Acclaimed biographer Deirdre Bair has mapped the surprising landscape of late-life divorce in Calling it Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over (Random House). Bair, whose own marriage ended in divorce after 43 years, conducted nearly 400 interviews with ex-wives, ex-husbands and their adult children.
All had been married at least 20 years. Most were in their 50s; the oldest was 85. They answered questions about 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 been what they had hoped for.
Here are some highlights from the study:
- Many men and women saw their divorce as an opportunity to launch a new life chapter.
- Breakups were more about intangibles such as "freedom", "identity" and "having control" and less about secret love affairs and trading in older for younger models.
- Women initiated the splits more often than men did. Many men didn’t know what hit them.
- Many individuals were just plain unhappy. "Patricia," 63, had grown tired of juggling work as a senior administrator for a law firm, entertaining clients for her husband, a manufacturing company executive, and listening to her adult children complain about the ups and downs of their marriages. Similarly, "David," in his mid 60s, was tired of propping up his wife and kids with scant thanks.
- Mindful of the clock ticking down, some wanted a chance to live life on their own terms, even when it meant less financial security. "Anne" a British war bride living in the Australian outback, was in her 70s, when she decided she "just wanted out." Another woman, married for 53 years woke up after a kidney transplant and told her husband, "I don’t know how many years I have left, I just know I don’t want to spend them with you."
- Marriage breakdowns hit adult children hard. Many were devastated, some were angry and a few wondered, "What took them so long?"
- Men and women who wanted companionship after divorce found it. Some women took the dining and dancing and then went home to their own beds and their own houses. They had cooked their share of suppers and picked up enough socks.