March 21, 2005

Why is the Divorce Rate Rising With Age?

THE common curmudgeonly perception is that the youth of today aren't very good at commitment. While there may well be some truth in that, they are certainly not the only ones. According to a survey by Saga magazine, the divorce rate among couples in their 50s and 60s is rising sharply.

In Scotland, the proportion of divorcees approaching retirement age is higher than the average. But rather than pointing to a relaxed attitude towards marriage creeping in among older generations, most experts believe the rise is much to do with the financial independence of women.

Once children leave home, an unhappy marriage is more clearly exposed as such and, while thoughts of losing the family home or financial security once held women back, many now feel able to look after themselves, having had their own careers.

The survey says that over the past five years the divorce rate for the 50s to 60s age group has increased by 8.7-per cent. The age a person gets divorced is increasing -the average age for men is 42 and 39 for women, compared with 39 for men and 36 for women 10 years ago. Those in the 50 to 64 age group are now more likely to be divorced than those aged between 35 and 49. Mick Jagger, who was divorced from Jerry Hall in 1999 at the age of nearly 56 (after famously contesting that the wedding, in Bali, was valid in the first place), is not so unusual.

For Paula Hall, a relationship counsellor with Relate, the trend among the over-50s can be attributed to a higher expectation of romantic relationships, rather than disregard for marriage.

"People used to stay together come what may because that was what you did, " she says. "The concept of a marriage being happy or unhappy wasn't relevant.

Now we want happy, fulfilling relationships. We live longer, healthier lives, we have another 20 or 30 years of marriage and people are unwilling to spend all that time in an unhappy relationship."

The think-tank Demos predicts that there will be two million elderly people living alone in 10 years' time. Dr Maryanne Vandervelde, a psychologist and founder of the Institute for Couples In Retirement in Seattle, has spent many years exploring the challenges faced by couples after many years of marriage.

After retirement, she says, couples can be surprised that life isn't as straightforward as they always predicted it would be. The long periods of free time, decisions about where to live and how to manage money, whether to get pets and what kind of sex life they want to have, are suddenly much more pressing issues.

"One reason so many couples have problems in retirement is that they don't anticipate the changes accurately, " she writes in her self-help book Retirement for Two. "The adjustment may take some time and effort, and retirement will never be perfect."

Hall adds that many people are divorcing, just because it seems a less difficult option. "There's less stigma attached to it, more people are doing it, so more want to do it. And because there are more people doing it, there are more single people available, and the prospect of finding someone new is increased."

For others, however, divorcing after decades of dedication is nothing nearly as cosy as a lifestyle choice. Margaret Cook's very public separation from the ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook at the age of 52 was forced upon her after 28 years of marriage, when it came to light he had been having an affair. Her view of divorce among her age-group is that it's a natural follow up to an era of increased sexual freedom, but also "the way men are".

"The superimposition of the male ethos on the female ethos has a lot to do with it, " she says.

"Sticking with someone for life is part of the female morality and men have to come up against it or fit in with it."

Young women, she says, should prepare for this because it is unlikely to change. "Men aren't all rotten, " she says. "But if we're realistic, what they get out of a relationship and what a woman does are completely different.

When someone divorces in their 50s they are left with precious little.

They lose their esteem, social network, their friends and house.

"Young women entering into relationships must not lose their identities in it. It's easy to get caught up in the romance, and think that yours is different, and lose touch with friends or your own source of income.

"The tendency is to follow the man and get lazy about your own network. This kind of imprinting is something women do much more strongly than men. Men want women to do that, and will often belittle their relations and friends, encouraging women to drop them. The longer you're with a partner, the more inextricably linked you are, and the more painful the split can then be."

If all that sounds rather bleak, Cook is nothing if not an example of how even a messy and unwanted divorce can be turned into an opportunity.

"Although it hurt, my divorce being so public gave me a voice.

Anything I said ended up near a newspaper front page, and that was seductive and empowering.

"It must have wreaked all kinds of psychological havoc for me but it also meant that I discovered I like writing and having my views known.

"For most people, this won't be their situation, but they must make an opportunity of whatever theirs is. When people are bereaved or lose a partner they can get a real burst of emotional energy, and it needs an outlet."

But not even Cook, who used her burst of emotional energy to write an explosive autobiography and Lords of Creation: The Demented World of Men in Power, thinks women left single later in life should give up hope of finding another excellent partner.

"There are an awful lot of lonely people out there and nobody should give in, " she says, in agony aunt mode. "It's not the end of your life, and it's no shameful thing to sign up to a dating agency.

"Men tend to drown themselves in beer, but women tend to go out more. It's crazy when there are other people in the same situation to not go out and meet each other."


Getting under one another's feet

Some couples feel guilty for getting irritated by being in one another's company for too long, but it's natural to want a little freedom. Find at least one activity you both enjoy so you can spend fun time together, but allow one another exclusive hobbies too.

Arguments over money

Some retired people want to enjoy the money they've worked hard for, but others are more cautious. It's important to address the issue, as money niggles can be the cause of bitter resentment.

Poor communication

After years of marriage, routine can end up being the thing that happens where conversations used to be. Make time to talk to your partner about something other than taking out the bins.

Realising you've changed

The children leave home, and you see the ways you neglected your own marriage to look after them. See this as an opportunity to rejuvenate your marriage.