The Graying of Divorce: 3 Tips on Coping with Divorce after Decades of Marriage

By: Deanna Conklin-Danao, Psy.D.
: November 15, 2017

It’s difficult to end a long marriage. Follow these tips to help you heal and create a new life for yourself.

The “graying of divorce” is a term that relates to the increase in divorces among people aged 50 and older. Compared to 20 years ago, people in this age group are now twice as likely to get a divorce and this group now comprises about 25% of all divorces. While many of these divorces are with shorter-term second marriages, a growing number of them involve couples who are facing divorce after decades of marriage. Researcher Susan Brown has identified several possible explanations for this trend:

  • Increased economic independence of women. The increased economic independence of women has made divorce less of an economic disaster compared to previous generations. Women used to fear that divorce would lead to poverty. As women have developed their own sources of wealth, this fear has become less intense.  
  • Longer life spans. Longer marriages used to be exceptions because of shorter life spans. As people live longer, they have more opportunities to question their marriages and seek opportunities outside of their marriage.
  • Different expectations about the role of marriage. Historically, marriage served a much more practical and economic function. Baby boomers entered marriage with broader goals such as self-fulfillment and individual happiness. These goals have led that generation to question their marriages more than previous generations.  

All divorces are emotionally painful. However, when you have been married for decades, there is a long shared history that can be particularly painful to lose.

3 Tips to Help You Cope with Divorce after Decades of Marriage

1. Mourn the loss. Regardless of who initiated it or the reasons behind it, a divorce is a loss and you will experience grief when it happens. You are mourning the loss of your marriage, the loss of the dream of a shared future, and the loss of a person with whom you spent decades with and built many memories. Trying to ignore or dismiss your grief will not make it go away. Be aware of your grief and give yourself time and support to heal. It can be easy to rewrite your "divorce narrative” to concentrate only on the problems behind your marriage and to attempt to discount the good times. This dismisses the complexity of the relationship and is a strategy to avoid your grief. Understand and deal with all of your emotions.

2. Engage your support system. To deal with the loss and changes of divorce, you will benefit from two support systems:

i. Personal support: The first level of support is your social support network, including your friends and family. These are the people you can turn to for support, not judgment. Ask them for what you need, whatever that may be. Utilize them for meals, companionship, or simply a shoulder to lean on. Let people know when their method of supporting you is not helpful. “I appreciate you want to help. Bob and I are trying to divorce with dignity so it isn’t helpful for me to complain about him.” You will also likely need to put boundaries in place for friends and family, and it’s your right to say that you want to keep certain topics private.

ii. Professional support: I want to encourage you to develop a professional support team for the divorce process. The process of divorce (Collaborative, Mediated or Litigated) and the lawyer you choose can be constructive or destructive. Consider enlisting a divorce coach to help you manage strong emotions and develop unique solutions for your divorce. A divorce after decades of marriage requires more than a cookie-cutter approach. If you want more emotional support, find a therapist or a divorce support group. All of these team members will help you get through the divorce in the healthiest way possible so that you can create the post-divorce life that you want.

3. Invest in yourself. Put time and energy into self-care. Paying attention to sleeping well, exercising enough and eating healthy will help you stay physically well during this stressful time. Connect with family and friends to avoid the isolation that can easily occur. Make time for personal interests and enjoyment. Building time for hobbies or personal interests will allow you to reconnect with yourself. This is especially important if you have defined yourself as part of a couple for decades.

Healing from Divorce after Decades of Marriage

It’s difficult to end a long marriage, and the process of mourning it and creating a new life for yourself will not occur overnight. Be gentle with yourself as you go through that process and give yourself the time and support you need to heal.