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What is a 'gray divorce'? 6 things to know about splitting up later in life

Breaking up is hard to do — but is it any easier when you're older and wiser?
While divorce rates are declining overall, there is one age group that seems to be splitting up more often: people 55 and older.
While divorce rates are declining overall, there is one age group that seems to be splitting up more often: people 55 and older.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images stock

While the U.S. divorce rate may be at a 50-year low, divorce is much more common among those who are 55 and older. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, divorce rates were highest (about 43%) among both sexes, aged 55 to 64. Recent “high profile” separations like Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, and most recently, Bill and Melinda Gates, have brought national attention to this growing trend: gray divorces. In other words, couples in long-term marriages, perhaps staying in a less-than-ideal situation until their kids left the proverbial nest, are now forging their own single paths.

Like any life decision, there are a few things one should consider before splitting up at an older age. From the financial and social ramifications to how your older kids will react, to retirement fallout and the ability to make unilateral decisions after spending so much time consulting someone else, gray divorce isn’t necessarily harder or easier — just different.

“The hardest part was the feeling of ‘failing at a marriage’ and separating a shared life of more than 30 years,” Katie M., 61, who got divorced after 34 years of marriage and didn't wish to share her last name, told TODAY. “What made it easier was that my children were adults, financially we were in a better place, and my life experiences made me stronger to handle it all. And of course, life-long friends who were there to offer emotional support.”

No two marriages or circumstances are the same, and every divorce will require a unique set of compromises, but if you are older and considering leaving your spouse, here are a few things divorce lawyers, family therapists and those who have been there, encourage you to consider.

1. There are questions you should ask yourself before leaving.

“Divorce is situationally dependent, but generally being self-reflective and very, very clear about why you’re doing this, and not coming from a place of being reactionary, is key,” Meredith Shirey, a licensed psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast “Love me or Leave Me,” told TODAY. “Because if you have children and you have been together for a long time and have very entangled lives, it does not just affect you.”

Shirey suggests you ask yourself a few key questions before you move forward with a formal separation or divorce:

  • What do I hope happens? In other words, what is the best case scenario and the worst case scenario?
  • What am I gaining if I leave?
  • What am I losing if I leave?

Of course, there are also financial questions to consider, including how you’ll be able to support yourself and, if you’re the breadwinner, if you’re willing and able to pay spousal support and lose a portion of your retirement. But before thinking about money, Shirey advises that people take stock of their personal feelings, goals and expectations for both married and single life.

“It’s about doing that personal assessment, because ultimately you cannot live your life for other people,” she said. “So really it’s all about taking that personal inventory and cost/benefit analysis of what is coming up for you, why it’s coming up now, who is this going to impact and how is this going to impact them?”

2. It might be easier to make a clean break.

Mary Katherine Brown, an attorney practicing family and matrimonial law for more than 20 years in New York City, said that a number of factors can make divorce later in life actually easier. From the age of any children the couple may have had, to their financial situations, to the work they’ve already done to get through previous rough patches, it can be easier to make a clean break.

“Divorce can be easier later in life rather than when you’re right in the ‘thick of it’ and you have young kids,” Brown explained. “Your parents might be more judgmental, your kids might be more judgmental, and in many ways you’re just stuck when you’re in your 30s and 40s. But by the time you’re in your later 50s, 60s and beyond, you don’t have to apologize to anyone for any of your decisions, and most people can accept that. So I’d say that’s a big plus.”

That was certainly the case for Katy Leopard, 53, who divorced after 22 years of marriage. While she decided to remain in her marriage until her kids were older and did have a difficult time bucking the social stigma of divorce, when she did make the break she realized that her age and life experiences were helping her go through with her decision.

“My kids were older and in school full-time so I could go back to work full-time,” she says. “And as an older woman I knew so much more about what I wanted from a partner, and it was not at all what I valued as a younger person. Women at this age know what to give a f--- about and what really does not matter."

3. It might actually be harder on your children.

While parents are often encouraged to “stay together for the children,” Shirey says divorce after the children have left the home can actually be more difficult from the kids’ perspective.

“Divorce when your kids are younger can be harder in the immediate, because you’re very wrapped up in your feelings and the children’s feelings and everything that impacts both,” she explained. “At the same time, because you are so present you are probably paying attention a bit more to what’s going on and to your kids’ well-being. So the divorce might be easier for the parents if they’re doing it after the kids have left the nest, and it might actually be harder on the kids.”

That was the case for Christine F., 52, who got divorced after 17 years of marriage. Christine asked that her last name be omitted to protect her family's privacy. While her children (ranging in ages from 10 to 17 years old at the time) seemed to adjust to the separation seamlessly, she later learned the divorce did take a toll.

“The kids seemed indifferent to our divorce,” she said, reflecting on that time. But years later, Christine said her oldest child had been working through some resentment regarding the separation. “She was 24 and called me and dumped on me emotionally for well over an hour, weepy. (Two of) my children are now 19 and 26. We are learning in new ways all the time how our divorce impacted their lives.”

Shirey encourages parents who are divorcing later in life to not automatically assume their children will cope just because they’re adults. Instead, she encourages parents to make themselves available, to be willing to have difficult conversations, and to be forthright with their children.

“Be honest, but also keep in mind that they’re your children and you need to almost kind of mimic those earlier stages of parenting,” Shirey explains. “Have the boundary that you’re not going to disparage the other parent in front of your kids. And honestly, the best way that parents can prepare their children is to be prepared themselves.”

Shirey also said it’s typical for older children to question their childhoods in the aftermath of a divorce that happens later in life. “It’s probably going to be a crisis moment,” she says. “What was your whole marriage? Was my childhood a lie? Were you faking it? Are my memories real? So parents really need to be aware that that thinking may happen and be willing and able to field questions and have some harsh conversations."

4. Financially and socially, things could be trickier.

There are some unique challenges for those who divorce later in life, though, many of which deal with finances and the division of marital assets. For wealthy individuals, like Bill and Melinda Gates, Brown says it’s not so much money as it is legacy and, perhaps, businesses, brands or institutions the couple has built together that can be tricky to navigate.

“For high net worth people, it’s not about the money — there’s plenty of money to go around,” she said. “In that case, the issues that may be more in dispute are likely to be control, i.e. control of the things they built together. Who is going to carry that on? Who is going to control the legacy? Instead of, how am I going to get my extra billion because, I mean, how many billions do you need?”

For others, however, finances are exponentially more difficult to parse out after 15+ years of marriage, especially when one person has handled the finances or only one person worked outside the home.

“The ability to support yourself when you’ve been dependent on your spouse for the majority of the marriage. That’s the biggest issue,” Elliot Green, a family law attorney practicing in New York City, said.

When someone has spent 20 or more years trusting their partner to handle the finances, for example, there can be a disconnect between how much something costs, for example, or how much money is really available to them, once they are separated and responsible for handling their own finances.

“That’s the kind of thing that people fall into in long-term marriages: this one is in charge of this and this one is in charge of that,” Brown explained. “And if you look at a business, you wouldn’t expect the IT department to know anything about marketing and vice versa, right? And why would you? They have a job to do and they all work together to get the job done. And that’s what a marriage is — an economic partnership."

5. Mediation is a great option, even if you’re still going to get divorced.

“I think mediation is a good product,” Green said. “The benefit is that you’re in court but you can see a trained mediator who can help you with things that are sticking points: child support, spousal support, a division of an asset. They’re trained and they’re employed by the court.”

Green stressed that if there are allegations of domestic violence or restraining orders involved, mediation is not an option, due to the imbalance of power present in the relationship that would put one party at a disadvantage versus the other. But in most cases, it’s a useful tool that can help move cases quicker and resolve issues sooner. After all, as Green said: “The longer you fight, the more the attorneys make and the less you keep for yourself.”

6. Despite social judgment and shame, divorce is normal.

While divorce has certainly become more commonplace and relatively accepted by the general public over the years, it still carries a significant amount of shame, stigma and judgment, especially among certain religious populations. But Shirey encourages everyone, whether they’re contemplating divorce or not, to remember the realities of romantic relationships.

“Life is short and when we created marriage, relationships and monogamy we weren’t necessarily expecting to have to spend 60 or 70 years with somebody,” she said. “It’s normal for love to go through phases and it’s also normal for love to leave a relationship. And so I think it’s about not judging yourself or others, but about deciding what makes sense for you right now. Nobody has a crystal ball and we make the best decisions we can based on the information we have at the time.”