Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Forget silver anniversaries: Many couples grapple with 'gray divorce'

Forget silver anniversaries: Many couples grapple with 'gray divorce'

Associated Press Published on: 03/24/08

It's been nearly a year since Sherman Smith's 33-year marriage ended in a divorce that, he said, his ex-wife wanted after she realized she didn't love him in the same way anymore. "A divorce is kind of like a death, but she's still there and I can't have her," said Smith, 55, of Elliottsburg, Pa. "I was really looking forward to retiring some day and spending more time with her." Smith has spent 18 months in a divorce support group. "I'm not 100 percent, but I'm pretty doggone good," he said. Annie, 69, of Enola, Pa., who didn't want her last name used, has been divorced since September after her husband of 47 years left her for an old high school flame. Annie said she had considered their marriage a happy one. Divorce simply wasn't in the realm of possibilities for them.

"It hit me in the face like a two-ton truck," she said. "I hadn't a clue. It was the most absolutely horrible thing that ever happened to me. I'm still not over it. I'll never be over it." Although the divorce rate is highest among men ages 30 to 34 and women ages 25 to 29, attorneys, marriage counselors and researchers say that increasingly, people in their 50s, 60s and 70s are grappling with what has come to be known as "gray divorce."

Higher incomes, advanced education and longer lives contribute to the trend, said Gordon Nelson, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. "People might be becoming increasingly more independent," he said. Mature people in long-term marriages often have multiple and complex reasons for calling it quits.

The '60s generation, more focused on happiness and personal fulfillment and less inhibited about divorce, is moving into its 60s, New Cumberland, Pa., psychologist and marriage and family therapist Sally Tice noted. And as people live longer "there's more years to think of putting up" with unhappy marriages, she said. Raising children can take a toll, too.

"It's very typical for couples to grow apart during the adolescent years of their children," Tice said. And if they haven't renewed their relationship, it can fall by the wayside. Carlisle, Pa., divorce and family law attorney Carol Lindsay identified one age-old reason for gray divorce: the midlife crisis. This temporary emotional upheaval is seldom referred to as such by anyone in the midst of one, and it's typically a male phenomenon, she said. "There's this vague longing. Mortality is calling," Lindsay said. "People throw over things they have. ... There's this sense that I missed something."

But it's not always true that older men find it easier to remarry, said Camp Hill attorney Corky Goldstein — whose oldest divorce client was 81 and "very, very unhappy" in a 44-year marriage. "If you don't really have any money, a man in his 70s is not going to attract a younger woman," he said. Yet, while divorce at midlife used to be more of a "male deal," increasingly women are initiating it, Lindsay said. A 2004 AARP study of persons who had divorced between the ages of 40 and 70 confirmed Lindsay's observations: 66 percent of the women surveyed said they had asked for the divorce, compared with 41 percent of the men.

Lindsay believes a different kind of midlife event is often at work with women who, for years, cared for their husband and children. "The hormone for taking care of people goes away and they're sick of it," she said. "They're just not in the nurturing mode any more." Sometimes it has to do with women getting jobs and having the money to leave, coupled with a softening of the taboo against divorce, Lindsay said. Gray divorces generally don't have the grueling, heart-rending custody issues common in younger couple's divorces, but they can be wrought with the complications of property ownership and division of assets.

In Smith's case, his ex-wife had her own pension plan, he said. Annie, a retired teacher, also has her own pension and Social Security, but she resents how the divorce has changed her financial situation. "When my husband and I were together we had enough money to do whatever we wanted and now I'm strapped," she said. Some older couples show their maturity in the way they handle their divorce. "Sometimes there are graceful older people and you are so grateful for them as clients," Lindsay said. "I always think a long marriage deserves to be honored with a
respectful divorce."
• Join a support group.
• Develop same-sex friendships.
• Volunteer.
• Don't isolate yourself.
Seek out the medical, mental health and spiritual resources. • Give yourself time to grieve and heal.
• Consult an attorney and a financial adviser before signing any documents regarding marital assets. Choose an attorney who will advise you of your rights and represent your interests but who won't escalate matters beyond your comfort level. You both are going to want to attend the grandchildren's birthday parties.

Sources: DivorceCare support group leaders Beth and Wayne Janis, Mechanicsburg, Pa.; attorney Jeanne Costopoulos, Camp Hill, Pa., attorney Corky Goldstein.

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