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The Heartbreak of Gray Divorce

September 30, 2022

The phenomenon of “Gray Divorce” dances across our news feeds, Linkedin alerts, Facebook updates, and Instagram suggestions. It is a growing number of couples 50 years of age and older ending their marriages. The 2021 US Census revealed that 34.9% of divorces in the previous year were among people 55+ in age. This is double the rate found in younger people. The reasons are reported in a business-like “nothing to see here” way! People are living longer, women are more affluent in their own right. Seniors don’t want to face retirement in a bad relationship. It’s easier to end an unhappy marriage than to do the work of repair. 

While all the above reasons are true and staying in emotionally unhappy and unsafe places is a strategic disaster plan, what we do not see reflected on social media are the effects of the emotional, financial, and psychological tsunami that accompanies many divorces.

    Rich and famous couples may publicly tout the delight of the demise of their marriages but the cold, hard reality of a marriage ending is often heartbreak, depression, anxiety, loss, and deep grief.  

Areas collateral damage that often go unnoticed

Divided Loyalties - The redistribution of friends and family. I remember attending a divorce support party for a friend whose marriage had unexpectedly ended. Someone presented the friend with a card that announced “Congratulations! You got custody of the friends!” It was a supportive moment in which we all pledged to be there with and for our hurting friend. 

    What remained unseen was the heartbreak of the other partner who was faced with not only the end of the marriage but also with the betrayal and abandonment of their friend group. Lines were drawn and sides taken. If we love the one we must hate the other. This dynamic often plays out with cruel consequences in families. Family members connected by marriage who found themselves to be kindred spirits are suddenly asked to take sides and declare their loyalty. After all, blood is thicker than water. Despite popular culture’s negative portrayal,  mothers and fathers-in-law become treasured relationships for many spouses. Their sudden loss causes deep and painful attachment wounds leaving confusion and heartbreak behind. 

    Children, whether they have reached adulthood or not, become stuck in the demilitarized zone of their parent’s relationship. Holidays and special occasions can become the equivalent of a United Nations negotiation to end hostilities between two warring nations. In short, in place of the familiar family culture chaos takes over.

Divided Resources - The redistribution of assets. The adage “a dollar does not go as far as it used to” is both real and compounded in divorce. Most of us are just never going to have Oligarch or Megamillionaire money. Many couples who spend years working towards shared financial goals may retire with a home without a mortgage, funds invested that have grown over time, and monthly social security payments. When divorce happens all assets are split which could mean both partners are now paying rent or a mortgage, both are paying the expenses of separate households, half of the invested funds are not enough for security, and one social security check sure does not go very far. Many Gray Divorcees may find themselves back in the workforce. While there are positive factors to beginning over in the same or an encore career it may not be the life dreamed of or expected. 

Divided Hearts - Did I do all that I could? Divorce often brings relief and the possibility of a much-deserved new beginning. For many divorcing partners there is an element of grief and regret that maybe there was more that could have been done to save the relationship. Amid conflict and relationship rupture, all we can think about is getting the pain to end. Relationship patterns and negative conflict cycles left unchecked through the course of a relationship take on a life of their own. Harsh action tendencies and behaviors become the third entity in the relationship driving each partner to isolation and despair with every slammed door and every eye rolled. 

Is it worth another try?

    Maybe giving the relationship one last chance will give each partner peace about the path of divorce or maybe it will give you a much-needed space to heal. Effective couples counseling with a qualified and properly trained couples counselor could mean the difference between moving forward with peace and closure at the end of a marriage or moving forward in the sweetness of a renewed relationship. 

John Gottman's Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work provides couples with a basic blue print for a good relationship. Help from a counselor specifically trained in helping distressed couples helps bring clarity to the way forward.

About the author: Claudia Nell Hawley is a couples and trauma therapist located in Centennial Colorado. She offers educational workshops, couples, and individual counseling. Claudia is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, The Gottman Method, And Eye Movement Desensitization. She has experience treating infidelity and partner betrayal trauma.

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