Once the kids leave, many couples find they have little in common. When duties of daily child-rearing diminish, many empty nesters are dissolving their marital unions, part of a trend among older adults known as “gray divorce.”
The divorce rate for people aged 50 and older has doubled, with this segment of the population a growing share of U.S. marital splits.
By 2015, one in four people getting divorced was 50 or older, climbing from one in ten in 1990, according to sociologist Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
Gray divorce can trigger emotional turmoil. “For most, gray divorce hurts,” says Jocelyn Elise Crowley, a public policy professor at Rutgers and author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits. “There is no avoiding that reality. However, it does not have to stay that way forever. Individuals can both experience the pain caused by the separation with their significant others in mid-life and start to move on to lead new, fulfilling lives.”
Moving toward separation and divorce can hurt mental and physical health in many ways. While some suffer relatively few adverse effects, about 10 to 15 percent of people, especially those who have struggled before, are at risk of falling into a psychological hole, says David A. Sbarra, a University of Arizona clinical psychologist and expert on gray divorce. “If you have been depressed in the past, depression can skyrocket,” he says.
Some people see their blood pressure rise and face immunological changes, or their bodies are less able to suppress latent viruses. Decoupling can trigger serious sleep disturbances, lasting up to three months, and insomnia that lasts longer can cascade into further health problems. Gray divorcees are also at a greater risk of smoking if they had the habit earlier in life, Sbarra says.
Men often face a social penalty in gray divorce if their wives kept the social calendar, finding themselves socially isolated, Crowley says. Men already tend to have fewer close friends – typically just one confidant – compared to more for women. Male baby boomers usually see a downgrade in their diet as their generation relegated most of the meal planning, food shopping, and preparation to women.
Women frequently face an economic penalty in gray divorce. Many have taken time out from work for maternity leaves or raising children, and when they return, they make less money. They often are already occupationally segregated into positions or industries that pay less. They suffer from the “motherhood pay penalty,” a forfeit in wages compared to childless women that may stem from employers’ biased view that mothers are not committed to their jobs.
Usually, women have put less into their savings and retirement accounts and have contributed relatively less to the Social Security system, leaving them with an average of $14,000 compared to $18,000 annually for male counterparts, Crowley says.
Good news for those mired in the separation pain is that the suffering is usually short-lived. “It abates fairly quickly—in months, not years— and people start to feel that they are no longer living in the vortex of a tornado,” Sbarra says.
Here’s How to Bounce Back After a Gray Divorce:
Get together with friends. Friends can ease the pain of divorce in myriad ways. Sharing a concert subscription, going out to dinner or just being available to talk—or, more precisely, to listen—when things look bleak is a great way to move forward, says Deborah Tannen, an anthropological linguist at Georgetown University and author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships. “Knowing there is someone who understands—and cares about, what you’re going through could make all the difference.”
Focus on sleep. It’s common for sleeping to be difficult for three months after a marital separation, but if it continues longer, it can raise blood pressure and trigger other health issues. Don’t medicate or drink yourself to sleep! “We need to get our Zs without knocking ourselves unconscious through drugs and alcohol,” Sbarra says.
Create a Narrative. Tell yourself a positive narrative about the divorce to prevent “a downward spiral where you get overinvolved in your experience and sucked into the vortex of it all,” Sbarra says. You should also cultivate self-compassion, a Buddhist concept. Be kind to yourself. Let emotions pass without wallowing. Experience your divorce as part of a broader, more universal experience.
Pull yourself together. Divorce forces you to examine life’s big questions, which most of us would rather avoid, such as “Who am I?” “Who are my friends?” and “What should I do with my life?” “We start to feel better when we start to know ourselves again,” Sbarra says. “Unlike Humpty-Dumpty, we can put our self-concept together.”
Uncoupling after 50 takes a toll. It’s a loss that can take you through depression, anger, fear, and loneliness. “It throws you into unknown waters,” says Marjorie Schulte, a Scottsdale, Arizona, psychotherapist who counsels couples. “But it’s also a transition period of real soul-searching and an opportunity for a great deal of growth and evolution.”
Judy Holland has been a journalist for more than 30 years. Her stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Tampa Tribune, and Washingtonian Magazine. She was president of the Washington Press Club Foundation, a nonprofit celebrating female pioneers in journalism. She was also founder and editor-in-chief of Parentinsider.com. Judy’s book, HappiNest: Finding Fulfillment After Your Kids Leave Home is available February 15, 2020 via Amazon and other retail outlets. www.judyhollandauthor.com.