published Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Gray divorcees: Shifting divorce culture claims more couples over 50

Research shows lifelong marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies.
Research shows lifelong marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies.
Photo: Getty Images/Hemera

“Older people love a good romance as much as 20-somethings, and many of us still get just as love-drunk as we did when we wore size 32 Levi’s.”

— Charles Massie, author of "Stains on the Gavel"

Mike Payne believes he knows why his marriage of 27 years didn’t last. He and his former wife concentrated on their two children and not their relationship, he says.

“To me, it was hard. I lost interest and lost touch of who my partner was in the marriage,” says Payne, of Hixson. “We had become companions, not partners.”

Payne, 59, fits the age demographic for whom divorce is a growing statistic. Think baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, who turn 50 to 68 this year. According to research by Bowling Green State University sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, the number of people 50 and older to divorce has doubled in the past 20 years, about the time the oldest boomers were approaching the half-century mark.

Their research, titled “The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010,” says one in four people who divorced in 2009 were 50 and older. They offer several reasons for the “gray” divorce trend: the economy, history of relationships and the role of men and women in general. They cite several 2007 studies suggesting that broad cultural shifts in how people perceive marriage and divorce influence all generations, including older adults.

Chattanooga psychologist Les Kertay explains that marriage as a lifelong institution has become a “weakening norm” in the United States. Today, marriage is much more about individual fulfillment and satisfaction, he says. “I think that as older adults experience other life transitions, whether it be retirement or an empty nest, it’s a chance to pause and reflect and think about: ‘Is this the person I want to spend another 20 or 30 years with?’ ”

Likewise, researchers Brown and Lin note a “heightened emphasis on individual fulfillment.” Increasingly, even those in long-term first marriages are less likely to remain together when they grow apart as a couple.

“Marriages change and evolve over the life course and thus may no longer meet one’s needs at later life stages,” the research reads. … “Lifelong marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies; older adults are more reluctant now to remain in empty shell marriages.”

Former Chattanoogan Harvey Whitaker, 60, of New Jersey, has been married twice, both times for 12 years. He has no contact with his first wife, but says his second wife remains his “best friend and confidant,” though they drifted apart emotionally and physically while married. “We are better friends now than we ever were as husband and wife.”

He takes pride in the fact that he’s learned to “live and be alone,” but he doesn’t rule out a third marriage.

“I want to find someone again, but I believe you can’t go looking for love but that it will find you,” he says. “I’m still waiting.”

Payne, who remarried three years after his divorce, says he’s committed to making his second marriage last.

“I think there is someone out there that is a perfect partner for each of us,” he says. “Just don’t settle, and you’ll be happy.”

NEW TRENDS IN AGING

According to Brown and Lin, the U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the world, with roughly 45 percent of marriages expected to end through divorce. Although divorce has been studied extensively among younger adults, the research to date has essentially ignored divorce that affects adults over age 50, they say.

The omission is notable because of America’s aging society, the report says. “Baby boomers were the first cohorts to divorce and remarry in large numbers during young adulthood. Now, they are aging into their 50s and 60s, and this portends a growing number of older adults will experience divorce since remarriages are more likely than first marriages to end through divorce.”

Kertay, who has a Ph.D in clinical psychology, explains that marriage was more “role-oriented” in the 1950s and ’60s.

“It was characterized as more of a companionate marriage, in which we assessed its quality or success in terms of how we performed our roles as a wife or a husband,” he says. “A husband was to be a good provider; a wife was to be a good mother and homemaker. And if you performed those roles well, then you should be satisfied with your marriage. And personal happiness was much less central to the equation.

“Fast-forward to the late 1960s and through the 1970s, when we see much greater focus on self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. What am I getting from this marriage? If this marriage isn’t making me happy in life, then divorce is an acceptable solution.”

A 58-year-old local businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, says divorce was the only way out of his troubled 12-year marriage. He ended the marriage nearly two years ago because of the constant bickering and pessimism.

“I filed for the divorce,” he says. “She was against it. I wanted a pleasant, peaceful environment and wanted to simplify life and downsize. She didn’t agree. Divorce was a tough decision to make, but once it was made, I was good with it.”

An experience with cancer two years ago further cemented his desire to avoid “negativity.”

“At this age, I have a sense of mortality and realize that we have to live as if each moment may be our last,” he says.

He doesn’t see marriage in his near future, partly because of a demanding work schedule. “When I retire, maybe,” he says.

Getting back into the dating scene can be challenging for older divorcées, says Charles Massie, a baby boomer who wrote about his online dating experience in a new novel, “Stains on the Gavel.”

“Older people love a good romance as much as 20-somethings, and many of us still get just as love-drunk as we did when we wore size 32 Levi’s,” Massie says. “But you’ve really got to be careful, whether you’re a woman or a man. A lot of women my age complain the men they meet haven’t changed at all in 50 years — they want to skip the coffee and head straight for the bedroom.”

Because of the increase in baby-boomer divorces, online matchmaking websites such as SilverSingles, SeniorPassions and dating.aarp.org have cropped up to cater to older divorcees. Established matchmaking websites are showing growth in the demographic too. Match.com, for instance, reports a 90 percent increase in baby-boomer clientele in the last five years, with a quarter of its 15 million users ages 50 to 65.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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