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Robert B. Buchanan
By: Robert B. Buchanan

Gray Divorce: Reasons why older couples separate

Family Law

In a quiet suburban neighborhood Jack and Lenore built their lives together. Married just after high school, the two tackled some of life’s biggest challenges – college, children, and careers. Together they bought a home, bought cars, and saw their kids grow to be exceptional young adults.

Once the kids moved out of the house and the two entered retirement, the dynamic of their relationship changed. The goals and aspirations they both once shared were no longer the glue holding them together – they decided that they wanted to explore all the things they didn’t get a chance to when they were younger.

Jack wanted to travel. Lenore wanted to take up a hobby in one of the now vacant rooms of their home. While they both still felt strong emotional bonds to each other, it just wasn’t enough anymore. So, they decided the time had come to file for divorce.

People say that things get better with age – but what happens when love doesn’t follow the same principle?

Among U.S. adults ages 50 or older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s. When a couple divorces later in life, the term ‘gray divorce’ is used to describe it. It isn’t just splitting silverware or deciding who keeps the house – there is a lot more involved in gray divorce than signing on the dotted line.

The Rise of Gray Divorce in Modern Society

A 2021 report by the Census Bureau found that 34.9% of all divorces during 2020 were in the 55+ age range. The numbers for this age group were twice the rate of the other age groups surveyed. There are several reasons why gray divorces are on the rise – including shifts in marital expectations and longevity.

For a long time, society has expected that those who said ‘til death do us part to stick together no matter what. Nowadays, older adults are redefining marital satisfaction faster than millennials who swipe right on dating apps. Older adults are realizing that the stigma around divorce isn’t all it is cracked up to be and they want more out of life and love.

Baby boomers are vacating decades-long unions to chase their dreams now that the years of diaper duty and mortgage payments are coming to an end. They are asking themselves if they can see spending another 20+ years with their current plus-one, now that life expectancy has people living well into their eighties and beyond in good health.

Economic Independence as a Catalyst for Change

If there ever was a game-changer fueling the gray divorce phenomenon among older couples, it’s cold hard cash—or rather, access to it by women who once were financially dependent on their husbands to maintain livelihood. More women have financial stability; no longer tethered to unsatisfying relationships because breaking free doesn’t mean economic doom anymore.

Key Takeaway: Gray divorce is on the rise as older adults seek more from life and love, empowered by better health, economic independence, and shifting societal norms. They’re embracing new freedoms to rediscover themselves and explore fresh beginnings beyond traditional expectations.

Reasons Behind Older Couples Parting Ways

In today’s age, divorce is not an uncommon occurrence like it was 50 years ago. “The times they are a-changing” is not just a song by Bob Dylan – it is the reality that we live in. Men and women are finding that what they once thought they should do isn’t quite what they want to do anymore. Couples are more empowered, which is why gray divorce is becoming a trend that is here to stay.

Empty Nest Syndrome and Identity Rediscovery

When the last child leaves the house, many older couples aren’t sure what to do next. They find themselves looking at empty rooms and wondering “now what?” That is Empty Nest Syndrome in a nutshell.

For so many years, raising the kids, providing for them, and giving them more than they had growing up is the mentality (and the glue) that holds marriages together. When couples retire from constantly caring for their children, they find that the bond is not quite as strong as they once thought.

This shift can lead to an identity crisis – or something that closely resembles one. One or both partners might start asking big questions about happiness and fulfillment beyond family life. Some decide it’s time for individual growth and desire to embrace life solo or with someone new who shares their newfound passions.

Pursuit of Individual Growth Post-Retirement

Once a couple reaches retirement age and are no longer tied to the nine-to-five grind, they find themselves looking for ways to keep busy. You might think that endless rounds of golf, sipping Mai Tais on the beach, and weekly lunches at the country club are high on the list, but these activities tend to get old quick.

Couples who have different interests – especially when those interests don’t mesh well together – find themselves considering gray divorce. Take Jack and Lenore for example – Jack wants to travel, but Lenore prefers to take up a hobby. She isn’t interested in traveling the world or seeing the sights like Jack is. For them, choosing to part ways allowed them to chase their own personal happiness.

Key Takeaway: As the kids leave and retirement kicks in, many older couples begin wondering who they are. They start questioning their happiness and may choose solo paths to chase dreams that were previously put on hold.

The Financial Impact of Gray Divorce

No matter how long a couple is married (or what age they are), divorce is never easy and it brings with it complications that only get larger over time. The longer a couple is married, the more they accumulate together – retirement funds, property, savings, and so on. With gray divorce, it isn’t just hearts on the line, it is your wallet, too.

Navigating Retirement Funds During Gray Divorce

Dividing property and retirement assets is an emotional rollercoaster all on its own. While couples may have had post-retirement dreams when they were still young and in love, gray divorce brings about a whole new plan and 401(k)s, IRAs, pension plans—they’re all up for grabs. Terms like “QDRO” (Qualified Domestic Relations Order) become as familiar as the back of your hand because they decide who gets what from retirement funds and without tax repercussions.

Property Division Complications

The longer a couple is married, the more intertwined their assets become. Everything in the home needs an owner post-divorce. Determining who gets what can be heated if the couple can’t agree. Divorce lawyers are skilled at helping gray divorce couples determine who gets what amicably during divorce proceedings.

Key Takeaway: Gray divorce isn’t just a trend; it’s reshaping retirement and property division. As boomer couples untie the knot, they face unique legal hurdles like splitting long-held assets and figuring out retirement accounts—turning late-life breakups into complex financial puzzles.

Emotions During Gray Divorce

The decision to pursue a gray divorce often unfolds like the final act of a long play, where years of emotional undercurrents finally bubble to the surface. It’s not just about dividing property or who gets what; it’s also about intimacy issues and a lack of spontaneity that can leave partners feeling more like roommates than romantic companions.

Lack of Spontaneity: When Predictability Kills Romance

In marriages that have weathered decades, patterns solidify, and life can become predictably dull. For some older couples, the routine becomes suffocating—a silent thief stealing away their zest for life. These folks aren’t content with sitting on the porch watching sunsets. These spouses crave adventure and new experiences. When one partner is itching for change while the other prefers comfort in consistency, this clash over lifestyle choices sparks an emotional divide.

Intimacy Issues: The Slow Retreat from Emotional Closeness

An undeniable fact is that many baby boomers facing gray divorce today were raised in times where certain topics remained taboo and personal feelings went unexpressed. This bottled-up approach creates an invisible chasm between partners over time—one that grows wider as retirement looms and there’s suddenly too much unscheduled time staring them down each day.

Finding Themselves Again—or Maybe for the First Time

A startling revelation comes when Empty Nest Syndrome kicks in—some individuals realize they don’t know who they are outside being someone’s spouse or parent. It triggers questions like “Who am I really?” or “What do I want out of my remaining years?” Such existential questions ignite desires for individual growth post-retirement—and sometimes these paths diverge sharply from marital ones laid out long ago.

Key Takeaway: Gray divorce goes beyond the practicalities of separation, digging deep into emotional layers. It’s about partners feeling like roommates, a craving for spontaneity over predictability, and the quest to rediscover individual identity amidst life’s changes.

Navigating Your Gray Divorce in Chicago

Gray divorce shows us that growth doesn’t stop at 50. It reminds us that even after decades, older couples may separate in search of new beginnings. Divorce at any age can be complicated – but with the right Chicago divorce attorney by your side, anything is possible.

If you are considering gray divorce, reach out to The Law Offices of Robert B. Buchanan. Our experienced staff can help you navigate the complexities of divorcing after decades of marriage – including asset division, pensions, retirements, and more. You don’t have to do it alone, contact us today to book your free consultation.