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Gray divorce: Why more people are divorcing later in life

Some baby boomers are considering divorce, but some of these marriages may benefit from therapy. Photo credit: Canva

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most visible couples in the world recently announced they are getting a divorce.  In May of 2021, in identical tweets, Bill and Melinda Gates told the world they would be ending their marriage of 27 years.

This type of divorce, between couples who’ve been married for decades, is referred to as gray divorce. And Maria Shilaos, host of the KSL Newsradio podcast Let’s Get Moving with Maria, spoke about it recently with Dr. Liz Hale, a marriage and family therapist.

According to Dr. Hale, half of the divorces that occur in the United States occur at the six-year mark. But therapists are seeing more divorces, later in life.

“Maybe after children are leaving the nest,” Hale told KSL Newsradio. “Or once a child reaches even the age of 14.”

The ‘gray tsunami’ and gray divorce

Part of this spike has to do with the baby boomer generation. More precise numbers will be available after the 2020 Census is counted, but right now the baby boomer generation is believed to be 74 million people strong.

Baby boomers are living longer than generations before them (thus the grey tsunami reference.) And they are witnesses to changes in attitude about divorce.

“There’s not a stigma anymore,” said Dr. Hale.

One of the major themes, said Dr. Hale, is money. If previous generations, especially the women in those generations, didn’t have their own money or have a way of earning significant amounts of money — well, the boomers simply don’t have that problem.

Today, circumstances are very different,” Hale said, “and it seems like the more options we have, including financial, the easier it is to let go of a marriage when the distance has grown too great.”

Changing priorities

Some of the other reasons behind an older couple considering divorce don’t have much to do with a label placed on their generation. Any generation can (and many do) face choices later in life that may seem incompatible with a long-term marriage, continuing.

One of Dr. Hale’s client scenarios involves a man who wants to retire early and travel the world on humanitarian missions. But his wife envisioned her golden years helping to raise grandchildren.

“For some couples, this can be a deal-breaker,” Hale said.

A similar example involves the other end of the generational spectrum – what if one partner wants to travel and the other has a parent that they want to help take care of?

Re-innovate, re-charge, growing together instead of apart

Can a married couple change, even a long-time married couple? Companies do it all the time, Dr. Hale said. They take stock of where they are, they reevaluate their goals, and they change their direction. Host Maria Shilaos called couples re-evaluating and re-aligning their goals this way: growing together instead of growing apart.

“The truth of it is,” Dr. Hale said, “is that the majority of couples who do divorce, regret their decision.

“So that tells us something already, that perhaps it’s worth turning over more stones to really know, ‘is that the right thing for us?'”

Learn more about how couples can find out what they have in common, and how partners in a marriage can reinvent themselves while at the same time stay in their marriage by listening to the podcast below.