Divorce after decades of marriage is on the rise

Earlier this month, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their decision to divorce after 27 years of marriage.

These are two successful people who have established one of the world’s largest foundations and accrued billions of dollars.

Bill, 65, and Melinda Gates, 56, met at Microsoft – which Bill Gates founded and was, at the time, running as CEO. Ms Gates started as a product manager, the only woman in the first class of MBA graduates to join the company and who eventually rose through the ranks to become general manager of information products.

They met shortly after she joined the company in 1987, at a business dinner in New York, and the couple married in Hawaii in 1994.

The divorce came as a shock to many people. Why would two people in such a longstanding marriage decide to part ways?

Divorce after decades of marriage is on the rise
It’s more common than you might think, explains Kylie Dunjey, executive director and counsellor at Relationships WA told ABC Radio Perth.

“We’re seeing more of what we call grey divorces,” she says.

“The stats [show] there’s been a significant increase during COVID especially. We’ve seen seven times more Australian spouses researching separation.”

Reasons for grey divorce
Divorce is one of the most challenging parts of anyone’s life, but sometimes it’s inevitable.

The social stigma around divorce has gradually declined over the years, but the only cohort that has seen an increase in divorce rates is the over 50s.

The question of why though, is a hard one to answer. Divorce is a very personal thing, but some answers can be gained by analysing the aspects that affect long-term marriages.

Growing apart
You’re probably familiar with hearing the terms “it was just not working out” or “we just grew apart” or even “we felt more like friends than lovers”.

Couples in long-term unions have often married young and may have come to realise that the spark just isn’t there anymore.

Often, couples choose to divorce after their children have grown up and moved away. Most partners have dedicated the past 20 years to raising their kids and once they have gone, they are left wondering, what’s next? Sometimes, lives were so focused on the children that when they take a moment, they don’t even recognise the person they married all those years ago.

Financial issues
Money matters are one of the main issues that cause a grey divorce. Finances can be tricky to manage, especially when both people are not on the same page. Couples that struggle with debt or fight about finances often end up divorcing.

One of the partners earning significantly more than the other can also create tension, especially if they make all of the decisions involving money.

Read more: Rise in ‘grey divorces’ sparks warning from legal experts

Interestingly, research has shown that marriage grows stronger when the husband increases his earnings; conversely, the marriage more often fails if the wife’s earnings increase.

While the Gates’ managed to amicably split their fortune, the division of assets after a lifetime together can be tough.

Ms Dunjey explains that with more working women than in previous decades, women now have the freedom to divorce and remain financially independent.

However, this is not the case for all Australians, with older women still the fastest growing demographic in our homeless population, with divorce contributing to the problem.

Many older women facing separation have spent much of their lives out of the workforce to raise children, so they haven’t been able to accumulate enough superannuation.

Ms Dunjey explains how these women are “looking at not many more working years to create wealth in, and set themselves up for stability and security”.

“It often comes as quite a shock,” she says. “They haven’t planned it to go this way and [they end up] worse off financially.”

Better life and health expectancy
Life expectancy is much higher today than for generations prior to baby boomers. People 50 and above have realised they have the time to discover what truly makes them happy in a relationship.

Access to great healthcare and the availability of activities to keep an individual mentally, physically, and psychologically active have encouraged people to seek partners who suit their interests and attitudes when their marriage partner has failed to stay healthy, fit and active.

Read more: Aussies marry later, divorce less

Psychologist John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, has some ideas on why men and women tend to leave long-term marriages.

“I find that men are more likely to end a marriage in middle age to either pursue another relationship or engage more fully in a relationship they are involved in already,” he says.

“Some men I’ve worked with also say they have fallen out of love, and they want to afford themselves the opportunity to find love again before their time runs out.”

Women who initiate breakups, on the other hand, are often looking to change their lives.

“Many women have described to me that they still feel quite young in their 50s and 60s and that their husbands seem older and less energetic. They tend to be the spouses seeking new careers, new adventures and new opportunities. They may start a business or get in shape, or move to another part of the world,” says Mr Duffy.

Making it work
While relationships do go stale, Ms Dunjey says it can still be possible to restore love and avoid separation.

“Often there is so much that can be resuscitated in an ailing relationship once people actually start to deal with the things that have created the space between them,” she says.

“Some couples have pushed so much under the rug for so many years that there’s no space in the room for either of them to exist anymore. There’s just been so much avoidance.”

Read more: System to make super assets clearer during divorce needed ‘urgently’

She explains that by working on communication and dealing with issues directly, it’s possible to resolve some of those old resentments and meet each other in a meaningful place.

Ms Dunjey says that when couples find new ways to navigate their relationship, they can learn to maintain it.

“[They say], wow, we get to keep all this lovely history, we get to keep the dreams we had of being grandparents together, retiring together and of enjoying what we’ve worked so hard to achieve financially,” she says.

In the past few years, more and more couples are openly talking with one another, or with their therapist, about their dissatisfaction in their relationships. Couples are now more likely to talk through the nature of their relationships and determine whether they want to work to sustain their marriages or part ways.

Have you divorced a long-term partner? Do you think traditional marriage works for most people?

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Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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