Kathy Downs was ready to move on after her divorce. She and her ex-husband, who were married 32 years, sold their San Francisco condo and divvied up their assets. “I got in my car with my dog and left that minute,” she said. “I had one key on my key ring, my car key.”
Downs, 64, drove to Boston and moved into a home near family and friends in Roslindale. Then COVID hit, “my dog died, and I was stuck in the house,” she said. But she resolved to “not waste time being miserable.” As the virus receded, she made more friends, started dating, bought roller skates, and added a streak of purple to her hair.
She’s learned, though, that parting ways with a spouse later in life — a trend sociologists call “Gray Divorce” — brings not only the possibility of a fresh start but also struggles and profound adjustments.
“There’s no partner,” Downs said, “nobody special to talk to at night about the things I want to talk about. And that’s disorienting.”
Those born in the post-World War II baby boom were in the vanguard of the first large American divorce wave in the 1970s. And the uncoupling of many in that generation continues to this day, even as they ponder their retirement prospects and navigate the challenges of aging.
Most baby boomers are now 65 and older, putting them in the only US age group where the divorce rate climbed steadily for more than half a century. For those over 65, the number of people divorcing per 1,000 people married increased four-fold from 1970 to 2019. Last year, a US Census Bureau report said 39 percent of adults 65 to 74 years old, and nearly a quarter of those 74 and older, have been divorced.
“Boomers have been notable for high divorce levels,” said Susan Brown, sociology professor at Bowling Green State University and co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research. “They upended norms at every stage, and this is another example.”
For members of a generation who reshaped American life and their own lives for decades, from the rock ‘n’ roll era to the tech boom and beyond, ending a marriage in later years — while grappling with the daunting question of what’s next — may be the toughest reinvention of all.
“The world as you know it is gone,” said Lauren Mackler, a Natick consultant who coaches many older couples and individuals on life transitions. “And you start to tune into your own mortality.”
Even as the overall US divorce rate has declined since 1980, the divorce rate for Americans over 50 has increased, according to an analysis of US census and survey data last March by Brown and her Bowling Green colleague I-Fen Lin. That over-50 group accounted for just 8 percent of divorces in 1990, but 36 percent by 2019. (Americans under 24 still have the highest divorce rate, but it’s dropped 45 percent since 1990.)
Their analysis, published by the Gerontological Society of America, found a surprising divide within the older set: In the decade before COVID, divorces of those ages 50 to 64 leveled off. But for the boomers and others 65 and over, dissolution of marriages continued to rise until the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 when they saw a slight dip.
Brown points to changing social mores starting in the 1960s, along with the newfound financial independence of women who entered the workforce in larger numbers. Boomers were the last generation for which marriage was widely expected, and the first to jettison the stigma of divorce. And as longevity increased for many Americans, she said, fewer were willing to tolerate growing old in an unhappy union.
Every breakup is a story all its own. Alcohol, infidelity, and fights over money figure in some. As the years pass, once-compatible couples can grow apart, or long-simmering conflicts can boil over with a life passage such as a child going to college or the end of a long career.
“Retirement is a huge factor,” said Tyler Summers, a Needham-based divorce lawyer. “If you have a spouse who was working for years and is now at home, that’s a dramatic change in dynamics in the house.”
COVID marked another shock to those dynamics as remote work and health jitters altered familiar routines. It opened rifts in some marriages, and pushed others over the edge. Martin Gredinger, 71, whose divorce became official last February, said he and his wife clung to a “rocky marriage” in Wayland that lasted 35 years — until the pandemic.
“We said, ‘We’re not happy, we have a lot of issues, we have to do something about it,’” Gredinger recalled. Because they were empty nesters, their decision to split, he said, ultimately came down to a question of where to live. “She wanted to be in New York,” he said. “I didn’t want to.”
Dorchester accountant Ann Ryther, 68, said the disruption of COVID also helped end her marriage. Her ex-husband’s dream was to sail in the Caribbean, so he bought a boat in Grenada before the pandemic and moved down to live on it while she stayed with their family in Boston.
Ryther wasn’t prepared to give up her job and life here. But the plan was for her to visit Grenada and for her husband to sail to Boston in the summer of 2020. “The pandemic put a kibosh on that,” she said. The island was closed to visitors, and the time apart took its toll. Eventually they parted ways. “I just shut off my feelings,” she said.
Some who’ve worked with couples contemplating a breakup during the past three years say the couples’ experiences are marked by upheaval, from the virus to racial tension and climate degradation — even as rising prices and economic slowdown hit them in the wallets.
“People are certainly feeing financial stress,” said Steven Sandage, a couples and family therapist who is research director at Boston University’s Danielsen Institute, a mental health clinic. “Two people of color may be encountering racism but choosing to cope with it differently. We’re also seeing existential anxiety about the planet.”
Millis tax preparer James Maguire, who works on joint returns for many older couples, said he senses trouble when spouses open separate bank accounts, squabble about their finances, or diverge on their expectations of what their future together will look like.
“So many parents see their job as getting the kids raised and out of the house,” Maguire said. “They never ask, ‘And then what?’”
Many older couples in troubled marriages spend years trying to work things out with the help of counseling, often to no avail. When they decide to part, some describe feelings of relief and exhilaration mixed with fear of isolation, financial worries, and often a sense of defeat.
“It was really hard for me to even say the word ‘divorce,’” said Downs, of Roslindale. “It felt like a failure. But it was also liberating for me. There’s no point in staying in something that’s making you unhappy.”
Some say their unpairing has strained relations with their adult children, tested their friendships, and even triggered an identity crisis.
“You wake up and you’re in your 50s or your 60s, and your relationship has fallen apart,” said financial journalist Chuck Jaffe, now 60, of Cohasset, host of the podcast “Money Life,” who was divorced in 2015. (Jaffe is a former Globe mutual funds columnist.) “My identity for 30 years is I’m part of this couple. And now I’m not who I thought I was.”
After her divorce, a 69-year-old professional woman who lives in the Boston area said some of her married friends became aloof, while her adult children stopped talking to her about her ex-husband.
“My relationship with my children changed dramatically,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “There are strong boundaries around what can be talked about. ... And when you’re not coupled, you’re not invited to things where people are coupled. It’s uncomfortable.”
But the pain and sadness of those experiences can also give way to pride in obstacles overcome — and unexpected self-discovery.
“It’s been profoundly transformative,” said Vivian Tseng, 70, a retired corporate lawyer from Concord who initially felt despair when her marriage of 40 years ended. Later, she came to appreciate her solitude and realize that it “entails joy as well as loneliness,” she said.
Tseng’s divorce was finalized this fall and she plans to move into a co-housing community in Malden soon. She said she’s been spending time visiting her grown children in Rhode Island. She’s formed new friendships and embraced political activism on issues important to her, such as voting rights and anti-racism. “I am now frequently happier than I have ever been before,” she said. “I feel like I have me back.”
It’s not yet clear whether the pandemic will accelerate gray divorces, as couples spend more time together and socialize less with others — or, conversely, repair fraying bonds as they work through adversity in concert. Early data show the divorce rate ticked down marginally in 2020 and 2021 for those over 65 after rising for four decades. Whether that signals a reversal in the long-term trend remains to be seen.
“I’ve seen a lot of couples asking big questions about what they want out of their life,” Sandage said. “We’re at a phase coming out of the pandemic where people are exploring their options.”
For those who’ve split, the options are about life after divorce.
Gredinger, who sold the Wayland house where he and his ex-wife lived, has moved to Framingham and continues to work as a consulting chief financial officer for nonprofits. He’s played a lot of tennis, begun dating, and taught himself guitar, though he joked, “I’m a long way from an open mic.” Still, he said, “People in the last few months have told me when I walk into a room [that] they’ve never seen me smile so much.”
Others continue to wrestle with financial matters. Under her divorce settlement, Ryther will have to either purchase her ex-husband’s share of their Dorchester home or sell the property within the next three years. She said that pressing decision is never far from her mind.
Jaffe, the financial podcast host, said he had to reassess his own financial plan after his breakup. He stayed in his Cohasset home, but his ex-wife remained part owner. When they divided their assets, he found the financial trajectory he long envisioned had shifted. “If I was on a path to retirement on the day we divorced,” he said, “now I was behind.”
It took some work and discipline, but Jaffe was able to catch up. He paid off debt and negotiated new sponsorships and partnerships to expand the revenues from his business. Looking forward, he recognizes the value of being able to adapt to change and be open to opportunities.
“At this time in your life,” he said, “you don’t have time to waste.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.