As Robert Browning said, “Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be.”

Or not.

The gray divorce

They call it the “gray divorce,” and it accounted for nearly one in four divorces in 2010. From 1990 to 2010, according to research done at Bowling Green State University, divorces doubled among couples aged 50 years old and older.

Divorces of long-established couples often catch friends and family by surprise. We assume, culturally, that once someone reaches 50, some things are simply “settled”: career, partnership, home. We don’t expect a lot of dramatic, long-term changes in or after midlife.

As any woman who’s been through perimenopause and/or menopause can tell you: midlife is anything but settled or predictable, beginning with our own bodies. Midlife is a time of change and transition, emotionally, physically, domestically, and everything, it seems, is up for grabs.

Why are older couples separating?

Probably the biggest reason mature couples choose to decouple? According to Dr. Barbara Mark, “In midlife we revisit our priorities, values, and preferences.” When we’re younger, children and careers may make it easier to focus on similar goals.

As we age, different goals take priority – travel, hobbies, our health. If we discover our priorities and our partner’s no longer align, we have some decisions to make.

But surely our parents and grandparents went through a reevaluation stage too; why did their marriage last 50 or 60 years, while ours are dissolving so much sooner?

  1. Changes in cultural expectations are making separating simpler. These days, it’s far more culturally acceptable to end an unhappy marriage than it was just 30 years ago.
  2. Women are more financially independent, making it easier for them to leave.
  3. Empty nests make splitting simpler. As Dr. Mark says, if a couple has grown apart and decide to go their separate ways, having grown children makes it easier to split.
  4. Second (or higher) marriages are less stable than first, says Pew Research. Second (or third) marriages tend to be more fragile; marriages of 10 years’ duration or less are even more likely to end in separation.
  5. Sexual incompatibility. Libidos don’t match. Partners avoid sex because of erectile dysfunction or vaginal dryness or poor body image from weight gain or incontinence. And lack of physical contact can erode emotional intimacy.
  6. Hormonal disruptions. For many women, the mood swings – particularly the rage – that come with hormonal changes can make navigating relationships really tough. Things that were tolerable no longer are, and partners may not have the tools to work through difficult times.
  7. Caretaking. If one or both partners are taking care of elderly parents, the time and money given over to caretaking can take a real toll on a relationship.
  8. Longer life expectancy. Our expectation of longer, healthier lives makes us less likely to stay in a relationship that doesn’t make us happy.
  9. Money (or lack thereof). As we near retirement, concerns over not having enough money, needing to save more, can become much more urgent.

How to preserve your relationship in midlife and beyond

It may seem like the deck is stacked against midlife couples, but don’t panic. You have tools which, though they might be a bit rusty, can help you understand what’s happening and make informed decisions about your future(s).

Communicate with each other. According to Dr. Mark, this may be the most powerful – and the most underutilized – tool in your tool box. After a few decades, we may think we’ve got communication down pat. But are you really listening? Or are you anticipating what the other person is saying, based on many years’ experience? Listen. Question. Discuss. Make time for important conversations about needs, expectations, goals, desires, and satisfaction in the relationship.

Communicate with others. Sometimes it takes third-party eyes to see clearly. Friends and family can help, though they may have too much of their own emotion invested in your relationship, so also consider a therapist, member of the clergy, etc.

Take your time making any decision and don’t jump to action until you have thought through the circumstances. “In midlife, hormones can make people over-react,” Dr. Mark says. “That combined with the developmental task of dealing with one’s mortality, can make for some hasty decision making.”

Self-reflect. Where is this emotion coming from? Is your dissatisfaction in your partner real, or a reflection of dissatisfaction with yourself? If it’s hormonal, is it temporary, or are your hormones allowing you to see something you’ve glossed over until now?

Problem-solve. What are the sources of friction? Is it caring for an elderly parent, an evaporated sex life, or that you really don’t have much in common now that the kids are gone? Talk together about the options you have for making your problems better for both of you. And find new joys to share.

older couple together

Considering that many women have a significantly lower standard of living and men report a greater dissatisfaction with their lives after a “gray divorce,” it may be worth making the effort to stay together. And if you are able to pinpoint and problem-solve, you may well come through the challenges of midlife stronger than ever.

How have you kept your midlife relationship strong and stable? If you’ve faced challenges, what did you do to overcome them? If you decided to split, what has your life been like since? If you’d care to share, leave us a comment below, or you can join the conversation on genneve’s Facebook page or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, genneve’s closed Facebook group.



Shannon Perry

Shannon is a celebrated author and global educator. Whether she’s interviewing a physician or producing a podcast, her appetite for research, facts, and truth culminates in credible health education and programming that women can rely on. An avid runner, cyclist, and climber, Shannon knows a thing or two about thriving in midlife and lives in Seattle with her cat, dog and boyfriend.


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