Divorce on the rise for couples over 60

This week’s (June 2010) announcement that Al Gore and his wife Tipper are divorcing after more than 40 years of marriage has caused many to ask: why bother? If you’re old enough to divorce after your daughter has been divorced, maybe that’s a sign that you are too old.

Now, there are many fascinating aspects to this development, including the chance to reread the Gores’ jointly authored book on the joys of marriage, Joined at the Heart, or indeed to follow the new Twitter trend of thinking up pick-up lines for Al (“wanna see my hanging chad?”). But unnoticed among them is the fact that it is pensioners such as Al (62) and Tipper (61) who are the only ones bucking the trend of a lower divorce rate.

It’s as if, like taking up golf or ballroom dancing, this is another hobby that you have time for only in your retirement.

The Office of National Statistics shows that the rate of divorce is dropping sharply in every age group, except the over-60s – this includes every age over 60, because the statisticians never anticipated the need to start separate graphs for the seventies, eighties, and nineties. The world’s oldest divorcés, Bertie and Jessie Woods, made history last year by divorcing when they had both reached the age 98.

So why, instead of cruising off into their dotage hand in hand, are the grandparent generation single-handedly dragging the average divorce age up every year? I talked to Andrew Smith about his parents’ recent separation. Normally you would expect to conduct this discussion with a shell-shocked pre-schooler, or a resentful teenager. But Smith is himself 55, and his parents are in their eighties. Was that not, I inquire tactfully, a little late in life to look for pastures new?

“I think so, yes, in that this is the time of life when they actually need each other,” he says. “But there is also an intolerance that comes with age. My mother and my father wanted different things in terms of where they wanted to live, and in the end they decided not to compromise. At lot of people of their age lead increasingly separate lives – separate bedrooms and so on. But they needed more. There’s independence of spirit there, but selfishness too. The support that my mother needs, other people in the family have to take that responsibility.”

Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History notes that getting married in the late 1960s or 1970s was a big risk factor. Why? Partly because people still married very young (Tipper was 21 and Al 22 when they got hitched). And partly because life expectancy is now so much longer that those who are unhappy by the time the kids leave home know they have many decades stretching out ahead of them.

Read more via Divorce on the rise for couples over 60.

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