Silver Separation – Divorce at 60

A recent story in the British newspaper The Telegraph described an interesting trend among senior citizens. So-called ”silver separation’’, the parting of couples in their sixties after as many as 40 years of marriage, is on the rise, bucking the general downward trend in divorce in the United Kingdom.

Back across the pond in the United States, there seems to be a similar trend.

Former Vice President Al Gore, 64, separated from his wife Tipper in 2010 – after 40 years of marriage. And the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, 65 – separated last year from Maria Shriver, his wife of 25 years.

“People feel that if they don’t make a break for it, they’re never going to do it,” says Geraldine Bedell, editor of the website Gransnet, a British site for grandparents, told The Telegraph.

The British actress Diana Quick was 61 when she separated from her actor husband, Bill Nighy – after 27 years.  “There are far more couples splitting up in their sixties now and one reason is that they can,” Quick told the newspaper. “Economically, they have more independence.”

Three years ago, 11,500 people in England and Wales over 60 were granted a divorce. In 2010 (the most recent year for which figures are available) the count rose to almost 14,600. While only five per cent of the total, over-sixties divorce continues to rise, even as overall divorce rates decline to a level last seen in the 1970s. The reasons are varied, but for many disillusioned spouses, the basic answer is because – they can, British researchers report.

“This is going to become more common – it’s inevitable,” Ros Altmann, director-general of the over-fifties lifestyle company Saga, told The Telegraph. “Many men and women who hit their sixties still have parents alive and realize that it’s not all over. They have lots of life ahead of them, and think, ‘What do I want?’”

American sociologist Susan Brown said she divides the evolution of marriage into distinct periods. First, there was the ”institutional phase”, in which marriage was regarded as an “essentially economic arrangement.”  This was succeeded, after the Second World War, by the ”companionate phase’’, in which men and women were judged by their conventional roles as bread-winner and housewife. Then, she said, some time in the 1970s, a new era in male-female relations dawned – the ”individualised phase’’. This is all about personal need – ”me-ness’’ – and a traditional marriage lasting four decades is unlikely to meet its demanding criteria, particularly for women, Altmann said.

“Also, people simply no longer feel old at 60, and realise they have years of life ahead of them,” Altmann said.” Nowadays, when you hit your sixties, it can be the start of a new life. Maybe you’re stopping work, maybe the children are leaving home, and you suddenly think: ‘What next?’

Altmann said she has seen the unhappiness that can follow a late and unexpected divorce. “I have a friend who never worked, as she was caring for others. Then her husband decided he wanted a ‘younger model’. He walked out and she is finding it so difficult to earn money; she has lost the pension support, too. She thought they would be together forever. Lots of women are in a similar situation.”

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