What are some of the reasons why couples who have been together for decades still get divorced?

The phenomenon of ‘gray divorce’ – people over 50 splitting up – is not new, but it’s on the rise and has been for quite awhile now. The rate is double what it was in 1990 and some researchers project it might even triple by the end of the decade. That means couples who have lasted for 20 or even 30 years are calling it quits. Our relationship experts weighed in on some of the main reasons for this growing trend.
Sarah J. Jacobs

Sarah J. Jacobs

Sarah J. Jacobs is the Co-Founder of Jacobs Berger, LLC, a boutique divorce and family law practice located in Morristown, NJ.

Not Working Anymore, the Kids Are Grown

We’ve all heard the war stories of divorced couples, airing their grievances, listing all of the reasons why their marriages didn’t work, were doomed to fail, or, in some cases, fell apart. Finances, identity, immaturity – these have all topped the list. But, in recent years, we’ve seen a trend emerging where couples decide to divorce after twenty, thirty, forty, and even fifty years of marriage. We’ve also heard about the explosion of “gray divorce,” with people in their sixties and later deciding to end their long-term partnerships, opting for life apart in their golden years. The question is, why?

“We did it for the kids.” We’ve heard parents say this when splitting up, and it can be particularly true for couples with college-aged children. Often, these parents have more than one child, and when the oldest heads off to college, the younger, or youngest, is still behind. There are still activities to attend, busy schedules to manage, colleges to apply for, and honestly, a buffer in the home.

Many parents don’t realize the impact of a long life together, and how they may have drifted apart until they are empty nesters. Without the hum of children in the home, the differences you may have been able to overlook, or the idiosyncrasies that have annoyed you but you’ve been too tired to focus on, now seem insurmountable. A lot of parents also feel when their children have left for school or employment, they no longer have to “hold it together” for their children’s benefit, and that as adults, their children can handle their parents deciding to divorce.

“I would have done things differently if I knew.” There are a lot of reasons why people decide to marry, and who people decide to make that commitment with. The reasons fall on a wide spectrum. You can marry for love, for financial security, for stability, because you’re creating a family, or you can be doing it as a form of rebellion – the list is endless.

But, often, the reasons you started with so many years ago may not be the same reasons you can use to justify staying together decades later. We also can’t predict the future. If we had known the day we said “I do” that the person we married wanted to retire early, or change jobs like they change outfits, or didn’t believe that family holidays should be celebrated together, or wouldn’t want to travel the world, we may have chosen a different path.

Often, difficult conversations about goals and dreams aren’t happening in the “honeymoon” phase of romance but show up after life has created challenges and opportunities. Learning how someone navigates these twists and turns can highlight incompatible personalities that may not have shown themselves early on.

“It’s just not working anymore.” If you married your spouse thirty years ago in the name of “love” but you’re now another person based on life experiences, (ones you’ve weathered together but also those you’ve experienced separately), you may no longer be a “match.” While some couples learn to grow together, some simply grow apart. What they wanted when they started may not be what they still want now.

Also, people simply want something different than what they’ve experienced before. Whether it’s boredom or a drive for more, the instant gratification culture can apply. As we grow older (and hopefully wiser), we tend to learn about what is important to us. This list absolutely changes over time, and what we wanted then may have aligned with our partner’s vision, but what we want now may create discord, or be oppositional to our spouse’s goals and dreams for their future. Many people, especially if they feel they are “on the clock” with time, don’t want to waste a minute. They are ready to embrace what life has to offer, even if that means leaving a long-term partner behind.

Whatever your reason for divorcing later in life, the most important thing is to do it with grace. Grace for yourself, for your spouse, for the life you’ve lived together and for the life yet to be!

Fell Out of Love, Committed a Deal Breaker

A Deal Breaker Was Committed

Deal breakers are words or deeds that one considers unforgivable. They vary from one person to another.
Some of the most common deal breakers are infidelity, verbal/physical abuse, neglect, criminal activity, addictions, and financial instability.
Almost anything can be considered a deal breaker or “the last straw” once a person has reached their frustration limits.
Sometimes people stay in a toxic marriage until the timing is right for them or they have finally mustered up the courage to walk away.
Generally speaking, deal breakers do not have a statute of limitations on them.

One or Both People Fell Out of Love and Stopped Wanting the Same Things

While it may take two people to hold a marriage together it only takes one person to end it by walking away. All marriages are at will.
Over the years couples are either growing together or growing apart. There is no neutral. People take stock of their marriage and their level of optimism.
When someone reaches the realization that they are unhappy in their marriage and can no longer see a future with their spouse, they will leave.
An awareness of how much time has been invested in the marriage along with how much possible time one may have can create more urgency for change.
Having a “soulmate” rather than a cellmate is the aim. There are no “stuck” relationships. Suffering is not necessary.

Kevin Darné

Kevin Darné

Kevin Darné is the author of Every Ending is a New Beginning: The journey from Breaking Up to Moving On. https://twitter.com/kdarnelovealert?lang=en.

Dori Shwirtz

Dori Shwirtz

Dori Shwirtz runs divorceharmony.com, an online platform for marital and divorce mediation.

Infidelity, Financial Issues

In my divorce mediation practice there are many couples seeking to get divorced after 20 years or more of marriage. There are usually a few reasons for this but the underlying theme is always the same – one or both parties are just not happy anymore and realize that they want to live out the rest of their lives honestly.

This can manifest from infidelity, financial issues, or very different interests. Sometimes the couple was just living life day to day and didn’t have to think about any of this until the kids left the house. Then the magnifying glass focused in and the cracks in the relationship were more easily exposed without being occupied with the children.

Whatever the reason, couples married for decades can move on with grace and dignity and have a high-quality life after divorce.

Realizing They Have Different Goals In Life

I think there can be infinite reasons, as every couple is unique and has a different situation. I’d say that the most common reasons are falling out of love, growing in different ways, or realizing that they have different goals in life or that they no longer share the same path. After decades, it might seem as though it would be impossible to end up in divorce, why not realize sooner, after all? But I’d say that there is usually a catalyst, such as kids growing up and leaving home, meaning there is no reason to stay together anymore or something along those lines.

Rachel Fink

Rachel Fink

Rachel Fink, CEO & Founder, Parenting Pod.

Evelyn Ott

Evelyn Ott

Evelyn Ott, Tattoo Artist and Content Writer at Soul Canvas Ink.

Affairs, When Children Leave, Midlife Crisis

This is one of the most common reasons for divorce. When spouses meet other people in the course of their marriage, they tend to start affairs and this causes a strain in their relationship to the point of divorce. This is often habitual infidelity, which causes emotional stress for the other partner. Sometimes the partner having an affair can decide to start a relationship with the other person they met.

When Children Leave
Some couples tend to be held together by children, and when these children leave, there is nothing there to hold them together, and their marriage dulls and ends.

Midlife Crisis
Some people in their 50s tend to seek a youthful feeling, and in the process, they do away with their partner who probably makes them feel old. This does not apply to all people, because many are mature enough to realize what’s important in life.

Drug and Alcohol Problems, Last Chance to Chase Dreams

One common reason why people who have been together for decades get divorced is that they knew they wanted a divorce long ago, but agreed to stay together until the children were grown and no longer living at home.

Infidelity can happen at any time and is another cause for divorce after a long-term marriage. In some cases, one partner may leave the other to create a life with a long-term affair partner. Or one spouse may end the marriage following the discovery of an affair.

Drug and alcohol problems that began long ago can also prompt a person to end the marriage. As addiction combines with aging and other health issues, it puts extra stress on the relationship and the pressure can become too much.

Finally, some couples will choose to end a decades-long marriage because they realize they’d like to spend the rest of their lives traveling in different directions, so to speak. They might realize that it’s their last chance to chase their dreams, and they can’t do that while tethered to the marriage.

Tara Eisenhard

Tara Eisenhard

Tara Eisenhard, Divorce Coach and Family Mediator at Tara Eisenhard.

Greg Cheney

Greg Cheney

Dr. Greg Cheney is an expert in marriage counseling at Valiant Couples Therapy and Consulting.

Disconnection, Slowly Drifting Apart

The number one reason couples who have been together for decades get divorced is a gradual disconnection. This is especially true for high-achieving couples who have challenging work schedules. They slowly drift apart. They find themselves doing life together well. They are even very effective in running the logistics of keeping a household going. Unfortunately, these couples find themselves experiencing their relationship more like roommates than lovers and life partners. This creates a slow and painful dissolution of a marriage if not addressed.

This kind of disconnection in a marriage can lead to cheating and infidelity, which can easily end in divorce as well. One or both partners find themselves connecting with someone outside of their marriage. They begin to feel understood and cared for in a way they long for in their marriage. They may turn to this emotional and physical relationship instead of their spouse.

Lack of Emotion In Relationship

The number one reason my clients file for divorce after decades of marriage is the lack of emotional connection in the relationship, which is often triggered by the kids moving out of the home. When children are no longer the focus of the relationship, it is difficult to ignore the lack of connection and the loss of intimacy, and the decrease in satisfaction with the status quo.

For many, a gray divorce or divorce after a long marriage is also a factor of diverging goals and different interests that develop over time. Older individuals tend to be more positive about being independent and charting their own path forward, even if it means doing it without a spouse.

Mardi Winder-Adams

Mardi Winder-Adams

Mardi Winder-Adams, Divorce Transition Coach at Positive Communication Systems, LLC.

Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder

Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder

Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder, Lawyer at Rozin Golinder Law, LLC.

A Life-Altering Event, Mental or Physical Abuse

Growing apart: Years have passed. The kids are out of the house. The spark is gone. You have become roommates. Nothing has happened per se, but you realize you don’t want to live the rest of your life in a complacent relationship that lacks a spark.

Financial distress: Years of financial stress or control can be a breaking point and a cause for divorce after years of enduring.

A Life-Altering Event: A death in the family or a major health crisis can be the final push one needs to leave an already deteriorating relationship. Whether one spouse is not supportive during the ordeal, or it is an eye-opener that life is too short to be unhappy.

Infidelity: Even if it has been happening for years, everyone has a breaking point – even if it is decades later.

Mental or Physical Abuse: It may take someone years to find the courage to leave an abusive marriage. Whether they feel like they have no way out or can’t find their voice I find that people will eventually save themselves and leave the toxic situation.

Sexless Marriage, Financial Incompatibility

There are many factors that could lead couples to get a divorce after many years. One reason is that the couple has grown apart. Many couples grow apart over time. Many will cope with the loneliness as they raise their family. But, as their children move out, the loneliness becomes more pronounced and so they decide to divorce.

Another reason why couples get divorced after many years is that they are in a sexless marriage. Many couples experience a decrease in sex over the years. This may not initially be an issue for the couple. However, eventually, one partner may decide that they are not happy with the lack of physical intimacy, and so they divorce.

A couple may also divorce after many years because of a lack of financial compatibility. Financial issues can pose serious problems in relationships. These issues often lead to arguments and may eventually cause the breakdown of the marriage.

Thomas J. Jameson

Thomas J. Jameson, C-MHC, Clinical Director of The Ohana Luxury Drug Rehab.

This is a crowdsourced article. Contributors' statements do not necessarily reflect the opinion of this website, other people, businesses, or other contributors.