Could Gray Divorce Be an Act of Love?

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Couple shares loving moment in the midst of a gray divorce

What is a gray divorce?

Gray Divorce is not a new term and has been used in the United States since 2004. But gray divorce has been used more commonly in recent years as the divorce rate among baby boomers has been on the rise. The term was initially coined "gray" divorce to signify a group of older adults who may have gray hair getting divorced. Many of our clients experiencing a gray divorce have been married for more than 20 years. They often raised children together and may have grandchildren together. 

A True Act of Love

In a Facebook group that I am a part of, someone commented that people over 55 should not get divorced. They should stay together for the rest of their lives since they are already middle-aged. What's the point of starting over at that age? The comment upset me as I don't think people should stay together because of their age, and I have seen gray divorces where the couple is very respectful and loving toward one another. It's an act of love where the couple sets each other free to live their best lives!

I have worked with hundreds of people who are getting a divorce and have found that many baby boomers, as they age, are often more kind and loving throughout the process. It's more common for them to end up parting ways as friends and go on to parent their adult children and enjoy being grandparents together successfully. They often still attend the same family functions and sometimes continue to see the same circle of friends.

So why do couples 55 and older get divorced? 

Just like with a younger couple, there can be many different reasons, but here are some of the most common ones I see with my clients. 

"I've been unhappy for a long time."

Some couples in their 50s and 60s often grapple with feelings of discontent and loneliness within their marriage. This emotional disconnect can stem from various factors, such as the stresses of daily life, changing personal priorities, or simply the natural evolution of individual interests over time.

Despite these challenges, these couples frequently make a conscious decision to remain together. Their desire to provide their children a stable and loving environment is a primary motivating factor behind this decision. They believe that maintaining the family unit, despite the absence of marital fulfillment, is crucial for their children's emotional and psychological well-being.

These couples often prioritize their roles as parents over their personal happiness, believing that a two-parent household is the best setting for their children to grow and thrive. In doing so, they sometimes put aside their individual needs and desires, focusing instead on the collective good of the family. While admirable, this self-sacrificing approach can sometimes lead to a prolonged state of unhappiness and unfulfillment, raising questions about the long-term impacts on the parents and children involved.

"We grew apart."

Some clients have expressed feelings of growing apart from their spouses, often lamenting that they no longer share common interests. This situation is prevalent in couples who have spent years focusing on raising their children. Once the children are grown and have left home, these couples are confronted with a new reality where their daily lives are no longer centered around their children's activities and needs. This shift can reveal how much they have diverged in their personal interests, hobbies, and life goals.

Realizing that they do not envision a shared future together can be surprising and unsettling. Over the years, as they were engrossed in their parental roles, their individual identities evolved separately. They might find that the activities they once enjoyed together no longer hold the same appeal, or they may have developed new passions that their partner does not share. This divergence can lead to a sense of estrangement, where they feel more like cohabitants than partners.

In these situations, the decision about whether to stay together or part ways becomes a significant consideration. For some, the prospect of rediscovering themselves individually and pursuing their own interests becomes a compelling reason to consider separation. Others might see this phase as an opportunity to reconnect with their partner in a new way, exploring activities and interests that they can share in this later stage of life.

The challenge lies in navigating this transition while acknowledging and respecting each other's individual growth. Whether they choose to embark on new journeys separately or together, the decision is often influenced by a deep introspection about what they truly desire for their future and whether those aspirations align with their partner's.

"It's more acceptable to get a divorce now." 

Divorce, for many generations, was perceived negatively, often accompanied by a significant social stigma. This disapproval stemmed from various cultural, religious, and societal norms that traditionally valued the sanctity of marriage and viewed divorce as a failure to uphold these values. As a result, numerous couples chose to remain in unsatisfying or incompatible marriages, fearing the social repercussions that a divorce might bring. The decision to stay together was heavily influenced by concerns about how they would be perceived by their community, the impact on their social standing, and the potential judgment they would face from family and friends.

However, in more recent times, there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards divorce. The stigma that once cast a long shadow over the dissolution of a marriage has diminished to some extent. This change can be attributed to various factors, including evolving societal norms, greater acceptance of individual choices, and a broader understanding of the complexities of relationships. Today, couples feel more empowered to make decisions that prioritize their personal happiness and well-being.

With the reduced stigma, couples who find themselves unhappy or who have grown apart now feel more comfortable considering divorce as a viable option. The decision to separate is increasingly viewed as a courageous step towards pursuing a more fulfilling life, rather than a failure to maintain a marriage. This change in perception has allowed individuals to openly address marital issues and seek separation without the heavy burden of societal judgment.

This evolution in attitudes has led to a greater acceptance of the idea that not all marriages are meant to last forever and that sometimes, parting ways can be the healthiest choice for all involved. It reflects a broader societal recognition that personal happiness and mental well-being are paramount and that staying in an unhappy marriage for the sake of appearances or tradition is no longer a necessary sacrifice.

"I have a lot of life left to live!"

The significant increase in average life expectancy for both men and women over the past decades has had profound implications on personal and societal levels. From 1966 to 2018, we witnessed a remarkable rise in life expectancy: for men, it increased from 66.7 years to 76.2 years, and for women, it went from 73.9 years to 81.2 years. This increase is attributed to various factors, including advancements in medical science, improved healthcare facilities, better nutrition, and a greater emphasis on personal health and well-being.

This extension of life expectancy has led individuals to reevaluate their life choices, particularly in the context of personal happiness and fulfillment. For someone who is 55 years old, the prospect of potentially living another 20 to 30 years or more can be a powerful motivator to reassess their current life situation and consider a gray divorce. The realization that a significant portion of their life still lies ahead of them prompts a deeper reflection on how they wish to spend these years.

For many, the thought of continuing to live an unhappy or unfulfilling life for such a prolonged period is daunting. It challenges them to contemplate significant changes, whether in their personal relationships, careers, or lifestyle choices. In the context of marriages, this might mean reevaluating the viability of staying in an unhappy relationship. The idea of 'growing old together' takes on a new meaning when faced with the possibility of many more years of life. Individuals are increasingly recognizing the importance of personal happiness and fulfillment and are more willing to make bold decisions to improve their quality of life.

Moreover, this increase in life expectancy also impacts social norms and expectations. Society is gradually shifting away from the notion that life's major milestones, including marriage, career, and retirement, should be confined to specific age brackets. There is a growing acceptance of the idea that it is never too late to pursue new goals, change paths, or seek personal growth, regardless of age. This paradigm shift is empowering more people, especially those in their mid-life, to take control of their future and seek a life that brings them joy and satisfaction, even if it means making significant changes.

"Money issues are a bigger concern now that we are nearing retirement."

Financial issues remain a predominant factor in divorces, and this holds true for gray divorces as well. As people enter middle age, their financial circumstances often undergo significant changes, especially as they approach retirement. This shift can exacerbate existing tensions in a marriage, particularly when it comes to money management.

In middle age, individuals tend to have more firmly established financial habits and attitudes. Some may be frugal and focused on saving for retirement, while others might prefer to enjoy their earnings through travel, hobbies, or other pursuits. These differing approaches to finances can become a source of conflict, especially as retirement alters the income landscape. The transition from a steady paycheck to living on savings, pensions, or social security can strain a couple's finances, bringing underlying disagreements about money to the forefront.

Such financial disagreements can be a catalyst for divorce. The realization that their approaches to money are fundamentally incompatible can lead couples to question their future together. As they reassess their relationship in the context of their financial habits and goals, some find that their differences are irreconcilable, prompting the decision to part ways.

However, it's important to recognize that today's couples have more resources at their disposal than previous generations, particularly when it comes to addressing marital issues. Marriage counseling and therapy have become more accessible and widely accepted. Many of these services are covered by insurance, making them a feasible option for a broad range of couples. Seeking professional help to navigate marital challenges is no longer stigmatized as it once was. Therapists and counselors can offer valuable guidance and tools to help couples understand each other's perspectives, communicate more effectively, and make informed decisions about their relationship.

The availability of these resources offers a beacon of hope for those struggling in their marriage. It suggests that couples facing marital difficulties have a range of options to explore before deciding on divorce. Whether it's working through financial disagreements, communication issues, or other marital challenges, professional help can provide couples with the support they need to either reconcile their differences or part ways amicably, ensuring a healthier and more positive path forward.

What if it's time to move on?

If you or your spouse have decided that your marriage is over, I suggest that you have a calm and open conversation with each other. It's important to reflect on all of the good memories you have had together and some of the challenging times as well. In acknowledging the role you have played in each other's lives, you can release each other to live the rest of your lives apart. This is a true act of love, and no one should stay in an unhappy marriage just because he or she is middle-aged! 

We help with a lot of gray divorces in our practice. What I appreciate most about the older couples reaching out to work with us is that they are doing it from a place of respect for each other. They want to make sure that both parties will be financially secure, and they don't want to waste a ton of money on an unnecessary legal battle.

Navigating the Financial Waters of a Gray Divorce

After decades of marriage, your financial entanglements can be complex, and the economic implications are profound. Understanding the key financial considerations is crucial for anyone navigating a divorce at any age, but especially when approaching or living in retirement. Working with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) can be an invaluable process for anyone facing a gray divorce. Here are some key considerations:

1. Retirement Funds and Pensions

Retirement plans often form a significant part of marital assets. Understanding how these can be divided is vital. The division of 401(k)s and similar plans usually requires a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Pensions, depending on their structure, might also be subject to division. It's important to get a clear picture of how much of these assets you're entitled to and how they will impact your retirement planning.

2. Social Security Benefits

If your marriage lasted 10 years or more, you might be eligible for benefits based on your ex-spouse's Social Security record. This entitlement doesn't impact their benefits, but it's an important consideration, especially if your spouse was the higher earner.

3. Health Insurance and Medical Costs

Losing a spouse's health insurance coverage can be a significant issue in gray divorces. Medicare doesn't kick in until age 65, so if you're younger, you'll need to find alternative coverage. Additionally, as health concerns typically increase with age, planning for potential medical costs is essential.

4. The Family Home

Deciding what to do with the family home is a significant decision. While the emotional attachment to the home is understandable, it's important to assess whether keeping it is financially viable. Consider the costs of upkeep, taxes, and whether the size and location still suit your needs.

5. Estate Planning

Post-divorce, it's crucial to update your estate plan. This includes revising your will, trust documents, and beneficiaries on life insurance policies and retirement accounts. Ensure that your assets will be distributed according to your wishes.

6. Tax Implications

Divorce can have various tax implications. Understanding how things like alimony, asset division, and retirement account withdrawals will affect your taxes is vital. Consulting with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) can help minimize your tax liabilities.

7. Legal and Professional Fees

Divorce at any age involves legal fees, but when a couple is facing a gray divorce, they typically do not have as much time to earn back the funds invested in the divorce. Budgeting for the cost of a lawyer, a CDFA, and possibly a tax consultant is important.

A gray divorce requires careful financial planning and consideration. The division of assets, potential changes in living arrangements, and the impact on retirement plans are all critical factors. Consulting with financial and legal professionals can provide invaluable guidance during this challenging time. Remember, it's not just about making it through the divorce; it's about securing your financial future.

Related reading: 

The Healing Power of a Divorce Support Group

Why Estate Planning After a Divorce Is a Must

4 Ways to Stay Organized Throughout the Divorce Process

How to Thrive after Divorce: Cut through the Noise and Prepare Well

Here's how we can help you...

We know that divorce can feel really hard regardless of your age, and often there are many questions about how to handle your finances. 

After all, this is the reason Leah Hadley founded Great Lakes Divorce Financial Solutions in the first place. Helping couples overcome this challenge is why we do what we do. 

Whether you've never had to manage money before or you're a master at investing, we are here to support you as your financial expert before, during, and after your divorce. 

What our clients love most about working with us is that we're able to help them avoid costly financial mistakes and achieve the financial stability they need to plan for the future.

We are here to help you with that, too. Learn more about how we support clients regardless of where you are in the divorce process. 


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