Attributed to baby boomers are numerous societal trends, ranging from the counterculture to consumerism. Their influence now extends to the phenomenon dubbed “grey divorce,” where couples decide to end their marriages in middle age or later, often after decades of being together. While uncommon in India, the prevalence of ‘Grey Divorce’ is increasing in the United States.
After a 27-year partnership, Bill and Melinda Gates have separated, surprising many as their once-perceived perfect marriage undergoes a “grey divorce.” In 2010, another widely known couple, Al Gore and Tipper Gore, chose to part ways after four decades of marriage. Despite their image of stability and longevity, the reasons for their decision remain undisclosed. As social gerontology practitioners, we encounter similar late-life divorces recently. In this article, we explore the aftermath of such divorces in old age, particularly focusing on older women.

Unprompted, Anila continued to share her perspective. “Loneliness used to feel unbearable. That was my outlook a few years ago, but now I find joy in being single and embracing solitude. Being alone can be truly fulfilling! Many of us endure unhappy and unhealthy marriages simply to avoid solitude. It is preferable to face life without a companion than to stay with a person without the love and respect we deserve and I convinced myself not to succumb unsolicited societal pressures.”

“As the divorce progressed, I have noticed something ‘new’ happening. There was no resentment to grow. I was able to read a good book on the couch. There was no worry about the TV blaring a sports game I never cared about. I discovered that I liked coming and going as I pleased. The ability to sit by myself, go places and explore the things that i wanted to do was wonderful. There was no one to worry about. The ability to set our own schedule and run our homes and lives without worry about our spouse was liberating. In short, less plates in the dishwasher and less laundry.”

As the sense of freedom gradually overcame the fear of solitude, a new question arises: are you ready for the upcoming solo journey, particularly in the realm of old age? Perhaps you experienced moments of panic throughout the challenging divorce proceedings. Sleepless nights may have been filled with thoughts like, “I’ve built my life around this marriage, invested everything in this partnership. Can I navigate life without them? What will others think?”

Regardless of the circumstances, your marital status now reads ‘divorcee.’ An intriguing shift occurs during the separation—you find yourself compelled to navigate life independently. Without a partner to lean on or confide in, the familiar plea of “I have no idea what to do!” fades away. Instead, you delve into research, seek advice from friends, relatives, and professionals, all aiding you in navigating the complex waters of divorce and its aftermath.

Anila unfolded the intricate tale of her marriage saga. “After 20 years, my marriage ended. My husband fell for a much younger woman. Honestly, he was my favorite person, and he always claimed I was his.”

“I never saw it coming, and when it happened, I was shattered. Initially, I tried to reconcile, spending months attempting to win him back and, at times, trying to disrupt his new relationship. But it was futile. The following year was marked by grief for what I had lost, grappling with how to navigate a life that felt unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Eventually, I no longer desired him back, and I promise, it’s been a long, challenging journey for me. Yet, as time passed, the pain became more bearable. Today, I find happiness in my ‘single’ status,” Anila sighed.

Anila shared insights from her self-taught wisdom, emphasising the initial panic over finances post-split. However, she highlighted how, through budgeting, learning to save, and making adjustments, individuals can adapt their lives regardless of income.

“From my experience, I can say that, without even realising it, I started taking care of myself. Learning from our mistakes, we’ll make the best decisions for our future. Making plans to regain happiness and reclaiming our lives becomes important. I believe this tough time will change us. In the beginning, after the split, I doubted if I could survive, but in the end, I not only survived but became more successful.” Anila now feels free, realising the future is hers. As she finished her story, there was triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself like a victorious goddess, even if she didn’t realise it.

“I gave up a lot, trying to balance marriage, being a mom, and having a career. Sadly, in the end, I felt like everyone made a fool out of me – not just my husband and family but society too. Sometimes, I think I wasted 23 years of my life on someone who wasn’t worth it. The only good thing is I didn’t quit my job at BEML, a public company. I needed it to raise my kids all by myself. Unlike me, many women sacrifice their careers. During those years, you probably put your dreams on hold to be an ‘ideal wife and mother,” sighed Girija Sargunar with relief.

“We met her a few years ago when she was Girija Mukundan. She came to our office to talk about her mom’s recovery after a hip replacement. ‘I don’t want to use my ex-husband’s name anymore. He’s a devil. I’m not Girija Mukundan; I’ve gone back to my maiden name, Girija Sargunar.’ An upset Girija then shared her bitter experiences, similar to Anila’s.”

“It was really tough, to be honest. Forget about the husband; when even the kids blame and despise you, it feels like the end. My kids don’t talk to me anymore because they see me as the one who messed up the marriage. Fortunately, I had my job, and my brother provided a stable support in the shaky ground of my life.”

“Neither of us were happy. We disagreed on money, sex, and keeping things tidy and what not. He had serious drinking problems and spent money recklessly. I felt more like a househelp than a wife for the last 15 years of our relationship. With three kids, it was challenging. Being the only one working and feeling responsible for everything at home was tough. He never had a steady career and didn’t contribute financially, despite having rental income from his family property. Our sex life was practically nonexistent, and we had financial problems along with his tantrums. That’s why I justified my decision,” explained Girija.

How do you define a good marriage? If your response is affirmative to questions like “Does this marriage make me happier as a person?” and “Is my marriage contributing to my self-fulfilment?” then we consider it a good marriage. Unlike the past, there’s no obligation to stay married against all odds. We believe you have the right to be happy and live in an environment that nurtures your happiness and unique personality.

If the answers to these questions are no, then divorce may be seen as an acceptable solution, even if it feels a bit late. In contrast to previous generations, many women today have resources and financial independence, providing them with an alternative way out of an unsatisfying marriage. More women are embracing this newfound freedom. We believe each partner has the right to be happy and thrive in an environment that supports their happiness and unique personality.

In today’s world, late-life divorces are more prevalent than ever, and the reason is simple: “People are living longer,” notes Paula, a 51-year-old who went through a late-life divorce. “If you make it to 65, you might have another 20 years ahead, and that’s a substantial time to spend with someone you’re no longer happy with,” she adds. “So, you might decide it’s time to call it quits.”

Paula challenges the common stigma attached to divorce, advising, “Don’t let other people’s opinions shape your life choices.” In the past, women who ended relationships in their 50s and 60s often felt lonely, isolated, and stigmatised. However, social media is filled with stories of single women over 50 living their best lives—traveling, relocating, picking up new hobbies, starting businesses, and meeting new people. Paula concludes, “Don’t allow your insecurities to imprison you.”

Concluding a marriage, especially after a prolonged period, is a complex and intricate process. Taking that step can be intimidating – transitioning from a familiar yet unhappy life to one filled with uncertainty and stress. However, it’s crucial to recognise that a realm of new opportunities awaits if you choose to embark on this journey.

If you opt for a separation in your 20s or 30s, you have ample “time” and “youth” to undergo a complete transformation. However, the dynamics change when divorcing after 50, becoming more intricate and demanding extra attention. Foremost among these concerns is alimony, which, at this stage, can significantly impact both parties. The recipient may struggle financially without alimony, while the payer may find it challenging to sustain their own life after making alimony payments. In either scenario, it proves to be a difficult situation.

In India, the calculation of alimony is a straightforward process where the court determines compensation without involving complex computations. However, the scenario differs in America and Europe. Determining alimony in these regions entails a lengthy list of intricate factors, including restricted stock units, pension funds, bonuses, ownership stakes, travel perks, car allowances, and executive compensation packages.

Further complicating matters, some cases involve a spouse sacrificing their career to support the other through education to become a doctor, lawyer, or another professional. Alimony becomes crucial in such situations, especially when the sacrificing partner is older and possesses limited job skills.

Another intricate challenge is navigating the division of assets in long-term marriages. This process can be considerably more complex, especially when assessing the value of retirement funds and distinguishing marital assets from non-marital ones. Fixed assets, vehicles, loans, pension funds, insurance, and investments all require careful consideration.

Social Security considerations may be insignificant in India, but in developed nations, the social security of spouses holds significant importance. Deciding whether one partner should draw from the other’s Social Security or use their own benefits requires careful consideration before reaching a financial settlement. When contemplating a grey divorce, seeking advice from a knowledgeable Chartered Accountant or tax consultant, in addition to your lawyer, can be highly beneficial.

Now, suppose you’ve navigated the challenging situation successfully; what comes next? As social gerontologists, we have a few tips. But before that, let’s revisit the stories of Anila, Girija, and Paula.

Anila, for instance, reconnected with old classmates through WhatsApp and Facebook. Sharing her situation, a close friend suggested she relocate to Chennai, near her house. This friend recommended joining a baking class for six months. This marked the beginning of the second phase of Anila’s journey, and today, she successfully runs a bakery with three branches, employing 28 people. Her social life revolves around the church and YWCA.

Girija, who has yet to retire, feels abandoned by her children. Despite the monotony of her current job, she plans to join her brother’s family in Tumkur upon retirement, where she’s constructing a new house next to his. Currently leading a solitary life, she is somewhat of a loner.

In contrast, Paula has never worked and has no inclination to do so. She embraces a socialite lifestyle, moving from one club to another, with a significant portion of her time dedicated to Rotary club and other social organisations. Through her divorce settlement, she managed to secure a substantial fortune from her millionaire husband. Paula is a carefree and happy-go-lucky individual.

recommendations are there for individuals experiencing grey divorce? Our inquiry to you is, what’s your strategy for old age now that you’re back to a ‘single’ status? Despite societal biases, sometimes harsh, and the potential reluctance of family and friends to engage, it’s crucial to have a well-defined plan for your later years.

Considering these challenges, a thoughtfully crafted plan for old age becomes essential. While everyone should plan for their later years, those likely to be solo agers face a particularly urgent need to plan ahead. In our view, it’s vital to establish sustainable social, legal, medical, financial, and other support systems for ‘solo’ aging. The following list outlines some of these strategies, and we won’t delve into further explanations.

  1. Prioritise Retirement Savings
  2. Evaluate Housing Choices
  3. Make Legal Preparations
  4. Establish Medical Care Support Systems
  5. Commit to a Thoughtful Aging Plan

Now, let’s explore some of the advantages and disadvantages of grey divorce.

Pros of Divorce Over 50:

  1. Opportunities to meet new people and form new relationships.
  2. Increased self-awareness and clarity about personal desires.
  3. Attainment of financial independence.
  4. Regaining control and autonomy.
  5. Freedom to make personal choices.

Cons of Divorce Over 50:

  1. Divorce is like encountering a roadblock; now, taking a detour is the only option.
  2. Reflecting on pleasant times with mutual friends may lead to uncomfortable moments.
  3. Adoption of the marital status “Divorced” unless one chooses to remarry.
  4. Heartbreak and challenges associated with leaving one’s “home.”
  5. Despite social engagement and passionate hobbies, moments of intense loneliness may arise.
  6. Assuming all responsibilities, including household chores, bills, and shopping.

Exploring the prevalent phenomenon of ‘grey divorce,’ we find that it is no longer an uncommon occurrence. As social gerontologists, we enumerate a few reasons contributing to the recent surge in such divorces.

1. Life Spans are Increasing: One of the major reasons why grey divorce is becoming more common is that people are living longer and healthier lives. With people living longer, they also often have more time to pursue their own interests and hobbies. This can lead to feelings of boredom or resentment in a marriage if one spouse feels like they are sacrificing their own happiness for the sake of the relationship.

2. Less Taboo Views: Across the world, views about the relationship, marriage and divorce are changing. As laws regarding divorce have changed over time, it has become easier for couples to file. With more and more couples seeing divorce as an option to make a positive change in their lives, opinions of the process have also changed.

3. No Children at Home: In addition, many couples who divorce later in life have already raised their children and are now Empty Nesters. With the kids out of the house, these couples can find that they have little in common and decide to go their separate ways. There is also the common thought of staying together for the children's sake. While the intention behind this idea may be good, it does not always end positively.

4. Financial Struggles and Stressors: Furthermore, studies have shown that couples experiencing financial stress are more likely to divorce. This can often be the case with grey divorcees because they may be nearing retirement and worried about money. If a couple is having issues with money, this can lead to more contentious communication or feelings of resentment.

5. Finding New Connections: Finally, social media can also play a role in grey divorce. Sites like Facebook allow people to reconnect with old friends and flirt with potential new partners. This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction in a relationship if someone feels like they are missing out on something by being married.