Dear Divorce Coach: My husband and I are recent empty-nesters and as our house has emptied, I’ve realized I’m not sure I want to spend the rest of my life with him. We have tried marital counseling and many other things to try and re-connect with each other. We love our children, all young adults, very much, but they are really the only thing we have in common anymore that connects us. I think he will be okay if we divorce as I hear a lot from others about men finding new love in their 50s and 60s. But I worry that it’s much harder for women and wonder if it’s a mistake for me to contemplate separation and/or divorce? Should I continue to “make it work?” 

– Unhappily Married in Middle Age

Dear Unhappily Married in Middle Age,

I’m so glad you are making explicit what is so often implied in our culture: that it may be too late to divorce. There is still a cultural norm that any long-term relationship is worth keeping even if it is no longer successful. But that norm is starting to shift as men and women are asking the same questions as you. You may have heard the phrase “grey divorce” which refers to couples over the age of 50 splitting after years of marriage. In recent years, the percentage of couples divorcing late in life is on the rise and can be attributed to a variety of factors: the aforementioned stigma shift and increased life expectancy as well as individual financial independence.

But for many, the fear of the unknown makes what’s next too scary to contemplate, especially when facing aging and mortality. As a result, many couples just try to “make it work” as you say, going through the motions and not particularly happy as they enter their “golden years.”

If you and your spouse are considering a late-in-life divorce

Your reality is what you make it and only you can change its course to one that gives you fulfillment; you should not spend it unhappy or on cruise-control. It sounds like you’ve done some counseling and tried to reconnect. I recommend you spend some time reflecting on these efforts and their impact on your relationship. Contemplate what you want for your future and begin to define where and how your spouse fits in. Acknowledge that it’s okay the outcome may result in you separating.

So, what questions should you explore, perhaps with coaching support:

  • When did I notice the disconnection with my spouse?
  • What have we tried to reconnect?
  • Do I have a choice to keep trying or has my spouse told me we will divorce?
  • If I have the choice, or even if I don’t, how can I frame next steps for success?
  • Although I may feel emotional, am I thinking carefully about my own future and thinking about necessary legal and financial planning?
  • Am I seeking connection within myself to remind myself who I am and how I can look forward, married or divorced?
  • If my disconnection has more to do with me, what action can I take, right now, to feel more connected with my wants and needs?

These questions deserve exploration and intention. Take your time to explore the answers and their implications; how does each answer make you feel? What does that sentiment tell you about your future and your marriage? Do you have a sense of where to go from here? Taking the time to discuss or write down your thoughts, worries, and desires can better help you process them and see the path forward.

For some, the spouse has made the decision to separate or divorce while you may not quite be there or may want to save the marriage. If you don’t have a choice about the divorce, make sure you focus upon what you need rather than why you are angry or upset about what is happening to you. It is critically important that you not waste resources, emotional, financial or practical on what you cannot control. Process your feelings, of course, and give them space and time. A mistake I see, too often, in my work is failing to plan when in the midst of a major life transition. It may not feel easy, but you must take the time to define how your life will look like next. The key, in my professional experience, is not to get stuck in something that’s not working because you have fear about what may lie ahead.

Honest communication from the start will benefit you and your spouse if you decide to divorce later in life

Once you’ve spent some time exploring your perspective, it’s worth sitting down with your spouse and having an authentic conversation. While you cannot and will never control what your husband does, inside or outside of your marriage, you can thoughtfully discuss how he sees the future, together or apart. This conversation at minimum puts you on the same page, creating a shared viewpoint on what’s next for you both; from there, you can determine your plan and the immediate next steps. This process can be overwhelming and if you need help navigating your emotions, having that conversation or figuring out all of your options, consider contacting a coach or therapist to help guide you. With coaching facilitation, you can create common values that can radically shift how things go during and post-separation should you choose it. These coaches work to get the best outcome, financial and emotional, for you.

Gray divorce is different from divorcing earlier in life

The reality of a later-in-life divorce vs. one when you were younger is that you have a wealth of life experience behind you and this can present unique challenges as you consider decoupling from your spouse. At this stage in your life, you’ve likely already been thinking about many of these but it’s important as you consider divorce that you shine a new and specific lens on them:

  • Current Income and Future Income: Ensuring financial stability during and after your gray divorce is critical to setting you up for a comfortable future. Take stock of where you are today and where you want to be in the long-term:
    • Weigh the impact of a single income source vs. being married, and implications of a split income
    • If you are already retired, haven’t worked recently, or worked intermittently over the years, you may have to look at re-entering the workforce and this could be a challenging process
    • If you were considering retirement, you may need to delay it a few years
    • Assess whether you will receive or have to pay spousal support (alimony)
  • Retirement: Whether you are already retired or it’s still a number of years away, you need to focus on the impact your divorce will have on this part of your financial picture. I recommend engaging a financial planner to analyze your assets and consult on your current and future financial plan based on your goals. You may have to make adjustments or potentially even postpone your retirement so that you can enjoy the life you want.
  • Dividing Your Combined Assets: Research your state’s laws regarding your assets and debts to learn how the courts handle the division. Because you and your spouse have likely been together for a longer term, there are several different factors that will be reviewed by the court, including: how long you were married, your ages and health, your current income, your physical assets (property), any debt (shared or individual), whether you have a prenuptial agreement.
  • Your Health: You’re not getting any younger, and you will need to explore how to ensure you remain healthy and covered through insurance. If you are under the age of 65, you will need to account for the costs of health insurance in your post-divorce financial plan. Health insurance can be expensive, but it is important that you incorporate those costs. If you’re over 65, you may qualify for Medicare; be sure to explore this option and assess whether you fit the criteria. If you’re on a lower income, you may also be able to qualify for Medicaid as an added safety net.
  • Competency: Another reality of aging is one spouse having a medical condition that affects their competency. If this is a concern in your situation, surface immediately with your attorney as they can advise on how best to proceed.
  • Adult Children: You should absolutely take time to consider the impact of your divorce on your children, which will be different depending on their ages. Beyond the emotional impact, which will have its own challenges, there may still be obligations you would have honored together that you should discuss how to handle divorced; this can include continued education, weddings, financial gifts, insurance, etc. With good legal and financial planning, especially if the two of you can cooperate about it, you and your spouse can still create a sense of family for your adult children should you choose to divorce.
  • Long-Term Care: While you may be many years from considering elder care, you should factor it into your plan now and model out several scenarios: if you remain single, if you find a new partner, if you get sick, if you will rely on your children. Similar to insurance, the costs of long-term care can be substantial. Add this assessment as part of your discussion with a financial planner to ensure when you reach this stage, you have the quality of life and care you want.
  • Estate Planning: You likely had a will with your spouse up until now and one of your first steps as you begin your divorce should be updating your plan. Divorces take time and there unfortunately may be a chance that one of you could die before the divorce is finalized. Take the time to weigh all the details: what do you want for your final wishes, who will you select as your new power of attorney to make decisions for you in the event you are unable, how do you want your estate to be handled? Consider this if you remain single and also in the event you remarry.
  • New Love: Many of these items should be discussed early on if find love again and wish to remarry or cohabitate. You’ll want to have a frank and honest conversation with your new partner that addresses finances, health, family. Discussing this upfront will help mitigate confusion or even conflict down the road. It is perfectly appropriate that you decide to keep everything separate. Should you decide to remarry and combine assets, you may want to consult with your divorce attorney for perspective on ensuring your best interests are upheld.

This list is not meant to overwhelm you; rather, I want you to be armed with the tools to make this major life transition as seamless as possible so you can truly start to enjoy and relish these “golden years.”

Moving forward after your gray divorce

I talked about this topic recently in an interview on Medium. In our conversation, it became clear, I think, that taking steps towards what you want, instead of staying stuck in what you know you don’t, is essential. Yes, it may be terrifying and you may find yourself dragged through an emotional ringer during the divorce process, but there will likely be happiness for you on the other side.

If you find yourself struggling those first few months after your divorce, consider counseling, whether a support group, private coaching, or therapy. Taking the time to work through your emotions, identify what’s scaring you, and plan for your future will set you on the right footing for this new phase.

This period may also be the first time you’ve been on your own since you left your first home. It will likely feel a little weird and even uncomfortable. But it’s important for you to explore this stage as a single person. If you opted to remain in the home you shared with your former partner, consider packing up or giving away items that don’t serve you or bring you joy. Treat yourself to some new decor or bedding that is truly you. Some people opt to start completely fresh by moving to a new home, using this as an opportunity to physically and therefore emotionally distance themselves from that period of their life. Take yourself out on some dates; reconnect with you and what you enjoy. Try to look beyond the discomfort and see the benefits of this new stage.

You may also want to reach out to old friends or family with whom you’ve lost touch over the past years. There’s likely to be a few with whom it will feel like picking up where you left off before marriage, kids, careers, and whatever else caused you to part ways. Invite them to try something new with you. Use this time and the perspective you’ve gained from before, during, and after your divorce to build new connections and fill your life with what makes you happy and complete.

I always emphasize to my clients the importance of self-care at any stage of this journey, but in this tender period where you may be a little emotionally raw and vulnerable or you may be bursting at the seams with your newfound freedom, self-care is critical. And it is completely okay for you to be a little selfish during this time. Put yourself first for a bit and explore new (or even old) hobbies or activities that pique your interest. Perhaps you gave up an activity like yoga or art when you had kids; perhaps you’ve never tried rock-climbing or DIY-anything. Try it and grow from it.

Take care of yourself by continuing (or starting) healthy routines; the old standards of eating well, exercising, and exploring your world will do wonders for your emotional and mental health. Find positive ways to stay energized and focused; read, volunteer, take a trip.

When you take this approach, you will find your new normal and discover the person you planned for at the start of this process. Best of luck to you Unhappily Married in Middle Age.

–  Cherie Morris