Is it ever too late to get a divorce?

Divorce is a loaded decision—especially when you've been together for decades. Here, issues to consider when you're contemplating a split.

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Marriage is tethered to expectations of longevity. Divorce is tied to perceptions of selfishness and failure.

Both are daunting endeavors at any age, but when factors such as fixed incomes, grandchildren, and declining health are thrown into the mix, it makes one wonder:  Is it ever too late to divorce?

Boil down your decision

Though there are practical issues to consider, the decision to divorce at any age comes down to two questions, says family therapist Pandora MacLean-Hoover: Are you happy? And are you worth the pursuit of happiness?

“There’s a common cultural belief that divorce is selfish. The lines between self-care and selfish are often blurred, especially for women,” say MacLean-Hoover, co-founder and clinical director of the
 Think-diff Institute 
in Lexington, MA. “The question my clients must ask themselves is, ‘Do I have the right to pursue individual happiness?’”

All marriages go through peaks and valleys; MacLean-Hoover says knowing whether they can truly be happy within the marriage depends first on whether they’re trying to be. “I ask them to sit and think about whether they are parked in the wishing section, or whether they are being present and working toward having what they want,” she says.

While happiness is important at any age, the longer the couple has been together, the more likely they are to be driven by a sense of loyalty, commitment and even fear than individual happiness.

“For many staying married is about keeping the family together, not hurting other people, worrying about what others will think, and financial stability,” she says. One of her clients stayed in an unhappy marriage for 42 years – until after her father died.

“Based on the conditioning she’d had as a child that marriage is forever, and worrying about her parents’ approval, there was no way she was going to divorce and hurt her dad that way,” MacLean-Hoover says.

“Gray divorce” is on the rise

But these aren’t your mother’s “golden years,” and more and more couples are realizing there needn’t be a golden anniversary if there’s no shine left to the marriage. A study on the phenomenon of “gray divorce” done by Bowling Green State University’s Sociology Department found that the divorce rate among adults aged 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010. Fewer than 1 in 10 divorces involved someone 50 or older in 1990; that rate jumped to 1 in 4 a decade later.

“‘Gray divorce’ is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing, either,” says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, author of The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty. “Men tend to think divorce will be a good thing, women tend to dread it. Interestingly enough, the men often find out it was a mistake, and the women frequently thrive, once they’ve dealt with the grief.

A clear-cut case

It’s only been a month since Rita Pickett, 64, filed for divorce from her husband of nearly 26 years, but she already sounds like she’s thriving.

“I feel so liberated,” says Pickett, who lives on a fixed income. “He might think that I’m crying behind closed doors because I want him back, or because my bed is now empty. I’ve cried only because I waited too long. My life has been empty and my bed has been empty for a long, long time.”

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Pickett, who already was a divorced mother of two when she met and married Ed back in 1989, says their marriage was laced with his verbal and sometimes physical abuse, and for anyone in that type of situation, it is never too late to get out.

“I always said I would never divorce Ed,” says Pickett, whose brain still echoes with her mother-in-law’s dying wish several years ago to “take care of my boy.” “But when you feel like you are a slave to a man, or you’re not respected anymore by the man, it’s time to get out or let them go.”

So how do you let them go? Marriage and family therapist Dr. Elinor Robin, who has mediated thousands of divorces, says it takes three to five years to rebuild after divorce, and while that can be a daunting time frame for someone who’s in their 70s, having a plan to get both of you to the grass on the other side of your fence can cut that considerably. Here’s how.

Exit strategy:

1. Be sure. Feeling confident in the decision to divorce is critical, so find a therapist who specializes in divorce or who has gone through it, and talk things through until you’re sure, and ready.

2. Stay positive. Tell your spouse in a way that affirms the things that brought you together and have gone well, but explains that you’re at a point in your life to be single. “Using that language works well to offset the predictable response that there’s someone else,” MacLean-Hoover says.

3. Lean on your friends. Having trusted loved ones to listen and validate your feelings is important. “If someone’s getting a divorce and they have no support system, they’re going to feel lost. That’s a recipe for serious depression,” Robin says.

4. Crunch the numbers. “Often people don’t realize how much they have to cut down to make things work in divorce. But two can live almost as cheaply as one,” Robin says. “If they’re on fixed incomes, they really have to look at all the places where they can tighten the budget, and work together to do so. Even if they’ve never worked as a team, it’s so important in divorce.”

5. Get ready for the backlash. “Be prepared for the ‘negative intimacy’ phase,” MacLean-Hoover says, which can include anger and lashing out by the rejected spouse. Even if one of you is getting nasty, don’t stoop to that level. The ‘negative intimacy’ phase rarely lasts forever, and you’ll be glad you stayed above the fray once it’s all really over.

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