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4:20 pm
Mon February 24, 2014

Older Americans' Breakups Are Causing A 'Graying' Divorce Trend

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 9:04 am

For baby boomers, divorce has almost become, like marriage, another rite of passage. The post-World War II generation is setting new records for divorce: Americans over 50 are twice as likely to get divorced as people of that age were 20 years ago.

But just because it's more common, doesn't mean it's not still painful.

Jim Campbell, 55, of Boulder, Colo., says he and his wife grew apart after 34 years together. "The No. 1 best thing in common that my ex-wife and I had was raising kids," Campbell says. When their two sons grew up, he says, "we just didn't have enough activities, passions, interests that were in common. And when the boys were gone, that just became more and more — to me — obvious."

He felt lonely. In 2012, he decided he had to leave. He told his wife while they were out for a walk. "And she was incredibly upset. And I left," he says. "And we haven't talked about emotions much since then."

But just because it was Campbell's decision to dissolve the marriage, that doesn't mean it wasn't tough. "It would be a tragedy if 34 years was not incredibly painful to get over," he says. "It hurt a lot."

He knew he needed to heal, so he went to a 10-week program called the Rebuilding Seminar in downtown Boulder. Thirty-five newly separated people meet on Sunday nights in a bland conference room, well-stocked with boxes of Kleenex. Judging by appearances, a majority of the participants seem to be boomers.

Therapist Norm Gibson founded the seminar in the 1990s, based on the work of his late colleague, Dr. Bruce Fisher. There can be a little bit of nervousness at the beginning of a session, so Gibson lightens the mood by naming each meeting for a country-western song. On this night, the guiding song is "My wife left town with my best friend and I miss him."

It gets a laugh, but that doesn't last long. Everybody knows what's coming. The topic for this evening is grief. Mary Harbison, a therapist and life coach who leads the seminar with Gibson, tells the group that often patients who are divorcing will ask her if they're clinically depressed. Her answer is that "it's part of our nature as human beings to experience grief, and so we want to make space for it and not pathologize that."

And grief can linger. You just learn to deal with it. At least that's Harbison's own experience. During an interview, she recalls the breakup of her own marriage when she was about 50. She and her husband had been going through a rough patch. He was due to return home from a successful business trip, and she thought they would celebrate and turn over a new leaf.

"I was so excited," she recalls. "I had arranged child care, and I was going to take him away for an overnight [trip]. And he didn't want to go." Her voice breaks, but she continues. "He just wouldn't speak to me. I said, 'You just really seem shut down and angry,' and he just kind of blew up and said, 'I am out of here, and I am not coming back.' " And that was the end.

Saying Goodbye

Harbison says at the time, it felt like she was the only one in the world going through this. Not these days, says sociologist Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University. She co-authored a study called "Gray Divorce."

"Back in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 persons who got divorced was over the age of 50," says Brown. But today, "1 in 4 people getting divorced is 50 or older."

Brown says one reason for this is the increasing economic independence of women. Many no longer have to choose between a bad marriage and poverty. Also, she says, divorce can be the collateral damage from increased life spans.

"When you retire and you no longer have any children at home and you're spending 24/7 with your spouse, if this is someone that you're not too fond of anymore, you might want to get divorced," Brown says, "because you realize, hey, I could spend another 20, 25 years with this person."

Whatever the reason for a breakup, there's a lot that must be left behind. At the Rebuilding Seminar, sad, soft music plays as participants quietly write goodbye letters to their former lives and loves. Then they split up into small groups and read them aloud.

A 58-year-old man named Chris says goodbye to the love and laughter he shared with his ex-wife of 18 years. He asked us not to use his last name to protect her privacy and his daughter's. His daughter is the one he really misses. He weeps as he reads his goodbyes to the little ordinary things they shared: Putting you to bed every night and greeting you in the morning. Sitting in the easy chair together and watching TV.

Then again, there will be things about his marriage he definitely won't miss, such as his wife's family or that she drank herself to sleep on the couch at night.

Before the meeting breaks up, Gibson makes sure everyone knows he or she doesn't have to be alone until next week's session. He tells them to look out for emailed announcements about upcoming events. There's meditation on Wednesday. On Fridays, people meet for dinner and a movie.

There's really no reason for these new divorcees to be alone. There are so many of them these days.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes now hearing about love, baby boomer style. It is not an entirely happy story because Americans over 50 are setting new records for divorce. They are twice as likely to get divorced as people in the same age group 20 years ago.

NPR's Ina Jaffe recently went to Boulder, Colo., where she spoke with older divorcees about how they are rebuilding their lives.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Unless you've been through it, it's hard to imagine what divorced people mean when they say, "we just grew apart." But that's pretty much what happened to 55-year-old Jim Campbell. He'd been with his wife for 34 years, if you count the dating part.

JIM CAMPBELL: The No. 1 best thing in connection that my ex-wife and I had was raising kids.

JAFFE: So when their two sons grew up...

CAMPBELL: We just didn't have enough activities, passions, interests that were in common. And when the boys were gone, that just became more and more - to me - obvious.

JAFFE: He felt lonely. In 2012, he decided he had to leave. He told his wife while they were out for a walk.

CAMPBELL: And she was incredibly upset. And I left, and we haven't talked about emotions much since then.

JAFFE: But just because it was his decision to dissolve the marriage, that doesn't mean it wasn't tough.

CAMPBELL: It would be a tragedy if 34 years was not incredibly painful to get over. I mean, it hurt a lot.

JAFFE: So he went to a 10-week program called the Rebuilding Seminar.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND CHATTER)

JAFFE: On Sunday nights, 35 newly separated people meet in a bland, downtown conference room, distinguished only by its many boxes of Kleenex. Judging by appearances, a majority of the participants seem to be boomers. Therapist Norm Gibson founded the seminar in the 1990s, and he likes to lighten the mood by naming each session for a country and western song.

NORM GIBSON: So tonight, our guiding song is "My Wife Left Town with My Best Friend and I Miss Him."

(LAUGHTER)

JAFFE: The laughs are brief. Everybody knows what's coming because the topic for this evening is grief. Mary Harbison leads the seminar along with Gibson. She's a therapist and a life coach.

MARY HARBISON: A lot of time in my office, people will say, am I depressed? Am I clinically depressed? But the thing is, it's part of our nature as human beings to experience grief. And so we want to make space for it and not pathologize that.

JAFFE: And grief can linger. You just learn to deal with it. At least, that's Harbison's own experience. During an interview, she recalls the breakup of her marriage when she was about 50. She and her husband had been going through a rough patch. But he was returning home from a successful business trip, and she thought they would celebrate and turn over a new leaf.

HARBISON: And I was so excited. I had arranged child care, and I was going to take him away for an overnight. (Starts crying) And he didn't want to go. And I was so startled by that. He just wouldn't speak to me. I said, you just seem really shutdown and angry. And he kind of blew up. And he said: I'm out of here, and I'm not coming back. And that's that.

JAFFE: Harbison says at the time, it felt like she was the only one in the world going through this. Not these days, says sociologist Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University. She co-authored a study called "Gray Divorce."

SUSAN BROWN: Back in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 persons who got divorced was over the age of 50 whereas today, 1 in 4 people getting divorced is 50 or older.

JAFFE: For boomers, divorce has almost become another rite of passage, like marriage. Brown says one reason is the increasing economic independence of women. Also, marriage can be the collateral damage from our increased life spans.

BROWN: When you retire and you no longer have children at home and you're spending 24/7 with your spouse - if this is someone that you're not too fond of anymore, you might want to get divorced because you realize hey, I could spend another 20, 25 years with this person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEMINAR MUSIC)

JAFFE: At the Rebuilding Seminar, participants write goodbye letters to the happiness they imagined, and the lives they're leaving behind. Then they break up into small groups and read them aloud.

CHRIS: (Reading) Goodbye to the good times we shared, caring for each other, the laughter and the love...

JAFFE: Chris is 58 years old and was married for 18 years. He asked us not to use his last name, to protect the privacy of his ex-wife and his daughter. She's the one he really misses.

CHRIS: (Reading) (Crying) Goodnight to putting you to bed every night and greeting you every morning, sitting in the easy chair together and watching TV...

JAFFE: But there are the things about his marriage he's glad to let go.

CHRIS: (Reading) Goodbye to your family that I never really did like.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRIS: Goodbye to drinking yourself asleep on the couch...

JAFFE: Before the meeting breaks up, seminar founder Norm Gibson makes sure everyone knows they don't have to be alone until next week's session.

GIBSON: You'll get reminders for the events coming up, Wednesday meditation, Friday dinner and movies.

JAFFE: There is no reason for these new divorcees to be alone. There are so many of them these days.

GIBSON: This is a great time...

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, a look at online dating for the baby boom generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.