While most of us hope that our wedding vows will ring true, it isn’t always the case. In 2021, 113,505 divorces were granted in England and Wales, a 9.6% increase on 2020, with one in four taking place after the age of 50. No matter your age, or how long you’ve been together, those going through a divorce in retirement certainly aren’t alone.

While some of these divorces could be chalked up as a ‘mid-life mistake’, many couples who divorce in retirement have been in long marriages, some lasting 40 years or longer. So, apart from drifting apart, what else would make a couple separate after so many decades?

In this article we speak to a couple who separated in retirement, and Samantha Woodham, a barrister at one of the largest family law firms in the UK. We also have tips for those who are going through their own divorce in retirement.

Why is there an increase in divorce rates?

While each and every relationship is unique, there are common reasons why couples divorce in later life.  

Retirement provides opportunities to explore hobbies, to travel and meet new people. It’s common for couples to drift apart as a result of their newfound freedom. New laws have also made the divorce process simpler. In April 2022, the UK government allowed couples to choose the option of a ‘no-fault divorce’, meaning they no longer need to lay blame to part ways.

We look at other reasons why divorce is on the rise.

A surge of independence

An increase in divorces for opposite-sex couples could be down to wives being more financially independent. Whereas women were once tied forever to their other halves due to having no means of managing alone, that’s no longer the case. Deciding to separate is easier once children have grown up and settled down with families of their own and, although the sudden break-up of older parents can be a shock to their offspring and grandchildren, it’s easier than divorcing when the kids are still living at home.

“When there are kids involved – even adult ones – it can be difficult,” says Woodham. “It’s important for the couple to work out a narrative about what’s happened, to have all the answers in place. Then the children of the divorcing couple will feel less anxious about the situation.”

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Health and wellbeing

Better health is sometimes considered to be another reason for divorce in later life. 70 is definitely the new 50, with more over-65s than ever claiming they don’t feel old, and most being fitter and healthier than their parents were at the same age. Woodham agrees, adding: “The whole ‘wellness culture’ brings with it an expectation that life should bring you joy and that you should do something because you love it, not out of a sense of duty.”

Longer life = more opportunities

Could the increase in older people forming new relationships be due to living longer? Fifty years ago, an average man could expect to live to 69 and a woman to 74. Today, a man aged 55 has an average life expectancy of 84, but a one in four chance he’ll live to 92. For a woman of the same age, the average life expectancy is 87, with a one in four chance of living to 94 and a one in 10 chance of living to 98.

Decades ago, people wouldn’t dream of starting over on their own, but now, most 65-year-olds can easily see themselves enjoying a new lease of life. “No one expects a person to live in the same house or do the same job for 60 years,” explains Woodham, “and now, in the same way, it’s not expected that a couple should stay in a relationship for that long, especially if it’s run its course.”

Alison's story

“I thought we’d be together forever,” says former solicitor Alison, 68, “but after my husband and I retired and started spending more time together, we realised the spark had gone. He was happy to stay in watching TV every night – and that wasn’t for me.” At that point, Alison, from West London, had been married for 40 years.

“Celebrating our ruby wedding anniversary really brought it home to me. Life’s short and I wasn’t prepared to spend the rest of mine with someone I no longer had anything in common with.

We tried to keep things going but my heart wasn’t in it. We divorced just over a year ago. There was no one else involved, but I have a new partner now. My ex is still in a serious relationship with the TV!”

There’s no shame in divorce

It’s also true that divorce isn’t taboo as it once was. When today’s retirees first wed – many of them as far back as the 70s – marriage was a forever thing and divorce was frowned upon. These days, it’s just a fact of life, with people separating for all kinds of reasons and without judgement. Woodham says: “We as a society have tended to stigmatise divorce, but with overall divorce rates now at 42%, it’s just a fact of life.”

Despite there being a noticeable increase statistics-wise, it’s still hard to find people like Alison, who has done it and is happy to speak out. “There’s still this residual element of shame,” she admits. “It sounds silly and I don’t want to feel that way but I have to acknowledge that the feeling is there and it’s not going to go away.”

Others may feel a sense of failure in divorcing after so many years. Chartered psychologist and author Dr Audrey Tang says it’s not uncommon to feel this way. “Acknowledge you are hurting,” she advises. “Do not feel as if you have to put on a brave face. Likewise, don’t pretend to be sad because it’s what others expect.”

There hasn’t been much research on the subject because these ‘grey divorces’ are a relatively new trend. Although it can be trying at any age, a positive outlook is important if you’re going through a break-up. As Alison concludes: “This new phase is the final chapter in my life and I’m sure as hell going to make it a good one.”

Tips for dealing with divorce in retirement

  1. Talk to a therapist. It’s vital to talk to someone impartial during the course of a break-up – at any age. “Do it together, not separately,” Woodham suggests. “And, because most people want some acknowledgement, you should say thank you for the good things you’ve done for each other.”
  2. Take your time. No matter how short you believe life to be, it’s fine to move slowly through this difficult period. Psychologist and author Dr Audrey Tang says: “You will have spent a long time growing with someone, and now is a chance to rediscover the things you loved that you may have neglected.”
  3. Present the news of your divorce to adult children as a shared decision. “Explain that the relationship isn’t working anymore and that there’s not going to be any drama,” suggests Woodham. “Have answers prepared to any questions they might ask. That way, although they may be upset, they’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening.”
  4. Don’t let others influence your decisions. Dr Tang says: “Don't let other people – especially adult children – push their opinions onto you.” Everyone has their own agenda and it’s important that you stick to yours.”
  5. Talk money! There will be shared assets and finances that need to be discussed. “It’s vital to take financial advice and to do some proper budgeting,” says Woodham. “Even in difficult situations, there’s almost always a way through.”
  6. Reflect on your actions. “Derailment of a relationship takes two – as does staying in it for longer than you needed,” observes Dr Tang. “There’s no need to apportion blame: instead, grow from the experience. Anything you learn now may stop you repeating that behaviour in future relationships.”
  7. Avoid posting about your divorce on social media. You don’t want to be someone else’s living soap opera. As Dr Tang says: “Your personal growth and mental wellbeing is worth more than that!”
  8. Don’t be too available. Take this time for yourself. Dr Tang says: “If you’re not ready to see people – even your adult children and grandkids – and they want to talk, just say no! Meet with them when you are ready and on your terms. Don’t feel bullied into it.”