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‘For bet­ter or for worse’ are no longer sa­cred vows for baby boomers look­ing for mar­i­tal hap­pi­ness, writes Sharon Stephen­son

‘For bet­ter or for worse’ are no longer sa­cred vows for baby boomers look­ing for mar­i­tal hap­pi­ness, writes Sharon Stephen­son

It’s there in the dull blue eyes, shad­owed from a lack of sleep and anx­i­ety. It’s in the ex­pen­sive wardrobe she once took for granted — silk, cash­mere and but­ter­soft leather. It’s there in the wrin­kles that twice-yearly Bo­tox in­jec­tions used to erase. Dis­ap­point­ment and anger: they’re thick in the air at Mar­garet Lowe’s* in­ner-city apart­ment, shoe­horned into the tiny space along­side an enor­mous blue vel­vet couch and vin­tage French din­ing table. Aside from twin adult sons, it’s all the 58-year-old has to show for four decades of mar­riage.

At the beginning of this year, Lowe’s hus­band Bob, who she met when she was 16, an­nounced that he was leav­ing her for his firm’s ju­nior ac­coun­tant, a woman al­most a decade younger than his 38-year-old chil­dren.

“It’s so cliched, isn’t it?” Lowe asks over mint tea and cran­berry scones, still warm from the oven.

“Af­ter all those years of rais­ing his sons and keep­ing his house and pre­tend­ing to like his col­leagues at stupid work func­tions, Bob threw me aside as soon as some­one showed the slight­est bit of in­ter­est. He may as well have pushed me off a cliff.”

They’re sting­ing words, spat through grit­ted teeth, but Lowe isn’t alone: in fact, she’s a mem­ber of one of the fastest-grow­ing de­mo­graph­ics not just in New Zealand but on the planet — the so-called Sil­ver Splitters, those aged 50+ who are head­ing for di­vorce court.

It was once re­ferred to as the seven-year itch, but fig­ures show that 30, 40 and 50-plus year itches are in­creas­ingly be­ing scratched by the baby boomers (those born be­tween 1946 and 1964). In fact, over the past decade, grey di­vorces have more than dou­bled, even as di­vorce rates among all other ages are sta­bil­is­ing or de­clin­ing. In the United States, for ex­am­ple, fewer than 10 per cent of those who di­vorced in 1990 were aged 50 or older whereas to­day one in four peo­ple un­ty­ing the mar­i­tal knot is in this age group.

By 2030, it’s pre­dicted that in ex­cess of 800,000 Amer­i­can se­nior ci­ti­zens could be tan­go­ing their way through di­vorce pro­ceed­ings. In Bri­tain, fig­ures sug­gest that one in ev­ery 10 peo­ple di­vorc­ing in 2037 will be over 60.

Here in New Zealand, it’s also not ad­vis­able to stock up on the sil­ver an­niver­sary cards: the 2017 New Zealand Re­la­tion­ship Prop­erty Sur­vey re­vealed that of the 8169 di­vorces reg­is­tered in New Zealand last year, the medium age (47 for men and 44 for women) was higher than pre­vi­ously.

“Another in­ter­est­ing trend is the ap­par­ent rise of the sil­ver splitters,” noted the sur­vey. “New Zealand’s age­ing pop­u­la­tion sug­gests this trend will con­tinue and bring new chal­lenges.”

Af­ter all those years of rais­ing his sons and keep­ing his house and pre­tend­ing to like his col­leagues at stupid work func­tions, Bob threw me aside as soon as some­one showed the slight­est bit of in­ter­est. He may as well have pushed me off a cliff.

When the Bea­tles sang, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” they clearly didn’t imag­ine that the re­sponse from a tsunami of baby boomers would be a re­sound­ing “No.”

Re­search sug­gests a big driver for the trend is in­creas­ing life ex­pectancy. “In the past, peo­ple died ear­lier,” Pep­per Schwartz, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Washington in Seat­tle, said in the New York Times. “But now peo­ple are liv­ing much longer and 50 and 60-year-olds are look­ing at the lat­ter third of their lives and what they want to do with them. A lot of mar­riages aren’t hor­ri­ble but they’re no longer sat­is­fy­ing or lov­ing. Peo­ple are ask­ing, ‘Do I re­ally want another 30 years of this?’”

While it con­founds nearly ev­ery stereo­type about go­ing gently into our au­tumn years, ex­perts say that re­tire­ment and chil­dren leav­ing home can cause cou­ples to re­alise they don’t ac­tu­ally want to spend the rest of their lives to­gether.

“Some have been liv­ing sep­a­rate lives un­der the same roof for years,” says Deirdre Blair, au­thor of Call­ing it Quits: Late-Life Di­vorce and Start­ing Over. “Their in­ter­ests have de­vel­oped sep­a­rately, as well as the things they want to do and the way they want to live. It boils down to hav­ing noth­ing in com­mon any­more.” Plus, with di­vorce no longer hav­ing the stigma it once did, there’s lit­tle rea­son for these empty-nesters to stay to­gether.

But prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant en­abler has been the chang­ing sta­tus of women who, at least in Amer­ica, ini­ti­ate 60 per cent of di­vorces af­ter the age of 40. With in­creas­ing num­bers of women glob­ally aged 55 to 65 still work­ing, hav­ing an in­de­pen­dent source of in­come gives them more fi­nan­cial con­trol over their lives and allows them to walk away from an un­happy union.

Lowe, un­for­tu­nately, isn’t one of them. The for­mer sec­re­tary hasn’t been in paid work since she was 18 and says she never ex­pected to find her­self leav­ing the gra­cious sub­ur­ban villa she ren­o­vated over three decades — or wor­ry­ing about money.

“I hate, hate, hate liv­ing in this poky apart­ment,” she says, ges­tur­ing around the cramped fifth floor shoe­box, which she bought with her share of the di­vorce set­tle­ment. “I can’t even think about the house I had to give up with­out cry­ing.” Nor has she had an easy run in the em­ploy­ment stakes, hav­ing un­suc­cess­fully ap­plied for nu­mer­ous jobs. “I never even hear back from them be­cause who wants a 58-year-old with no CV or work­place skills? I’ve sold my jewellery, down­sized my car and said good­bye to meals out, new clothes and things I used to en­joy, such as reg­u­lar man­i­cures and Bo­tox, but it’s still a strug­gle to pay the bills each month. At this stage of my life, I didn’t ex­pect to be liv­ing on the smell of an oily rag. I’m very anx­ious about how I’ll get through the next 20 or 30 years.”

Lowe says she was blind­sided by Bob’s in­fi­delity and the end of their mar­riage.

“When you spend so many years to­gether and share the same plans and dreams, it’s hor­ri­fy­ing to have that dis­ap­pear overnight.”

But, she adds bit­terly, she en­joyed Bob’s best years. “His new woman can watch him grow old — if it lasts that long.” IT’S NOT

quite 11am and Mark King* is of­fer­ing me a glass of wine. When I po­litely refuse, he shrugs and pours him­self one.

“You can write I’m drown­ing in wine as well as tears,” jokes the pub­lic ser­vant who was 62 when he de­cided he’d had enough — enough of his 38-year mar­riage, enough of his com­fort­able sub­ur­ban home and enough of a life of si­lent din­ners with Joanne, the wife he’d met at a London rugby club func­tion when they were both teenagers.

“It’s such a cliche but we grew apart,” he says, his still-strong Cock­ney ac­cent bounc­ing off the sharp sur­faces of his sparsely dec­o­rated flat. “I’d been un­happy for years and our chil­dren (a son aged 37 and a 34-year-old daugh­ter) had left home ages ago, so it was no longer nec­es­sary to stay to­gether for the kids.”

King shifts un­com­fort­ably in his chair when he ad­mits he prob­a­bly should never have mar­ried Joanne. “I knew we didn’t have much in com­mon but that’s what you did back then — you met a girl who was okay and you mar­ried her, end of story. Hardly any­one lived to­gether be­fore mar­riage to find out if they were com­pat­i­ble, es­pe­cially not in our Catholic fam­i­lies.”

Even as King was propos­ing to his wife,

I felt like I’d been given a sec­ond chance and I knew I didn’t want to squan­der it liv­ing half a life.

he knew he was mak­ing a mis­take. And he al­most scarpered from the church the day of his wed­ding.

It took a brush with can­cer for him to fi­nally pack a bag and move out. “I felt like I’d been given a sec­ond chance and I knew I didn’t want to squan­der it liv­ing half a life.”

King ad­mits that driv­ing away from the home he and Joanne bought when they em­i­grated to New Zealand in 1980 was one of the hard­est things he’s ever done. “I didn’t want to hurt Joanne but I could see her in the rear vi­sion mir­ror, col­lapsed on the front porch and I was tempted to turn around and ad­mit I’d make a mis­take.”

Since mov­ing into a rented flat a year ago, King has had to learn how to cook, op­er­ate the wash­ing ma­chine and nav­i­gate on­line bill pay­ments. He agrees with ex­perts who say that while di­vorce at any age is likely to be a painful ex­pe­ri­ence, the older you are, the more likely it is to have a neg­a­tive im­pact on one’s health, wealth and well-be­ing.

“I con­stantly worry about the state of my bank bal­ance. I haven’t the heart to sug­gest sell­ing the fam­ily home be­cause Joanne still hasn’t ac­cepted me leav­ing so if I were to chuck her out of her house that would be the end of her. For now, I con­tinue to pay a stupid amount of rent but at some stage we are go­ing to have to talk about sell­ing.”

Walk­ing out on his mar­riage also frac­tured his re­la­tion­ship with his chil­dren, some­thing he deeply re­grets. “They barely speak to me and when I ask to see the grand-kids they refuse, telling me they’d rather see their grand­mother. That hurts a lot but what can I do?”

De­spite what he la­bels “a load of grief”, King ad­mits he can see a point where he will be happy with his de­ci­sion. “I’ve re­cently started dat­ing a woman I met at the su­per­mar­ket. She’s a widow and she has so much life and en­ergy, she doesn’t let me dwell on the past. I took this gi­ant leap of faith and I have to be­lieve that some­how it will work out. It’s fright­en­ing but also quite ex­cit­ing ... ”

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