The long-haired guitarist strummed the strains of “I’ve Got You, Babe” as the 1976 newlyweds vowed to love and honor each other “until death do us part.” And they believed it, but today, despite dropping divorce rates in other age groups, baby boomers and older seniors are calling it quits after 20, 30, and 40+ years of marriage.
A 2021 report released by the U.S. Census Department found that nearly 35 percent of the Americans who got divorced in the previous year were age 55 or older. Another study by a team of sociologists at Bowling Green State University claims the “gray divorce” rate (age 50+) has actually doubled in the last 20 years. The 50+ segment currently makes up a quarter of all divorces in the country, and 1 in 10 of this number are over age 65.
Why has it become more common for married couples to make it past the proverbial “7-year itch” of marriage, the rearing of children, and the economic hardships of nationwide recessions only to part ways as seniors?
“For one thing, women today have more options than their parents may have had,” said Barbara Liftman, an experienced attorney, who founded a mediation service for “amicable” or uncontested divorces. “No disrespect intended, but our moms came from the ‘doormat generation’ where wives were expected to stay with their husbands no matter what. Most didn’t work, and they had many children. There is no longer a stigma to divorce today, many women have careers of their own and they know that life is short. Why should they spend the rest of their lives being miserable?”
The reasons behind a gray divorce are as varied as those of any other age group. For Esther B. of Milton, her husband’s gambling addiction drove her to the brink of desperation. They divorced in 2015 when they were in their sixties.
“I just didn’t want to be lied to about money anymore,” said the mother of one grown daughter. “I lived through a bankruptcy, and had to sign my name against the house we bought together to pay off his debts. After 25 years of fighting about money, I just couldn’t hang in there anymore. I’m a lot happier living in my small apartment without all the turmoil.”
For many couples, the fear of making ends meet on one person’s salary, paying alimony, and understanding the complexities of splitting assets has caused them to endure decades of unhappy marriages. But with increased longevity among seniors, people are resolving to make those extra years the best they can be. A man turning 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3—for women, it’s 86.6.
In 2008, Deanna Coyle, a former Wall Street Securities Analyst, and mother of two young children, navigated a lengthy and contentious divorce with her husband. “My ex and I were separated, and it took a few years, and a lot of money ($150,000 in attorney fees) and emotional damage to get our divorce,” said Coyle. “Neither one of us knew where to go to talk about the sale of our home, the living arrangements of the children, how to get counseling, and many other stressful issues.”
Eight years ago, Coyle and her co-worker Bob Vona, who had also weathered a costly divorce, decided to create VESTA, “A New Vision for Divorce.” Their company operates six hubs throughout the country, including one in Hingham, where virtual networking events and concierge services allow people to work with a team of mediators, lawyers, financial advisors, Realtors, mortgage professionals, life coaches and peers. The virtual events are free, as is the concierge service, which pinpoints the specific needs of the client seeking the divorce.
“Most of our target audience for Vesta’s services are people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s,” said Coyle. “Our professionals are thoroughly vetted, and we make sure they are compassionate about helping people go through their divorce.”
Former Vesta client Patrick Packard, 57, of Hingham, found the group “immensely supportive” during the most difficult time in his life.
“My wife and I had been married for 20 years, but neither of us was happy in the situation we were in,” said Packard. “I think people tend to stay in a marriage that’s not working because the thought of a divorce, particularly when children, a home, and finances are involved, is so overwhelming. Breaking up a family is a traumatic event in itself. I spent a lot of time not wanting to give up, but eventually, it was the only way. I attended one of the Vesta webinars, and I felt a lot more grounded after getting connected with professionals that could guide me in all aspects of the process. It was a godsend to me in so many ways.”
For Paul B. of Marshfield, divorcing his wife after 23 years of marriage was not his choice. “I knew we weren’t madly in love, but I thought we were doing okay,” said the father of two. There were times through the years that I would ask myself ‘Is this all there is?’ but then I just figured that after 20 years or so, marriage settles into more of a roommate/friend type situation. I was never a very emotional guy, but I lived my life like a “to do” list—go to school, get a job, get married, have cute kids, adopt a dog, buy a house, get a car, and then a nicer car and a bigger house.”
Financial tensions became more and more pronounced in Paul’s marriage. Our expenses were running around $15,000-$16,000 a month and I had my own business with up times and down times. When my wife returned from a trip to Seattle one day, she came into the room and said the unthinkable to me. ‘I would like to amicably uncouple.’ She couldn’t say the word divorce. I was in total shock. We were supposed to grow old together, and just like that, it was over. She admitted she had wanted to get divorced for the last 15 years but had tolerated an unhappy situation for the kids and her lifestyle. She said, “We both know it’s not working. We can get a mediator and still be friends. It will be okay.”
The use of a mediator in an uncontested divorce proceeding can save you a considerable amount of money and time, according to Liftman, whose company— DIY DivorcePlymouth.com—has sites on the South Shore and in Hyannis, Newton, Worcester, Boston and Springfield. Liftman is a single parent with first-hand experience with the full gamut of issues surrounding divorce and starting over again.
“I am a traditional mediator,” said Liftman. “The people who come to me do not want to fight. They are not the ‘I wants’ in a heated divorce proceeding. I provide up to four hours of mediation to fine-tune the details of an agreement they already have in their heads. Then I request all required documents from them and file their divorce petition with the court. The flat fee I charge for this service is less than the lowest retainer that either of them would pay to a divorce attorney. Some lawyers will keep people fighting until they run out of money. They’d rather have 10 rich clients than 100 happy ones. I want the 100 happy ones.”
George Brandt of Colorado was “blindsided” when his wife asked for a divorce in 2007. “She left me to reconnect with her high school sweetheart, who later decided to stay with his wife,” said Brandt. “I was completely shell-shocked and had no idea what to do next. After blogging anonymously about my pain, I was amazed to see how many other people responded to my posts. As I spoke with more and more men who were in various stages of “the process,” it became glaringly evident that most of them were quite lost with no roadmap or direction. Left to their own devices, they allowed their impulses to be their guide until many of them followed the strongest one of all—to seek affirmation of their self-worth by getting prematurely remarried.”
The day after he got the news of his split, Brandt set off to browse the self-help section of a nearby bookstore. “I was in search of a ‘repair manual’ that would explain how to fix ‘me’ and how I was feeling,” he said. “After coming out empty-handed, I went online to expand my search. Among the scores of titles dealing with divorce, I couldn’t find a single one that dealt with its emotional impact, written specifically for men.” Was I the only guy on earth who was hurting?”
A longtime technical writer, Brandt is currently in the process of writing the kind of book he was seeking when he needed it most. In the years since his divorce, he has interviewed hundreds of men to see what they have in common as they go through the stages of divorce and post-divorce life. He has also run support groups and talked with psychologists, attorneys, and clergymen.
“So, I’m taking the advice of the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Toni Morrison,” said Brandt.
‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’”
For more information on mediation and other gray divorce counseling services, visit DIYdivorcePlymouth.com or text email@example.com.