Women and Divorce in Later Life

Although the rate of divorce among older Americans has steadily been on the increase (about five fold in 25 years), few definitive studies have been done to bring attention to this situation. The prediction is that the divorce rate will continue to increase as a large portion of Americans (namely Baby Boomers) enters the 60 and over age group (www.aoa.gov).1  While most divorces occur within the first seven years of marriage, the divorce rate then decreases until about midlife when it increases again at a significant rate (Kreider, R. M. & Fields, J. M., 2001).2 The National Center for Health Statistics (2001)3 recently released a report which found that 43% of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years.

The divorce rate in the U.S. has leveled off with one exception—the rate is rising for those 60 and over. The Administration on Aging (1990, 2000)4 provided data on separation and divorce for those over 60 years.  The 1990 and 2000 census reports the percentage of divorces. Although the 2000 report included ages 55 in the first category, the increase in late life divorce is clearly evident. (see chart on facing page)  Although there is a lack of research on the rates and impact of divorce in later life, anecdotal evidence indicates that many older persons are experiencing divorce and do so typically after long-term marriages. How many readers will respond affirmatively when asked if they have personal knowledge of friends, relatives, or acquaintances over 60 who are going through divorces? When I ask this question of my graduate students, many hands go up and typically many of the divorces are their own parents.

The issues that are present with late life divorce are significantly different from those of couples at earlier stages. It is important that counselors are aware of the issues since these individuals experiencing divorce late in life will be in need of counseling.    Some reasons given for late life divorce   Kids are grown and the need for maintaining the relationship isn’t as great as it once was    Can’t cope with life changes (illness, retirement)    Patterns of abuse (physical, emotional, substances)    Met and fell in love with someone else    We’ve grown apart—no longer love each other    Men feel invisible at home—they see a pattern of their parents (strong woman—passive man)    Divorce no longer a stigma—the influence of a societal mindset— instant gratification    Couples don’t “hang in” during the transition in the life cycle     Couples don’t know how to communicate/fight/argue    Extramarital affairs—often an avoidance of transition—aging    Fear of aging—denial of the fear    Retirement—more time together but no common interests    Their children’s divorce was a trigger   Economic/financial impact  The impact on economic status tends to be far reaching, especially for couples’ of limited means and for women who have not remained in the job market.

Late life divorce requires rearranging and planning for:   Social security    Pensions    Health insurance and life insurance    Insurance beneficiaries    Tax exemptions (over 55 capital gains on primary dwelling)    Re-writing wills    Ownership of properties and division of personal properties    Women tend to experience the most devastating economic impact. In many states, if a woman has a meager income (at least $75.00 a week), she will not receive alimony. In addition, she will no longer be the beneficiary on the insurance policy and probably will not receive a portion of her husband’s pension. Equitable distribution guidelines are not helpful for women with no earned income. According to the Administration on Aging (2000),5 women are half as likely as men to receive pension income and their risk of poverty increases dramatically the longer they live. Given this information, it is little wonder that older women have realistic concerns about their economic future and their ability to take care of themselves as they age.

Emotional and social impact  Divorce in late life is a major stressor, often resulting in emotional problems requiring therapy. Divorce is typically described as a loss and individuals usually go through a grief process similar to the stages associated with death. Family and friends do not know how to react or how to provide support. The death of a spouse is more acceptable. However, there are no rituals as in death and no rules to guide behavior. This often results in feelings of loneliness, rejection, resentment, and bitterness (Gatewood, 1992).6 Divorce support groups can provide important assistance and help for older women, but unfortunately; they tend to focus on the younger population and their issues of child rearing and child care, dating, remarriage, and workplace opportunities. Older women are typically beyond the problems surrounding children. Their needs tend to encompass issues of aging such as health, finances, housing, and relationships (family, companionship, and friendship).

Men tend to remarry, but women have far fewer opportunities to remarry. Socially, women are measured by their looks and men are measured by their accomplishments. Women report feeling like a “fifth wheel” and tend to expand their friendships with other women (Gatewood, 1999).7 According to Jane Spock, divorced after 48 years of marriage to Dr. Benjamin Spock, “You are left with a deep sense of loss and rejection, but it’s even worse than that. You also find yourself alone, unskilled, and well along in years. You feel totally unable to deal with the world (Abrams, 1986).”8 Montenegro (2005)9 reported the results of a research study on later life divorce that was commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons. This groundbreaking study, The Divorce Experience: A study of divorce at midlife and beyond, was the first of its kind to document what has become a common experience among those at mid to later life. The number one reason given for delaying divorce was “the children.” According to Montenegro, “When contemplating divorce, many people bide their time to spare potential victims—the children.” Since most experts agree that women tend to maintain post-divorce contact with their children more successfully than do men, this probably accounts for the different level of concern.

Women were more worried about financial problems, and for both groups, delaying the divorce because they did not believe in divorce was a distant second. The survey’s authors said many of the reported trends were linked to the increased prevalence of divorce—a phenomenon that means the ranks of midlife singles are no longer dominated by widows and those who never married. “These changes in attitudes coincide with the aging of the baby boomers, the generation that first adopted liberalized sexual attitudes en masse,” the survey said. “This is the same generation that became more accepting of divorce and changed the perception of older unmarried women from being ‘old maids’ to emancipated feminists.” Overall, the respondents found divorce to be painful, and uniformly, their worst fear was being alone.  A booklet to assist older women with issues related to late life divorce was published by AARP (Divorce After 50— Challenges and Choices).10 It covers topics such as marital options, legal process (mediation, settlement), emotional divorce, therapeutic interventions, and taking responsibility for oneself. This type of resource, aimed specifically at older women experiencing divorce, is rare.

Impact of baby boomers on divorce  According to an article in American Demographics (Russell, 1995),11 baby boomers will make up the majority of the population (approximately 78 million) in the U.S. in 2005. The author states that baby boomers are entirely unlike older generations of Americans both in attitudes and lifestyles. They will create a new midlife marketplace over the next few decades. The boomers’ wants and needs are different from the wants and needs of previous generations. They are a well-educated generation and are highly individualistic, independent, and self-indulgent. Middle age is a difficult stage of life—job and family responsibilities mount relentlessly. The years surrounding age 50 + are a time of frustration and even crisis for many people. Profound things happen in midlife, and profound events will shake millions of baby boomers as they enter this time of life. Self-help books are so popular that the New York Times publishes a separate best-seller list for them. According to the author, spirituality (often not traditional religion) is experiencing a rebirth as boomers search for life’s meaning. How will this impact the Church as we know it today? And how might this impact counselors?

The increased education level of boomers, along with working women, divorce, individualistic attitudes, small families, and dual incomes will have a major impact on society. Boomers are looking for ways to escape tedium. This may result in an increase in extramarital affairs. As the boomers enter later life, youthful products, services, lifestyles, and attitudes will become commonplace. Boomers will create the new “mid-youth” market. The article divides the boomer generation into three segments that need to be watched:    Power Players: the achievers who are about to reap the rewards of decades on the job.    Fun Seekers: springs from individualism— looking for the good times and “toys”—they are the biggest spenders on new cars and trucks.    The Matriarchs: with children grown, female boomers will satisfy their demands by concentrating on “self”   Amidst all this, a surge in the divorce rate is expected (emphasis added).   Late life divorce among Christians  Barna Research (2000)12 reports that Christians have a higher incidence of divorce than the general public.

Barna separates the population into groups according to age and designates a title for each group. Divorce comparison by age groups is as follows:    “Busters” (Ages 16–34) 17%    “Boomers” (Ages 15–53) 34%    “Builders” (Ages 54–72) 37%    “Seniors” (Ages 73+) 18%   Since Barna’s research does not use the same age groups as other researchers, it is not as easy to compare the results, however, the results are worrisome and suggest that there is a need for providing old_resources and therapy for this population. And while there was no information regarding the impact of divorce specifically on Christian women, my informal dialogue with fellow therapists indicates that the impact compares with their non-Christian counterparts.    Implications for counselors  While divorce statistics suggest that there may be a leveling off overall, according to projections, divorce in later life will likely increase as the baby boomers swell the ranks of the “senior” population. This presents specific therapeutic challenges to therapists who have not been engaged in counseling persons experiencing divorce with clients who are 60+ and often ending 30-40 year marriages.

Women divorcing in later life are met with many age-specific social, emotional, and economic/financial challenges. Helping these clients develop/expand/ enhance their sense of autonomy is an essential element of therapy. Counselors need to be aware of a variety of old_resources in the community available to promote post-divorce adjustment.  Divorce recovery support groups have been effective with many women; unfortunately they tend to cater to the younger set. And while churches could provide this valuable resource, they often are resistant or ignore the need for such groups. Support groups could address economic issues such as social security, insurances, taxes, and budgeting one’s income as older women have often been “shielded” from the financial side of the marital household and are fearful of their ability to survive on a significantly smaller income. The need for social support can also be met through groups. Sharing like concerns and the knowledge that there are other women experiencing similar emotional issues can enhance the recovery process.

Individual counseling can also address these same issues and additionally provide the personal one-to-one connection needed for more in depth work, especially in the area of self-concept and inner security.  With regard to the role of spirituality and late life divorce, there is little written to guide the counselor or the client. The Christian community has either been silent on the divorce issue or rather critical. When going through the pain of divorce, there is often no soft place to land.Take help from telephone counselor.

Since the recovery process will undoubtedly have spiritual implications, counselors must be prepared to assist their clients in sorting out the spiritual aspects of the divorce and the post divorce adjustment. Life after divorce can be a daunting prospect for older women, but prepared counselors can provide the needed support to help them navigate the uncharted waters.   Conclusion    While divorce among people over 60 is still less common than divorce in the general public, it is becoming more prevalent, and it has a significant impact on older women. As the “baby boomers” move into later life, we can expect the divorce rate to continue to rise. Seniors will become the largest segment of society (Administration on Aging, 1990)13 and will require services to meet their needs. For those experiencing divorce, old_resources such as support groups and therapy will be necessary. It seems clear that the plight of women who experience divorce in later life is an issue of real concern. For Christian mental health providers, this will be an opportunity to minister to wounded hearts. We need to consider the need and prepare to serve.

Source by Anthony

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