Once couples reach middle age, women are more likely to instigate divorce.
It was a hot evening during that lull between Christmas and New Year when people tend to slump into a food-and-festivity coma. Linda McIntosh* decided to use a rare spare moment while her husband of 23 years snored on the couch and her three teenage children were out with friends to pack away the Christmas decorations.
She pulled two cardboard boxes from a cupboard and started dividing the tangle of tinsel and dangling reindeer with a cool pragmatism that surprised her. "I may as well save time and split this stuff up now," the then 51-year-old thought, prickling with trepidation and perhaps the tiniest flurry of excitement.
By the same time the following year, she'd left her husband. Call it the grey or post-VCE/HSC divorce, the silver split or the 20-year itch. However you describe it, this phenomenon appears to be increasing. In 1991, women divorcing after the age of 50 represented only 6.3 per 1000 of the general population. By 2011, that figure had reached 15.2 per 1000, even as the overall divorce rate fell.
The hackneyed later-life divorce scenario, where the husband exchanges his wife for a younger woman (and perhaps a Ferrari), is making way for a new trend. Now, the wife is more likely to be ditching her husband – nearly 17,500 divorces in 2011 were initiated by women, compared to just under 13,000 by men (18,500 are joint applications).
And she's not trading him in for a younger model, but for independence, spiritual fulfilment and a last chance at happiness. "I'd become nothing more than a 'Mrs' in my marriage," says McIntosh. "It wasn't him exactly – he wasn't a terrible person – but I didn't know who I was any more."
When McIntosh married an up-and-coming investment banker who would go on to make partner and regularly work 60-hour weeks during the boom years of the 1980s, she gave up her embryonic teaching career to raise the couple's three children.
"There were really no options," she says. "No one lived together before marriage to find out whether they were really compatible. You got married, then you quit your job, then you had kids. There was no childcare unless you had your mother on hand. It hadn't been that long since women had to leave the public service when they married, so we hadn't really come too far."
Gloria Steinem was yet to warn that "a liberated woman has sex before marriage and a job after", and for many women like McIntosh the message came too late, even if the tight-laced Australian mores of the time would have allowed her to heed it.
By the time McIntosh's kids were settled at school, the days had begun to feel very long. She had joined all the school committees, aerobics classes and ladies' lunch groups she could stomach. She thought often of her jettisoned career and found the bright smiles, stiff grooming and apparent contentment with a life of domestic banality of many of the other school mothers baffling. The highlight of her day before her husband and children came home was taking the dog for a walk. "I loved being a mother," she says. "But my mind was atrophying."
Still, it was almost 10 years before she felt ready to make her move. During that time, she retrained as a nurse, then waited until her youngest child had finished his school exams. She gave her husband ample, if gentle, warning. And she even divided those damned Christmas decorations into "his 'n' hers" boxes a year in advance. Then she left.
"It's a scenario I come across a lot," says psychologist Jo Lamble. "The 22-year marriage mark seems to be particularly significant – it's like the second seven-year itch. For many married women, by this time the kids don't need her as much. She feels she's kept everyone happy. She might even look at her daughter's independence and freedom and think, 'I want a part of that.' "
She might also have watched her own mother, from a generation where divorce wasn't an option at any age, endure a loveless relationship well into retirement and think, "I definitely don't want a part of that."
Finally, she might gaze across at her husband – who's often settled into a placid, unassuming middle age – and realise she has 30, even 40, years of life ahead of her. And she might think to herself, "Is this all there is?"
Author Fay Weldon summarised this phenomenon with characteristic bluntness, if perhaps a certain oversimplification: "Women in their 50s instigate divorce because they are bored and they want to be single again."
It's true that our beliefs about what it is to love and the whole notion of "forever" are challenged by these splits. Why can't they hang in there for a few more years to equip the younger generations with a model for the "happily ever after"? Where would the closing credits of the six o'clock news be without frail couples patting each other's hands with touching affection as they – and we – celebrate 60 years of marriage?
But it's other people's expectations that many of these women are trying to escape. "They've spent their whole lives trying to be a good mother, or good wife, or good head of the P&C," says life coach and former divorce counsellor Nicola Baume. "And it all comes to a head and they think, 'Now's the time for me.' "
For those older women who do take the leap and find themselves on the other side of the heartbreak and disarray that almost inevitably come with divorce, their new life is rarely easy – at least not at first.
Many, now fending for themselves for the first time in years, are hit hard financially. They may have retained half the family assets in the split, but their determination to "hang in there for the sake of the children" may also have hit them in the hip pocket – without dependents, their share will inevitably be less than it would be if child support had been part of the package.
For these women, single life is usually a wrenching readjustment, no matter how much they may have yearned for it. Lamble recently received an email from a client who had left her husband in similar circumstances to McIntosh in the hope of transforming her later years into an Eat Pray Love fantasy of freedom and fulfilment. "I thought life would begin after my divorce because I'd been so unhappy for so long," she wrote, distraught. "Tell me how to start living."
McIntosh can relate. "For the first couple of years I was incredibly lonely," she recalls. "It was like I had dropped off the face of the earth. Everyone else seemed to be settling into being happy empty nesters." Hers was a world of couples, and no one quite knew what to do with a single woman in her 50s. Her friends tried to set her up with eligible men, but she was uncomfortable with the unfamiliarity of it all.
Family lawyer Jane Libbis from Bayside Collective in Melbourne says this disconnect and isolation is typical for women in this age group. "Many of them don't want to go out because they don't want to explain they're divorced," she says. "They feel there's a stigma. It can lead to great loneliness."
The turning point often comes when they rekindle a passion they may have stifled during years of child-rearing and home-making. This in turn expands their social circle and confidence. For McIntosh, the new life she'd hoped was out there emerged when she signed up for a course in Buddhism. "It's something I'd always wanted to do but my husband would've laughed if I'd suggested it," she says.
Another "grey divorcee", travel tour operator Julie Browne*, 61, says her life post-husband was like a rebirth. Suddenly her interests and her choices were the only thing she had to worry about. "I went to dancing classes, I joined a choir, I went to art shows," she enthuses. "It was incredibly liberating."
It's not just the creative juices that start flowing. Many older divorcees also discover a new sexual freedom. Certainly this was the case for Suzanne Kiraly. At 50, she and her husband of 27 years had fallen into the most insidious relationship trap of them all: drifting apart. The Canberra-based parents to three adult children attempted to reconcile three times before finally admitting it was over.
"Twenty-seven years is a lot of your life to invest in a person, especially when it had been what I would say was a very successful relationship overall," she explains. When it ended, she says, "it felt like a death". But not for long. Unlike McIntosh's first few years of shocked reclusiveness, Kiraly got straight back into the dating scene.
More and more baby boomers are using the internet to find love, or just companionship. RSVP.com.au reports that 22 per cent of its members are over 50. And they're not holding back: though their adult children might shudder with squeamish horror, they're the age group most likely to have sex on a first date. "You have to get out there and meet people," Kiraly insists. "Stay at home on your own and the tumbleweeds will come."
She had a few false starts, but Kiraly quickly gained the confidence to realise that there were men out there, and that she did have the possibility of repartnering. "After menopause, women often find a new interest in sex," she says. "You don't have to worry about pregnancy, there are no small children around. And of course the blokes are always horny at any age, even if they need a little help with things in the later years."
She's now in another relationship and is even publishing a book later this year called Keenagers, giving seniors advice on dating and sex post-divorce. It's also recognition that she's one of the lucky ones: research reveals that repartnered divorcees in this age bracket report far greater levels of contentment than their still-single counterparts.
Ultimately, we're living longer and our expectations are higher. A 50-year-old woman today still has a lot of living ahead of her and she's far less willing to settle for a mediocre middle age.
For Linda McIntosh, the upheaval and uncertainty were worth it. "I feel more fulfilled by the last 10 years of my life than the previous 24," she says. "Life simply doesn't end at 50 any more."
* Names have been changed.