Grey divorce is on the rise with more Australian couples splitting after the age of 50 than ever before

Grey divorce is on the rise with more Australian couples splitting after the age of 50 than ever before
  • PublishedMarch 24, 2024

It’s been dubbed the “grey divorce” or “silver separation” revolution.

Couples in their 50s or older are calling it quits on decades of commitment and heading into their senior years alone.

While the overall divorce rate in Australia has declined, there’s an upward trend in separation among baby boomers and older gen X, with experts warning it could have significant implications for the wider community.

Leanne Winter and her partner were both 53 when they decided to end their 20-year relationship.

The pair, who met in 2001 and have two children, are among an increasing number of Australian couples going their separate ways later in life.

“We had a pretty good life, and we were pretty happy. But as time went on, we just grew apart,” Ms Winter said.

“We didn’t really talk that much. We could go days without having a conversation.

“I wanted more than that. I wanted that communication. I wanted that connection. I wanted someone to share my life with rather than coexist.”

Couples who had been married for 20 years or more accounted for more than one quarter of the 56,244 divorces in 2021, according to Australian Institute of Family Studies data.

In the 1980s and 1990s, older couples made up a smaller proportion — about one in five divorces.

So, why are older couples breaking up? 

Psychologist Nahum Kozak, who specialises in couples counselling, believes empty nest syndrome — a term used to refer to the grief that many parents feel when their children move out of home — is a significant factor contributing to the rise.

“Once the kids go, they’re like, ‘Oh, we never dealt with X. We never talked about Y,'” Mr Kozak said.

“It’s things that have hit them earlier in their marriage that kind of got swept under the carpet while they were dealing with other things like raising children.”

Another study published by Australian Seniors last year also revealed an upward trend in late-in-life separations and found financial pressures and retirement adjustments were among the top reasons.

Ms Winter, who now lives on the Gold Coast and works as a high school teacher, said a difference in long-term plans had strained her relationship with her former partner.

“My parents were getting older, and I wanted to be near them, and they were on the east coast, and we lived on the west coast,” she said.

“I wanted to travel overseas and he wanted to travel around Australia — everything that we wanted was so different.”

‘Serious implications’ on society 

Barbara Barbosa Neves is a senior lecturer in sociology at Monash University and studies loneliness in later life.

Dr Neves said societal changes had removed the stigma once associated with divorce.

“It is no longer a sign of failure,” she said.

“That makes it easier for people to actually navigate these life changes without feeling social shame or embarrassment.”

But she warned the rising divorce rate among older Australians had serious implications, not only for couples but for the wider society.

Smiling woman with long dark brown hair stands in front of green bushes with her arms folded and smiles.
Dr Neves says society’s attitudes towards divorce has changed.(Supplied)

She said it could lead to financial stress and poor health, placing pressure on children or the government to provide care or support.

“We have also seen a record number of older renters because of post-divorce across many Western societies, not only in Australia,” she said.

“This is because older divorcees are less likely to be able to buy new homes and get mortgages.”

Consider prenup in new relationships, lawyer says

Family law expert Geoffrey Sinclair said there were a few key things people should consider after a separation, including their capacity to borrow money.

“That’s something that people don’t really think about, particularly in circumstances where they’ve been able to borrow all their life,” he said.

“As they get older, it gets harder to get money.”

A slightly smiling balding man with closely shaved grey hair, grey stubble, weas suit, green tie, blurred background.
Geoffrey Sinclair says people’s capacity to borrow money is affected by divorce.(Supplied: Geoffrey Sinclair)

Separation could also affect superannuation, the terms of a will and enduring power of attorney, including decisions about health care.

Mr Sinclair said people entering another de facto relationship or marriage should also consider a prenuptial agreement.

“You usually find that going into a relationship later in life, both parties have assets that they’ve accumulated earlier on,” he said.

“[A prenuptial agreement] is a really good way for people to be able to protect those interests in relation to what they’ve brought to the relationship and also ensure there’s some protection for children of previous relationships.”

Hopes for an amicable reunion

Ms Winter said she had been trying to legally finalise her separation for the past two years and admitted the entire process had been “difficult”.

She hoped the situation would be sorted out before their son’s wedding next month so they could have an amicable reunion.

“It’s the first time we’ll see each other. It’s a bit nerve-racking,” she said.

“But we’re getting to the end now, and hopefully, a positive future for the whole family because we’re still a family.”


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