A couple in their 90s who had decided to divorce sought the advice of a lawyer. Youve been married so long, said the lawyer. Why on earth would you split up now?
We were waiting for the kids to die, came the reply.
Call it late life divorce black humor. And in a surprising number of cases, call it not so far from the truth, says author Deirdre Blair, who says she heard variations on the story from lawyers, family members and divorcing seniors themselves while researching her book, Calling It Quits: Late Life Divorce and Starting Over, which was to be published Jan. 30 by Random House.
Blair interviewed more than 400 ex-wives and ex-husbands, who ranged in age from 50 to 83 and had ended marriages that had lasted anywhere from 20 to 60 years. She also talked to adult children of older divorced parents. The book explores what an AARP Magazine survey referred to as the groundbreaking and growing trend of late-life divorce and provides an insider look at life in the years after the end of a long-term union.
When older adults announce theyre getting divorced, the first question family and friends ask is always, Why now? says Blair, whose own marriage ended after 43 years. The answers are just as varied as when younger couples split up. Some couples wait until the kids are established. Some have difficulty dealing with major transitions such as retirement or illness. Some divorce because of drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence or infidelity. In some cases people have fallen in love with someone else. Boomers know theyve got healthy years ahead of them; they have more disposable income than other generations; and they believe theyre entitled to happiness, so theyre ending marriages in increasing numbers.
Blair found that the greater percentages of divorces after long marriages were initiated by women, not men, putting to rest the assumption that husbands bolt for a younger woman.
Everyone thinks that older men trade in their spouse for a trophy wife, says Blair. Turned out that wasnt the case.
The AARP survey bears her out; 66 percent of women reported that they asked for the divorce, compared with 41 percent of men. And men more often than women were caught off-guard by their divorce; 26 percent of men report they never saw it coming, compared with 14 percent of women.
While statistics show that the financial effects of middle- or late-life divorce can be more devastating for women than men, Blair found women more likely to leave an unhappy or unhealthy relationship regardless of what the future had in store.
I interviewed a woman who had just undergone serious surgery, Blair said. Shed been married for 53 years and had no idea how she would survive financially, but she wanted out. She said, I have no idea how many years I have left. I just know I dont want to spend them with him.
In most cases, women also coped with the transition better than men.
Women will seek out support groups, talk to friends and stay connected. Men are more likely to withdraw, Blair said.
Splitting up after decades of marriage creates a particular set of legal, economical, emotional and social problems that affect not only the couple, but also adult kids, grandkids, other family members and longtime friends. Blair found that reactions from grown children tended to fall into three categories: Some were devastated; some were angry; while a third group wondered why the marriage had lasted as long as it had. She also found that not all couples stayed apart. In some cases, the loneliness and the attitude of family and friends led them back to their ex-partners.
And then there are rare, peculiar cases. Blair relates the story of a couple whose marriage had been a daily battleground. After 42 years together, when both were in their 60s, they divorced. Twenty years passed, and both individuals developed Alzheimers and needed supervision. Their daughter took them into her home until she could arrange for permanent, and separate, care.
Because they couldnt remember being married to one another, they became the best of friends, Blair said. They talk about how they wish theyd met when they were younger so they could have gotten married. Theyre certain that they would have had a marriage that would have lasted forever. Its a perfect example of how divorce later in life happens for many reasons, takes many different forms and can have surprising outcomes.
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