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New Trend: Late-Life Divorce on the Rise


Deirdre Bair, an award-winning biographer of Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Carl Jung was sitting in her dentist’s waiting room when an article from AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) The Magazine caught her eye: The New Dimensions of Divorce: Why More Women Than Ever Are Calling It Quits (and Why Men Don’t See It Coming). The article, published in July 2004, was based on surveys with 1,147 men and women, ages 40 to 79, who had divorced between the ages of 40 and 60. It hit a chord with Bair, whose own marriage had ended in divorce after 43 years.

On leaving the dentist’s office, Bair quickly phoned her agent, who rhymed off a list of her own stories. Her overseas agent claimed late-life divorce was an "epidemic" in Europe, rampant in France and Germany. Bair discovered a similar trend in Australia and New Zealand, where she lectured in 2005.

She decided to take a closer look, conducting nearly 400 interviews with ex-wives, ex-husbands and their adult children. The study crossed class lines and included straight, gay and lesbian couples living throughout the world.

To be included, participants had to be married at least 20 years. Most were in their 50s; the oldest was 85. They answered questions about the length of the marriage, the roles played by each partner, how they had come to believe divorce was their only option and whether or not life after divorce had turned out to be what they hoped for.

Bair has published the results in the first book on the topic: Calling it Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over (Random House).

It’s Time to Go

The findings reveal some surprising realities including how women initiate the greatest percentage of late-life divorces. The reasons often amount to plain old unhappiness. But it often takes many years and much careful planning before the ultimate "Eureka!" moment. According to Bair, there is a pattern of growing apart – giving way to indifference, lack of communication and scant sharing on any level.

Take "Patricia" and "Donald", who both came from large families. Patricia, 63, was tired of being a sounding board for family members. She was especially tired of listening to her adult children complain about the ups and downs of their marriages. Patricia juggled demanding work as a senior administrator for a law firm and entertaining clients for her husband, a manufacturing company executive. But none of this impressed Donald. "Never a hug now and then, never a compliment that I cooked a good dinner or put on a good party for his business. Heaven forbid that he’d tell me I looked good!" she said.

"Anne", a war bride from England, transplanted first to Canada and than to a remote town in the Australian outback, was in her 70s, when she decided she "just wanted out." Recounting the exact moment, she said: "I got up that morning and cooked breakfast for "Des" and my two grown sons who still lived with us and worked our farm. Then I did the washing up and several loads of laundry and hung it out to dry. I fed the chickens and was weeding the garden in the broiling sun when Des came to the back door and said, ‘Where’s my lunch? It’s time for my lunch.’ And that was it . . . I knew it was then or never."

After retiring from the air force, "David", in his mid 60s, took a job as a defense contractor. David and "Marlene" had been married 32 years, when an "ordinary little thing" triggered his divorce. An arrow light flashed on the car’s dashboard. Marlene had forgotten what David told her it indicated on the two previous times it happened. Rather than check the manual, she phoned his office, and insisted his secretary put through her "urgent" call during a crucial meeting. That night David told his wife that he was "tired of propping her and the kids up time after time, after time." He had no idea "what was out there" for himself, but he wanted to find out.

Contrary to stereotypes, the interviews reveal how for both sexes, the splits are motivated less frequently by a desire to trade in the older for younger models, and more by such intangibles as "freedom", "identity", or "more control" over their lives.

Life after divorce

During the divorce process, most participants experienced a range of emotions, including feelings of failure, fear, anger, sadness and guilt.

After the divorce, the greater number of participants report being "happy". "I know I did the right thing," they said.

When asked what they liked most about their new life, men said, "having more money of my own." Women liked most being "independent", "in charge" and "having control" over their lives.

Response of adult children

Most adult children are devastated by the breakdown of their parents’ marriages. Others are angry, and a smaller number wonder, "What took them so long? Why didn’t they do this sooner?" Nearly all the adult children appeared more guarded, less romantic and far more pragmatic about human relationships, Bair reported.