Restarting Life After Gray Divorce

Many see it as a liberation. However, divorces in people over 50 years aren't always so positive. In fact, behind this booming phenomenon lie hidden economic disputes and great emotional challenges.
Restarting Life After Gray Divorce
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 03 October, 2022

Statistical data states that divorces in couples over the age of 50 years have been increasing all over the world. However, when someone faces the breakup of a relationship of 20, 30, or even 40 years, the challenges are innumerable. They’re also rather personal.

Starting life after the ‘grey divorce’ is no easy task. In fact, many people feel completely lost. On the other hand, others see it as a new opportunity or a second chance. A well-deserved opportunity to shape a happier, more refreshing existence full of hopeful goals. Whatever the case, it can’t be denied that it’s essential to end any relationship that, far from bringing satisfaction, only brings unhappiness and problems.

That said, when two people have lived together for decades, they’ve often built a great family, emotional, material, and even economic infrastructure. Splitting that legacy in two, like cutting a piece of paper in half, isn’t easy. For example, difficulties almost always arise in the dividing up of possessions. Furthermore, the break-up has to be mourned, and couples find themselves having to redefine the meaning of their lives.

Many people aged between 50 and 60 don’t know how to deal with the emotions associated with the divorce process and how to begin life alone.

Senior man thinking about how to start life after "gray divorce"
The gray divorce implies having to rebuild ourselves, but also integrating all the life we shared with our ex-partner.

Keys to restarting life after gray divorce

In the case of gray divorce, love has sometimes been snuffed out, damaged, or abused. However, there are some who, instead of ending their unhappy relationships, prolong them for decades. This is especially common in couples over sixty who were taught that marriage must last forever. Needless to say, under these kinds of conditions, the only thing that lasts forever is suffering.

Fortunately, this perception is outdated. Divorce is no longer seen as a stigma, but as a frequent and consolidated action in our society. Add to this the fact that many women between the age of 50 and 60 enjoy economic independence and their own careers, it’s easy to understand the reason for the increase in breakups in this sector of the population.

The real challenge is how to start life after the gray divorce. It’s not something that can be explained by the empty nest syndrome, the mid-life crisis, or approaching retirement. These are people who no longer love their spouses/partners and who want to start a new life alone. Managing what comes after taking that brave step isn’t easy.

The need for support from the environment

Research published in The Journals of Gerontology suggests two interesting aspects. Firstly, the so-called gray divorce revolution first made its presence known in 1990. Since then, breakups in couples over the age of 50 represent one in four divorces.

The second aspect is that we don’t know for certain the predictors of this phenomenon, nor the consequences. What we do know is that it isn’t a simple process and that, due to its specific characteristics, it’s extremely different from divorce at a younger age.

Something that’s key in these situations is that the divorced partner must have the support of their environment. Indeed, having friends to talk to and a social group that acts as a daily ally, is key to starting life after a gray divorce. It’s also important to have the understanding and support of other family members.

Facing a gray divorce implies having to leave relationships with the couple’s extended family and common friendships. They also have to give up certain dreams and reformulate their entire legacy of memories and experiences.

Reformulating their life story to orient it to the future

The 55 or 60 year old couple who decide to divorce may have lived together for 20, 30, or more years. Naturally, each case is unique, and although there are some relationships that went wrong from the start, others may have experienced a much later decline. In most cases, it means having to reformulate life almost from the ground up.

There are those who regret everything they’ve lived through and ask themselves “Why didn’t I do this before?” While others suffer as they find themselves having to part from a partner whom they still love, yet, due to various circumstances (betrayals, disagreements, etc.) must leave. There’ll also be those who escape from long abusive relationships and others who leave relationships by mutual agreement when there’s no love left.

In all of these circumstances, the last thing they should do is try to erase their life with their partner. Those shared decades are there and they’re part of their history. They make up part of who they are. They must accept the past to focus on the future. To do this, they must mourn the break-up. Later, they can clarify new goals and purposes.

Economic issues can cause anxiety

Starting life after a gray divorce is, in many cases rather dizzying. More so when one of the partners hasn’t contributed financially and depends on their spouse’s pension. It’s one of the real difficulties of this rising phenomenon. After all, there are many women who’ve dedicated their lives to bringing up their children.

In other situations, the couple has to face the division of an estate which often causes legal problems. They’re experiences that cause a great deal of anxiety and that can, in certain cases, create antagonisms between other family members.

mother and daughter talking about how to start life after the "gray divorce"
Communication and empathy between parents and children is decisive in coping with the effects of gray divorce.

The effect of a gray divorce on adult children

Most parents in their 50s and 60s assume that their children won’t feel the full impact of their divorce. “They’re older”, they say, “They have their own lives”. However, many of these young people deal with the situation in silence without really knowing how to accept, understand, and face it. They experience strange and contradictory feelings along with disappointment and sadness.

For this reason, parents should talk to their adult children and explain to them that how they’re feeling is perfectly understandable. They should keep channels of communication open and must understand that just because their children are older doesn’t mean that the break-up doesn’t greatly affect them. Life isn’t like that.

Obviously, they don’t need their children’s permission to proceed with the breakup and separation. However, mutual support between parents and children, as well as making use of empathetic and sincere dialogue, will serve as a buffer for a situation that’s never comfortable or easy for anyone.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Brown, S. & Lin, I. (2012). The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990–2010. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 67(6): 731–741.
  • Campbell, M. “Divorce at Mid-Life: Intergenerational Issues.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 23, no. 1–2 (1995): 200, doi:10.1300/J087v23n01_12.
  • Ehrlich, J. Divorce and Loss: Helping Adults and Children Mourn When a Marriage Comes Apart. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 74.
  • Taylor, J. B. My Stroke of Insight: A Brian Scientist’s Personal Journey. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006)

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.