Image: Al and Tipper Gore attending the Oscars in 2010.
Maybe it was the inconvenient truth of Al Gore’s ponderous snoring that drove him and Tipper apart after 40 years of marriage. We’ll never know. What we do know is that midlife divorce is definitely a thing. While the Gore’s split may have been mutual, women seem to initiate divorces 66% of the time, according to a 2004 landmark AARP survey.
Among U.S. adults ages 50 and older, the divorce rate has doubled since the 1990s, according to a 2017 Pew Research report. Among people ages 65 and older, the divorce rate has roughly tripled since 1990. In contrast, divorce rates for those in their 20s and 30s have dropped by 21 percent, largely because they’re marrying later than previous generations did.
In marriage #2 or #3? The divorce rate among re-married Boomers is double the rate of those who have only been married once and it’s significantly higher among those who’ve been hitched less than 10 years than among those wed longer.
So why are women more likely to be the initiators of a gray divorce? Verbal, physical or emotional abuse was the top motivator, followed by infidelity and then drug or alcohol abuse, according to AARP’s study. Similarly, a 2014 survey by relationship coach and author Abby Rodman found that 53% of women divorced because of emotional or psychological abuse (and we’re happy that they were able to leave).
Aside from these studies, practical reality suggests that simply being able to make a living makes the leaving a lot easier for middle-aged women in dangerous, difficult or simply unsatisfying marriages. And, for people of all genders, mile markers like the empty nest or retirement can reveal the empty spaces in a relationship. In Pew’s research,, 66 percent of Boomers said they would prefer divorce to an unhappy marriage, while 44 percent of younger Americans were willing to stay in the marriage.
Yet, the decision is not without risks, especially financial ones. Divorced women over age 62 receive smaller Social Security benefits than men, on average, for example, and have less money in company 401(k)s or pension funds. If you’ve taken time off from paid work to care for children or aging parents, you’ll be even more financially vulnerable. A 2015 Bowling Green State University study showed that 27% of gray-divorced women live in poverty, compared to only 11% of the men.
Despite the potential financial drawbacks, midlife divorce can be liberating and joyful—once you get over the divorce part. Nobody likes the process of getting divorced! But, as family attorney and author Angie Hallier says, creating a new vision for your life is actually easier than staying in a soul-killing marriage. In a study of hundreds of women for her book, Without This Ring: A Woman’s Guide to Successfully Living Through and Beyond Midlife Divorce, Abby Rodman found that post-divorce women often rediscover lost passions and interests, reboot their friendships and develop talents they’d ignored.
If divorce seems like too much hassle, or it’s too complicated to try to divide up your assets, you can always follow Susan Buffet’s lead. She and Warren Buffet separated in 1977, but remained married until her death in 2004. We’re not sure whom she was dating, but Warren eventually lived with another woman whom he married two years after Susan’s death in 2004.
The arrangement is more common than you might think, especially when one person is on the other’s healthcare policy, or when no one is eager to undertake what will be a painful, expensive process. Or, you and your spouse might find it’s just too much trouble, so why bother?
Hey, we’re happy if you are. Relationships that last until death do us part can be wonderful and amazing and miraculous—but sometimes leaving is the best move.