So the years have rolled by and suddenly – before you know it, really – you’re in your 50s or 60s and your marriage is measured in decades rather than years. Time to settle down and resign yourself to a comfortable coda, a few last increasingly silver decades with your long-established partner, right?
Maybe not. Some people think they have spotted a new social phenomenon: the catchily- named ‘silver separatists’ – that is to day, people who suddenly separate from and divorce their partners when in their 60s. Earlier this week, the Mail speculated that some older couples “discover they have nothing in common with each other once their children fly the nest.”
And today the Telegraph is also examining silver separations, citing some high profile examples. There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, veteran actor and erstwhile governor of California, for example, who recently split from his wife of 25 years, Maria Shriver. Arnold is 65. Former Vice President Al Gore is just one year younger and he separated from his wife Tipper in 2010 after an impressive 40 years together .
And last month we reported on the shock separation of actors Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman after more than forty years together. He is 68 and she is 64.
Official figures certainly suggest that that there has also been a distinct increase in the number of non-celebrities getting divorced in their 60s. In the Telegraph article, journalist Neil Tweedie notes that over 3,000 more over-60s in England and Wales divorced in 2010 than in the previous year: a total of almost 14,600.
Actress Diana Quick, famous for her role in Brideshead Revisited, was 61 when she separated from actor Bill Nighy after 27 years together in 2008. She recently discussed silver separations in an interview with the Telegraph, claiming::
“There are far more couples splitting up in their sixties now and one reason is that they can. Economically, they have more independence.”
That is not a bad explanation – many older people are wealthier now than their parents were at a similar age and money certainly provides freedom and options. But I actually think there is more going on than money here. As a society, our attitudes to age have changed and are now very different to those held by previous generations.
Older people no longer expect to sit in an armchair and quietly decline into decrepitude once they retire. They want to keep on living their lives – enjoying themselves, pursuing their interests, seeing their friends and family, travelling, making the most of all that free time. And many older people do precisely that, but fully aware all the while that time is no longer on their side. Time is a precious commodity when you are in your 60s, and certainly not one to be wasted.
As I see them, silver separations and divorce after 60 are one last grasp at freedom and self-expression. They may have been with their partners for 20, 30 or 40 years, but they see no reason why they cannot step outside and enjoy some freedom and fresh experience before it is too late.
Some freshly single older people frequently reunite with long lost loves or take existing friendships in a new direction and tie the knot once more. But here is where I’d like to sound a note of caution. Marriage in later years should come with a health warning. Why? Second marriages are notoriously more fragile than first time round. People are more set in their ways. It’s harder to get used to the habits of a newer but older partner. There will be children around, often grand children or even great grandchildren. The spouse of the first marriage may be unwell and depressed as a result of the breakdown of the first marriage. So a second marriage in such circumstances, surrounded on all sides by resentful and unhappy relatives (not least because of inheritance concerns) might be almost doomed before it begins. Ask yourself is it really worth it?
If you have a marriage that you secretly hope each day might soon turn into a potential silver divorce, so you can run off into a starry future with another, think very long and hard. As I am ruefully told on many occasions by my clients, the grass is never greener even if for a short while you suddenly feel like a lamb in the spring time. Your long suffering spouse may have learned to live with your moods and habits but a new spouse may find them less than palatable after a while.
Worst of all, such unions could even mean bigger financial settlements if it all goes wrong, even after a short time, and leave you completely cleaned out. Older people will have greater financial needs simply because they can no longer work or are coming to the end of their working lives. I have acted against wealthy men who became much poorer after paying out to not just one spouse, but two when their starry eyed second wife turned into a ferocious vixen.
So if you are longingly pondering a silver divorce and a second marriage, I’m far from sure it should all be thrown away, upsetting the entire family at the same time. And if you are still unconvinced, at the very least take legal advice to protect yourself.
There is, after all, no fool like an old fool.
Photo by Detective C under a Creative Commons licence