Grey divorce and a fresh start later in life

James Jennings interviews Resilience Counsellor Davide Di Pietro for Australian Seniors.

‘Grey divorce’ – a term coined for those splitting later in life after lengthy marriages or de facto partnerships — is on the rise, with the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealing that couples who were married for 20 years or more accounted for a quarter of the 56,244 divorces in 2021, as opposed to only one in five in the 1980s and 1990s.

The rise in older divorce is supported by the new Love After 50 research from Australian Seniors, which finds that over a third (37%) of over 50s have had doubts about continuing their current relationship, and a quarter (25%) have considered separating or divorcing.

Davide Di Pietro, Director of the Family Counselling Clinic at Sydney’s The Resilience Centre, a specialist service for those experiencing relationship breakdowns, says that divorce is now less taboo than it has been in the past, which plays a major role in its rise among older Australians. However, he doesn’t believe it’s the main factor.

“I think empty nest syndrome is probably the number one reason – couples realising the thing that was keeping them together was raising children,” says Davide. “Then once that’s done, couples can grow apart and may need to figure out how to recalibrate their relationship.

“People are also living longer, which I also think plays a big part. At 50, they may still have 20, 30, 40 years of life left, so people are considering how they want to live their life moving forward and divorce suddenly becomes a viable option.”

Keeping communications open

Although the stereotype is that most divorces and separations end acrimoniously, Davide believes a lot of grey divorces wind up being more amicable, especially if there are adult children involved and no custody issues to settle. “I had some parents I was working with who were getting close to retiring, and they were explaining this plan they had for their divorce in later life,” says Davide.

“They were going to acquire a property with plenty of room and two dwellings on it, and they’d have a family dinner together every Tuesday and their adult kids and grandkids would come around. I thought that was great; having a picture of how you want things to be and factoring in all those important parts of life is a nice thing to do.

“I think therapy can be a really helpful way to achieve that. There’s probably a lot of perpetual issues that have been in play for a while and sometimes having those conversations can be tricky.”

Tuskeen Jacobs, Partner and Head of Family Law at Rostron Carlyle Rojas, agrees that having adult children removes a lot of the complexity of a separation for older couples, as they’re more focused on sorting the legal issues out as practically as possible.

​​“With older divorcees or de facto separated couples, a lot of that emotion is taken out because often when couples are in their 30s and 40s, they’re still arguing about where the kids live, and that can be very emotionally triggering. With the older demographic it’s more a case of ‘let’s get down to business’,” says Tuskeen.

“They tend to be more amicable and get the financial side of things sorted as quickly and cost effectively as possible, because the focus is on how to make their money last for retirement.”

Besides having individual wills updated, Tuskeen’s advice for those going through a split is simple: keep the lines of communication open. “If you can broker a deal with your ex-spouse instead of having a lawyer do all that for you, you’re going to save potentially tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, and that’s always a win for everyone,” she says.

“The other thing I would say is to be aware your standard of living may need to change. Be flexible in your options in terms of how you envision your life moving forward, because you may not necessarily get the settlement that you think you deserve or want.”

Sorting out the money

Untangling the finances and dividing an asset pool that’s been built over many years can be a daunting task, which is where the services of a good financial planner, especially one that specialises in divorce, can come in.

In what may not seem like the most obvious financial advice for those going their separate ways, Director and Financial Planner Joshua Dalton from Dalton Financial Partners says the first thing couples should consider investing in is counselling.

“Make sure that you definitely can’t save the marriage, as divorce is the most expensive thing you can go through,” says Joshua.

“If there’s a glimmer of hope, invest some money in counselling and give that a good shot to see if the marriage is salvageable. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to start thinking about how to fairly divide up that asset pool, while being aware that rebuilding it can be challenging for those in an older age bracket.”

Although many older couples will be in a strong financial position and may have already paid off their house, Josh warns that they shouldn’t assume financial security in the future is a given.

“They may have a decent amount of money in retirement savings and a decent asset pool to split, but the likelihood of re-partnering and rebuilding is a lot lower too, so it puts a lot of pressure on the situation,” he says. “Still, despite the added pressure I do think older couples have the maturity to just work through it themselves. It’s typically not as spiteful as a young divorce.”

Staying positive

Even the most amicable split can still leave those experiencing it feeling like they’re on an emotional rollercoaster, which is why trying to stay positive is a crucial part of the separation process.

“I think connection is so important; it’s important for humans and it’s important for our resilience and our longevity,” says Davide. “I recommend spending time with family and friends and finding fulfilling ways to spend your time.”

Davide also suggests learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby to maintain a healthy mindset. “I worked with a dad once who went straight into cooking classes after a split,” he says. “That was something he had no experience with, and it really changed a lot for him and absolutely lifted his mood and helped him feel more confident.”

Being kind to yourself and your ex is crucial when it comes to embarking upon the next chapter of your life, Davide says. “You could move forward holding onto bitterness and anger and frustration or wishing that things were different, but I think that only works against us,” he says.

“Instead, practise compassion and allow some room for that mixing bowl of emotions that comes with separation, like grief, denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, joy, hopefulness, optimism — it all comes to the surface and goes up and down.

“Allow some space for that rollercoaster to actually occur and remember to be kind to yourself — that may be the most important thing of all.”

Discover more findings in the Love After 50 Report