judy, Mary, and Nancy,
Thank you for these affirmations of the trauma of divorce, especially in the twilight years. In fact, a close friend referred to this column in counseling his friend to reconsider divorce. It was a classic case of a 50’ish man projecting his existential angst onto his wife, rather then looking inward. An affair seems like a great solution until you consider the maelstrom that comes from opening Pandora’s box in a divorce.
However, as Mary mentioned in referring to Abigail Trafford’s book “My Time”, what follows divorce and healing is up to you. My therapist used to say it frustrated her that her older clients processed aging as an ending, rather than mine the true gold of the golden years. Life is what you make of it. I intend to go 120mph until I drop.
Thank you again.
As a recently retired family law attorney, I am all too familiar with the realities of this column. My oldest client was a woman in her early 80s, whose mother was in her early 100s and still very with it. My client, anticipating that she would live into her 100s as well, told me that if she had to live another 20 years with her husband she would kill herself first. But the grieving process described is very real, which I told my clients all the time, and they needed to allow themselves time to heal from that, no matter how bad the marriage was. A divorce is very much like a death, the death of an idea, an ideal, almost as if the marriage was a being unto itself.
“Crazy Time” helped me through my divorce 35 years ago, and that was before I met the wonderful Abigail Trafford who wrote it. I recommend “My Time,” her book about “Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.”
A clear and honest look at a sad reality. Divorce really is another loss, and the inevitable result is grief. I think this is much more pronounced the older you are.
Thanks for this fine article.
Wonderful article full of commentary on the off-ramp of divorce through the maelstrom of churning attorneys and other pitfalls on your path to a new life. The psychological perspectives are very helpful.