Rebuilding Your Life After a Gray Divorce

8 min read

Margo (not her real name), a 58-year-old woman, wept at the idea that she would need to find a job after her divorce. She had been a stay-at-home mom for almost 30 years. “This isn’t what we planned! He promised he’d always take care of me! Now he’s talking about retirement? How can he do this to me?” Margo tells me she has no marketable skills, doesn’t understand her family finances, and had envisioned her “golden years” traveling around the country in an RV with her husband. Her life, as it had been, was suddenly shattered, and she didn’t believe she’d ever recover.

You’ve been hearing about the so-called “gray divorce” trend. Gray divorce refers to the separation or divorce of older couples, usually over 50. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, from 1990 to 2010, the divorce rate among this age group doubled. Well over a third of couples getting divorced are over the age of 50.

These divorces often come with unique emotional, financial, and lifestyle complications, which you can read about here. Healing from divorce later in life, especially after a very long marriage, can be particularly challenging due to the unique life changes that come with it. However, it is possible to heal and find happiness in this new phase of life. Here are some specific steps and considerations for healing from divorce in your 50s and beyond:

Accept your strong emotions: At times, you may be overwhelmed by emotions. Accept them: It’s entirely normal to experience grief, anger, sadness, and even relief. Allow yourself to feel and express these emotions and seek support from friends, family, or a therapist if needed. Margo vented to her sister, which was helpful, and to her children, which was not helpful. I coached her to lean on friends and family, but not her adult children.

Maintain boundaries: If you have adult children, it’s important to establish and maintain boundaries with them, especially when it comes to your personal life and finances.

Practice self-compassion: Perhaps you blame yourself for something that you did to cause the marital breakup. Or perhaps you feel burdened by shame or guilt at the failure of the marriage. Margo’s parents told her, “You weren’t a good enough wife, or he wouldn’t have left you.” Practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness. Understand that divorce can happen at any age and doesn’t define you or your worth.

Prioritize self-care: Self-care is a way of boosting your immunity to stress or improving your emotional and physical well-being. This may include exercise, meditation, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep. Sunlight will help lift your mood, and regular physical activity will have a positive impact on your physical and mental health. Margo practiced breathing skills to calm herself and joined a yoga class. She downloaded a meditation app and committed to meditating every morning for at least 10 minutes. In the initial shock of the divorce, she focused on self-care activities and agreed to wait a few months before addressing the issue of finding a job. Fortunately, her husband agreed to support her financially during this time.

Create a new routine: Establishing a new daily routine can provide structure and stability during this transitional period. A routine can help you regain a sense of control. After her morning meditation, Margo stretched for five minutes before taking her dog for a walk around the block. She set an alarm to get up every day at 7:00 because she feared otherwise her depression would keep her in bed until noon.

Focus on your health: Regular health check-ups are essential. As you age, it becomes even more critical to prioritize your physical and mental health. Regular check-ups and a healthy lifestyle can help you build strength and resilience. Margo struggled to eat in the first months after her separation, but, with the help of her doctor and a nutritionist, she cultivated new, healthy eating habits.

Create a support network: Lean on your friends and family for emotional support. Join a divorce support group or seek counseling to connect with others who are going through similar experiences. Talking to people who understand can be immensely helpful. Margot found a divorce group for women where she learned that she wasn’t alone in her journey toward a new life. She shared her feelings and felt better each time she went to the group. After the series of sessions ended, the women decided to continue to meet weekly on their own, without the therapist.

Stay socially active: Isolation can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and depression, especially for older adults. Make an effort to stay socially active by joining clubs, volunteering, or participating in community events. Margo found a knitting group online, and she joined a book group recommended by a friend.

Reclaim your hobbies and interests or discover new ones: Engaging in activities you enjoy can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment and help you focus on positive aspects of life. Margot loved to knit when she was younger. She hadn’t had time during her marriage for knitting, but when a friend became a grandmother, she decided to knit a blanket for the newborn.

During the legal process: Consult with an experienced divorce attorney, especially one who specializes in gray divorces. They can help you navigate the legal aspects, including property division, alimony (spousal support), and retirement assets. They can also help you navigate complex issues such as pension division, social security benefits, and estate planning. Choose an out-of-court, confidential process such as mediation or collaborative divorce. Margo agreed to a collaborative divorce process because of the additional support provided by her divorce coach and her lawyer.

Assess your financial situation carefully: During the divorce process, you’ll be required to complete financial disclosures. In gray divorce, there may be significant financial implications. Be sure you understand your assets, debts, and expenses. Margo had a steep learning curve, and her collaborative divorce financial advisor spent time with her to ensure that Margo understood all of their finances. Then she could make informed decisions during her divorce negotiations. Work with a financial advisor to understand your financial needs, retirement plans, and budgeting for your new life.

Assess your housing needs: You may need to downsize or make modifications to your current home. Consider whether staying in your current location is the best option or if relocating closer to family or in a more suitable environment is necessary. Often, women’s lifestyles are downsized after a divorce. Margo had hoped to remain in the family home, but once she understood the bigger financial picture, she recognized that selling the home made more sense for her. She decided to move closer to her daughter and to find a smaller house with no stairs.

Update your estate plan: After your divorce, you’ll need to update your will, beneficiary designations, power of attorney and health care directives, and other estate planning documents to reflect your changed circumstances.

Reevaluate your goals and set realistic expectations: Take this opportunity to visualize your life goals and priorities. Consider what you want to achieve in your postdivorce life and make a plan to work toward those goals. Focus on small, achievable goals. Be open to new experiences and opportunities. Travel, take classes, or try new activities to expand your horizons and meet new people. Margo created a “vision board” with the help of a life coach, and slowly began to regain her confidence in herself.

Rebuild your identity: A divorce can lead to a shift in your identity. Take this opportunity to rediscover who you are and what brings you joy. Margo began to enjoy her independence as she joined a walking group for weekly walks and coffees. It may be tough to maintain a positive outlook on life. But while divorce is certainly challenging, it can also be an opportunity for personal growth and a chance to create a new, fulfilling chapter in your life.

Consider dating and relationships: If you’re open to it, dating and forming new relationships can be a part of your future. Take your time and be sure you’re emotionally ready for this step. It took some time for Margo to consider dating, and after a few dates, she decided she wasn’t ready for a new relationship. “I didn’t think I would enjoy living alone, but I love not having to take care of anyone else right now!” she said.

Consider professional help with managing your emotions: If you find it too difficult to cope with the emotional aftermath of the divorce, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in divorce and relationship issues. Therapy or counseling with a therapist experienced in working with older adults facing divorce can help you process your emotions, cope with the changes, and develop strategies for moving forward.

Be kind to yourself: Healing is a personal journey and most recover within a year or two. By taking steps to care for yourself emotionally, financially, and physically, you will discover your strengths and resilience. You can rebuild your life and find happiness and fulfillment after divorce, even in your 60s and beyond.

© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2023

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