It’s no secret that midlife or “gray” divorce is skyrocketing at the same time the overall divorce rate is declining. In addition, according to the AARP, 66 percent of these divorces — which have doubled since 1990 — are initiated by women. But the numbers, without any narrative, are just numbers. They don’t tell us why so many women, seemingly in droves, are making this heartbreakingly difficult decision at this stage in life. Nor do they explain why women do better socially and emotionally in their post gray divorce lives. A survey prepared by a prominent psychologist tried to find out more. Hundreds of women post gray divorce took the survey and told their stories. Over 50% indicated emotional abuse as the main reason for initiating the divorce. However, the question is, “Is this number higher for gray divorce?” The findings of the survey are contradicted by a research paper in an established scientific journal which reported that, “older females reported experiencing less emotional abuse than older males. Overall, emotional abuse was more common in younger participants. “
How do we explain the stark differences between the therapist’s survey and the research article. One possibility is that men feel more shame from emotional abuse and therefore in a survey format would less likely admit to or initiate divorce based on that abuse. However, if emotional abuse is not the driving factor for the increasing gray divorce rate what else is going on? One might reasonably conclude that the pandemic has put additional strain on the gray couple. For the most part gray couples have been married for a considerable time period and are most likely empty nesters. Couples experiencing the empty nest have to readjust to the fact that the day to day raising of children is often a diversion from examining their needs and how the relationship is meeting those needs. Adding to the problem is the issue of how the pandemic isolates couples from the workplace, social activities, recreation pursuits and their extended families. The isolation forces a gray couple to look to each other, almost exclusively, for fulfillment. This exclusivity highlights the fault lines in their relationship and can lead to the decision to separate.
The differences between how men and women fare post gray divorce again reveals the social isolation and depression that men, especially in middle age, experience. One explanation is that in most marriages women usually take care of the social calendar. Often couple socializing is based more on the women’s friendships rather than the friendship between the men. Post divorce, the women continue their friendships while the men have less of a connection. Many women in middle age experience a new sense of freedom when they divorce later in life. They often feel like their needs and ambitions have been constrained by traditional marital roles – raising kids, household chores, deference to their spouse’s careers – and see post divorce as an opportunity to grow and fully express themselves. Men in middle age have usually peeked in their careers and look to maintenance and easing of stress which is often incompatible with what their wives are needing. This probably accounts for the fact that so many men who seek out men’s groups are in the process of divorce or are recently divorced. The group provides the much needed connections to maintain mental health and provides a forum for forming new friendships. It is indeed unfortunate that so many men, especially after a break up in marriage or a relationship, are unaware of the power of men’s work and slide into depression, substance abuse and suicide.
Look to the next blog to explore why women initiate divorce far more often than men.