Women getting back on their feet after 'gray divorce'
If any couple had long-term relationships figured out, it was Al and Tipper Gore. At least that's what we thought.
People were shocked and disappointed to learn that the former vice president and his wife were getting divorced after 40 years of marriage and raising four kids. What could cause a seemingly solid couple to crumble after making it work for so long?
Divorce experts say baby boomers such as the Gores (Al is 62 and Tipper is 61) are the first generation of older people who aren't going to be sticking it out no matter what.
Census data from 2004 show fewer marriages standing the test of time. For people who wed between 1955 and 1984, those reaching their 20th anniversary dropped 20 percent.
Most people who divorce do so early in their marriage. Census data from 2001 shows first marriages that end in divorce last about eight years. Even though there has been a slight decline in the overall divorce rate, there has been a rise in late-life "gray divorce" - split-ups of people between 50 and 59 - to about 40 percent for men and women, according to Erica Manfred, a New York boomer-divorce expert and author of "He's History, You're Not: Surviving Divorce After 40."
Unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart are among the reasons more boomers are single than any previous cohort of 40- to 60-somethings, according to Manfred.
"I think their marriage is very instructive in that people need to realize if the Gores can drift apart, so can you if you don't do anything about it," says Manfred, whose 18-year marriage ended in divorce when she was 58.
Parents often put their relationship on hold while focusing on building careers and raising kids. But when the kids leave, some empty-nesters turn their attention back to their partners only to find they no longer have a strong marriage.
"They are just a good parenting team, but they don't have a strong relationship with each other," Manfred says. With longer life expectancies and empty-nest years spanning decades, more older couples are refusing to spend another 20 to 30 years in an unhappy marriage.
Women in long-standing marriages seem to tend to want to move on more. Among Manfred's clients, 66 percent of divorces for people over 50 were initiated by women.
"It's likely that Tipper may well have been the one to initiate the breakup," Manfred says.
Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, who may have stayed married out of economic dependency, boomer wives are more likely to be financially independent, having carved out successful careers.
Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Phyllis Goldberg, who specializes in women after divorce, finds when boomer women aren't happy in a relationship, they seek change for fulfillment. "They want their husbands to come in and get marital counseling," Goldberg said. "And if the men don't come, the women will stay at it and reach a decision" - namely, separation or divorce.
More so than men, women begin to look back on their lives and think about what their interests and passions were before marriage, says Rosemary Lichtman, who with Goldberg developed HerMentorCenter.com, an online community that coaches women through midlife health, relationship and career issues.
"The biggest thing was knowing I was approaching 50 and thinking I didn't want to live the rest of my life married to someone I no longer loved," says Mandy Walker, a 52-year-old Niwot resident who divorced her husband in 2007 after 17 years of marriage.
"Over the years, you give up a part of your life for your children, a part for your husband and a part for your work," she says. "You are left wondering, "Where is the part that's left for me?' "
When the financial-services company Walker had worked at for more than 20 years closed its Colorado office, a generous severance package became an opportunity for a second career. Walker decided to get her master's degree in journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
On her website, sincemydivorce.com, Walker interviews women about their life after divorce. She also shares her experiences - from having to get rid of the dead mouse in the trap to dealing with Internet outages.
"I realized I would be OK once I could manage routine stuff around the house on my own," says Walker.
Even though more older women are initiating divorce, their losses are usually greater financially. Age discrimination and the fact that many women who were homemakers have been out of the workforce for years increase the difficulty newly divorced women will have in finding a career path.
Manfred says women who have never had a career should take advantage of shorter, two-year educational programs offered at community colleges. Such a course of action can lead to health-related credentials and jobs, such as physical-therapy assistants, pulmonary-function testers and radiologic technicians.
Also, women seeking experience and networking connections can get around age barriers by volunteering at a job or for an organization.
"Anything you do that involves meeting other humans and staying involved in something you like will be helpful in your transition from marriage to singlehood," Manfred says.
When her 20-year marriage ended in divorce, then-52-year-old Sharon Gnatt Epel of Greenwood Village had been out of work for 15 years. The Juilliard-trained concert pianist and corporate executive had agreed to give up her career and be a stay-at-home mother to two children, one of whom was chronically ill.
"My ex said go back to piano lessons, but I would never be able to make enough money to survive," says Epel, now 56. "When I went looking for jobs after the divorce, I was told that at 52, I would cap out making $12 an hour or that I was overqualified. I remember leaving an interview thinking I will never be able to retire."
Epel's greatest source of support after her split was speaking with other divorced women. Horror stories about women taking out loans to get plastic surgery before job interviews hit Epel in the gut.
Those stories, her own interest in beauty products and years spent researching medicine during her son's childhood illnesses inspired Epel to design a natural skin-care line for women in midlife. The product's Hebrew name means "for the woman."
"(Divorce) forced me to take stock of my skills," Epel says, "and reinvent myself."
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