If the announcement last week that Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced took observers by surprise, it nonetheless conforms to a growing trend of later-life separation. Bill Gates is 65, and his soon to be ex-wife is 56. In the UK the over-65s buck the trend of falling divorce rates. They’ve even earned their own demographic designation: silver splitters.
A grey social revolution is under way with people in their late 50s and 60s increasingly leaving marriages just when they’re expected to be most settled. A number of factors are at play but two in particular stand out. One is children going off to college or leaving home. While the empty-nest syndrome may prompt melancholy, it can also end the obligation to “stay together for the children”. It’s probably no coincidence that the Gateses’ youngest child is 18.
The other divorce-driver is the prospect of a long retirement. With life-expectancy continuing to extend deep into the 80s, that’s an awful lot of potential time to be spent with a partner about whom one has nagging reservations. The Gateses’ statement explaining their decision – they no longer “believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives” – suggests the reservations won out.
It used to be thought that by the Gateses’ age most of our growing was done. But just as we’re told that 60 is the new 50, which is in turn the new 40, this increasing sense of ageing youthfulness comes with an appetite for change. It’s a cultural shift that Dawn Kaffel has also witnessed up close in her position as a relationship counsellor in London.
She estimates that she’s seeing two or three times the number of over-60s compared with 20 years ago.
“I think it’s something about getting towards another stage in life and people thinking it’s their last chance to find happiness,” she says.
If anything, she says, the various lockdowns of the past 14 months have only added to the desire to seize hold of life. “People are going to want to get re-energised and move on,” she predicts.
Kaffel anticipates a major surge of divorce among older couples in the forthcoming months and years.
“I think the statistics are going to be shocking,” she says, which may be good news for divorce lawyers.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM last week, the divorce lawyer Amanda McAlister said that divorce among those approaching or in retirement tend to be more “amicable” affairs because the relationships have become more like friendship. Certainly 60-year-old Colin Firth’s split from Livia Giuggioli after 22 years of marriage looked a model of friendliness, as the couple reportedly enjoyed nights out after the separation. With the struggle over child custody removed, there is less obvious cause for acrimony between the parting spouses. But Kaffel is not so sure.
“I have to say the happy divorce is a bit of misnomer,” she says.
The dynamics are always more complex than people think, Kaffel believes, not least those involving older children.
“Sometimes the children are in their 30s or even 40s. You would think they’re adults, they’ve got their own lives, marriages and children, and they’ll deal with it. But actually the majority of issues I see with silver splitters is they never realise the impact of their decisions on grown-up children.”
Maya (not her real name) is 56. She has been with her husband for 30 years, but she says it hasn’t been a real marriage for a long time. Four years ago she asked for a divorce and he refused. Her youngest daughter is now 18 and Maya is planning to leave when she goes to college. All her children, she says, support her decision.
“There are a lot of women my age who are very dissatisfied in their marriages,” says Maya. “A lot of women come into their own in their 50s. They’ve settled into their own skin. Maybe we’ve lost parents so we don’t feel we’re letting other people down.”
Being single is far less daunting now. All of my girlfriends who have got divorced went wild in the year afterwards
Sam Harrington-Lowe publishes Silver magazine – “for the fiftyplus and fabulous”. She says her readers are a generation of women who have gone through feminism, the workplace, the struggle to gain control of their own sexuality, and having been sandwiched between looking after children and ageing or dying parents, many do not want to spend their later years in a suboptimal relationship.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of women [in their late 50s and 60s] look at their husbands and think, Jesus I’d be happier on my own,” says Harrington-Lowe.
She points out that living for decades after the menopause is a relatively new concept in human history with far-reaching interpersonal and societal implications. “We’re still getting our heads round it,” she says.
Maya agrees that the liberation enjoyed by single women of her age is overwhelmingly to do with not having to be concerned about having children. But nor, she says, are fifty- and sixtysomething women necessarily seeking another life-mate.
“Being single is far less daunting now. All of my girlfriends who have got divorced went wild in the year afterwards. They were having a blast dating guys.”
Maya’s not anticipating the same action-packed transition herself. Instead she’s focusing on retraining because divorce, for her, like many women, means she will have to return to full-time employment.
However, it’s not only women who are expecting to leave their marriages. Men, as Kaffel confirms, are just as often the instigators. And statistics show that men are more likely to remarry later on in life. Who are they marrying? Younger women: 56% of men aged 65 and over who tied the knot in 2014 married a woman under 65, whereas for women the figure was much lower.
In the case of Martin (not his real name), a retired academic, he is undaunted by the thought of being single as he goes through his second divorce. When he broke up from his first wife, he had three children who were between seven and 11 years of age.
“That was much tougher,” he says, “and also my first wife was a very different sort of person, who wasn’t prepared to make it amicable, even though I wanted it to be.”
This time his daughter with his second wife is coming up to 18, and she has been consulted in the way it’s not really possible to do with younger children.
“She wasn’t positive about it but she certainly thought it was the best thing,” he says, “because being together was making us all unhappy.”
Furthermore he has a generous pension and his wife has always earned much more than him, so there aren’t any financial pressures. But, leaving the Gateses’ divorce aside, which is expected to rival 57-year-old Jeff Bezos’s multibillion-dollar split from MacKenzie Scott, financial security can often prove less secure than it appears when people first think about breaking up.
“They think they can afford it,” says Kaffel, “until the process really starts, and then what they thought they were going to have to fork out is usually very different.”
Harrington-Lowe, who went through her own divorce two years ago, says that what looks like a great two-holiday-a-year retirement when a couple is together, can suddenly look a much more cash-strapped setup when the assets are divided.
But more than anything it’s the emotional cost of divorce that is most often underestimated.
The fact is that with the best will in the world, it’s not easy to leave a multi-decade relationship. And unless there is a third party waiting in the wings, many people can struggle to escape the gravitational pull exerted by a long-established relationship.
“There are lots of people who come to therapy who think they are going to split up and they don’t,” says Kaffel. “They just need to spend some time working on their relationship. I’ve had many couples contacting lawyers when they come to see me. But it can be turned round with much less pain than getting divorced.”
That said, it doesn’t look like counselling is now going to save the Gateses from the solicitous embrace of the divorce lawyers. And it’s certainly not going to reroute Martin.
“We’ve been through counselling over the years,” he says. “The counselling was mainly to do with the difficulties in our marriage.”
In the end some people are clearly not meant to stay the course together. And perhaps it’s better to come to terms with that sad reality late on in life than never at all.