Great news: we are living longer. Compare life expectancy in 1901- 45 years for men and 49 years for women- with today’s 79 and 83 years respectively, longevity that is only expected to rise. When considering the topic of marriage, then, this raises a question: are we outliving our relationships? With our extra years, are we still expected to stay in one marital relationship ‘til death do us part’?
Many couples in dysfunctional relationships realise and accept that divorce is the necessary step, a realisation that is increasingly occurring in our later years. The Office of National Statistics shows that the number of divorces between those aged 60+ has tripled over the past two decades to 1.3 million. The average marriage length for those getting divorced at 60 or older is 27.4 for men and 32 years for women.
Why are we now opting for such a radical life change so later on in life? Quality of life matters at any age. As therapist Jackie Walker observes, ‘why would you stay with someone just because you fear living alone? Frankly there’s nothing more miserable than being lonely in a marriage.’
There are varying ideas amongst leading divorce lawyers as to why more and more older people are filing for divorce. Robert Gould links longer life expectancy and later-life divorce by stating that people feel ‘they can get out and still have a life.’ Jonathan West, head of ProLegal, has identified that later-life divorce occurs when ‘children have left home…and there is nothing left to bind (the couple) together’. As people are freed from their roles of wife, mother, earner or provider, they turn their attention to their own lives and individual quests. This idea is backed by findings by the ONS that a notable reason for divorce was one partner’s desire to travel the work and embark on a late life ‘gap year’.
Other possible explanations for later life divorce include society’s more relaxed attitude towards divorce, and greater financial independence amongst women. In fact, statistics show that in older couples, women are more likely to initiate divorce than men. Family history lecturer Stephanie Coontz observes that women are generally ‘more sensitive to a mediocre relationship than men and so…with their increased work experience and greater sense of their own possibilities, they are less willing to just “wait it out”.’
So with our greater number of years, opportunities and liberated social attitudes comes a greater number of later life divorces. Ruth Sunderland, chief executive of Relate, identifies the importance of functional relationships to our happiness. In a recent survey by Relate, ‘83% of people…aged over 50’ considered ‘strong personal relationships (as) the most important factor to a happy later life’. This clearly highlights how important it is to have satisfying, functional relationships, no matter how old you are.
 House of Commons (1999). Research Paper 99/111