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  • The 27-year itch
  • By Claire Halliday
  • The Age
  • 10/06/2007 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 59 articles in 2007 )
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Divorce is becoming more common in the 50-plus age group, and often it's the women who jump ship first, writes Claire Halliday.

SHE had told him that she wasn't happy a couple of months before she left - a week after their 30th wedding anniversary. He didn't really listen. Told her that she just needed to go on a trip. Get away for a bit. Maybe even miss him.

"Communication was always a problem," says Maureen*.

But still she had waited, hoping things would change. Initially, she says, her view of marriage was that it was meant to be forever. But in the days after her youngest child moved out of the family home, she realised that, in her own case, it wasn't.

"When my daughter went overseas to live I moved into a different bedroom and thought, 'What's the point of being here?' I certainly did not love him any more," says Maureen, 54. "We were sleeping in separate beds. There hadn't been sex in years. It was like I was dying. It didn't happen overnight - it literally took years. Quite possibly, I had been waiting for the kids to be adults."

A steady rise in divorce rates among people in the 50-plus demographic shows that Taylor is not alone. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, in 1985, 11 per cent of husbands aged 50-59 divorced. In 2005, that had jumped to 20 per cent. For women aged 50-59, the trend is even more pronounced, changing from 7 per cent in 1985 to 16 per cent in 2005. Long marriages are also suffering: of all divorces in 1985, 10 per cent of couples had been married for 25 years or longer. Ten years later, it was 16 per cent.

So what is happening to older couples and their relationships?

"In mid-life, both men and women look at what they want in life and sometimes realise that the relationships they are in are not making them happy," says Anne Hollands of Relationships Australia. That this is happening when couples are in their 50s and 60s is, says Hollands, "really new territory for us".

"Marriages didn't last that long in the past because we died younger. The idea of a lifelong marriage is a relatively new concept that started in the post-war 1950s and lasted a couple of decades and then started to wane, but we still carry that hangover," she says.

For many couples patiently sitting out the years of conversationless nights on separate couches, the daily distractions of children, work and social life can sometimes be enough to paper over marriage's little cracks.

But when the children leave and that veneer is stripped away, the sad realisation that the relationship is not as strong or as desirable as it once was can be unbearable.

Waiting for the children to empty the familial nest does not necessarily reduce the stress of separation.

"We have also started to see a rise in adult children reacting to their parents separating. You might assume that they would have maturity to handle it better but they are dealing with anxiety and uncertainty in their own lives," Hollands says. "We rely on that older generation to remain stable for us. When they're not, that can cause a lot of stress."

One advantage of waiting for children to become adults before separating, Hollands says, is avoiding the trauma of often-bitter custody battles.

"I haven't seen analysis - whether it's more middle class people doing that and whether some sectors of society are more likely to approach divorce in a planned way, although I suspect that might be the case. But most people, whoever they are, will do what they can to minimise the negative effects," she says.

In the majority of cases, women are the initiators.

"They are usually the ones to lead with different things, like going to the doctor, or reading books about an issue that might be there. It's not a great leap in logic to assume that they are also going to be the first ones to realise that there is a problem within their relationship and they are the first ones to want to try to change it," Hollands says.

For women over 50, psychologist Jennifer Tiller says, menopause can be a crucial time in the relationship, highlighting problems that may have existed for some time.

Around about the same time, says Tiller, there can be an overwhelming feeling, particularly among men who may have reached their professional peak, of "Is this all there is?".

For a relationship that has come to the end of most of its obligations - raising children to adulthood, paying off a mortgage and setting up future financial independence - the combination can be disastrous.

"There is the hormonal impact on women's emotions but also, for the men who are going through that feeling of wondering if there is more out there for them, looking at their wife who isn't as young as she once was, or has perhaps put on a bit of extra weight through menopause, the idea of looking at the secretary, or other younger women, is still out there," she says. "Men might have issues with their own body changes as they age and this can make them feel like looking for someone younger to make them feel better about themselves. Fifty isn't seen as old in the same way it used to be. People think, 'I might live until I'm 90 - do I want to be with this person all that time?' I think that is a new thing that previous generations haven't gone through."

And in the future, Tiller says, as subsequent generations less burdened by the traditional view of marriage reach middle age, divorce rates in the over-50 age group may well fall.

"That could happen," Tiller says. "There might be less motivation to hang on for so long."

For now, though, many older people, defined by a generational mindset that sees personal problems as best kept to themselves, asking for outside help is viewed with suspicion.

Hollands says that, although counselling could make a huge difference, people wait on average up to six years after the initial problem begins before they even pick up the phone to ask for help. Often the problems start as far
back as the birth of the first child - a time in people's lives when the romance typically gives way to the humdrum of sleepless, sexless nights in front of the television, or soothing crying babies.

"There are lots of people who, on the surface, seem quite happy but actually have unresolved, simmering issues," says Hollands. "The woman has focused on the children and the man has focused on work and they just get on with it."

In the past, says Ruth Weston, principal research fellow with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a reluctance to divorce had a lot to do with financial security for many older women.

"These days, an increasing number of women are more financially independent so that could be contributing to a rise in statistics in the older age group," she says.

But Maureen knows how hard it can be to become single again later in life.

"Financially, it has still been very scary," she says. "I had a job but it was never a career. There was a lot of shame, I guess, too. I still haven't told anyone at work. I couldn't stand all the gossip.

"(Still), I am happy that I am not emotionally tied to him any more. We hadn't really been together for years, anyway."

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