Grey divorce: Why are so many older couples splitting?

You may think that once a couple has gotten through their toughest years they'd stay together forever, but that's not the case for many.

You may think if you’ve managed to get through decades of this crazy thing called life with its ups and downs together as a long-term couple, you’d most likely go the distance into the golden age of retirement. After all, divorce is expensive and falling in love and living happily ever after with a new partner is most likely akin to a tall order.

Yet last year, Deborra-Lee Furness, 68, and Hugh Jackman, 55, ended their 29-year relationship, joining a growing cohort of long-term couples divorcing in their fifties and sixties. But they aren’t the only celebrity couple reflecting a broader trend.

In October 2023, Meryl Streep and her husband of forty years, Don Gummer, announced they had been separated for "more than six years." A representative told Business Insider that "while [Streep and her husband] will always care for each other, they have chosen lives apart."

Deborra-Lee Furness and Hugh Jackman (left) and Meryl Streep and her ex-husband Don Gummer.
It's not just celebrities like Deborra-Lee Furness and Hugh Jackman and Meryl Streep and her ex-husband Don Gummer opting for the so-called grey divorce trend. Source: Getty

Grey divorce more and more common

Whether it's grey divorce or people in de facto relationships separating later in life, choosing to live your life apart appears more common than you think. Close to one in three of those most recently divorced or separated people are over 50 years old. In March 2023, The Australian Institute of Family Studies released figures revealing that one-quarter of the 56,244 divorces granted in 2021 involved couples married for 20 years or more. It used one in five during the 80s and 90s.

Meanwhile, divorce rates are on a downward trend in other age groups, yet they’ve been climbing for the 50+ age bracket.

Then comes this concerning statistic. According to the Love After 50 Report from the Australian Seniors Research Series, which surveyed 1,240 Australians over 50 to explore reasons influencing relationship satisfaction during later stages of life, the evolving dynamics of singlehood, and the influence finances and retirement planning have in our relationship, one in four participants is considering divorcing!

The stigma of divorce has well and truly disappeared. Photo: Getty
The stigma of divorce has well and truly disappeared. Photo: Getty

So, what the heck is going on? Dr George Blair-West, a psychiatrist, couples therapist and author of How To Make The Biggest Decision of Your Life says when this age group grew up, there was still a firmly entrenched idea of getting married to fulfil societal expectations. “The world that they live in now is a very, very different world. For middle-aged women, in particular,” he said. “There has never been a better time to be a divorcee in the history of the human species or the history of divorce. The stigma and shame has disappeared.”

Blair-West says one of the most significant prediction values for divorce is the age you marry. “People who get married in their late teens and early twenties are four times more likely to get divorced than those who get married in their late twenties and early thirties,” he said.


An 'empty nest' can bring up 'long-held resentments'

Relationships are often glued together with the shared love of your children. Also, typically, for people in their fifties and sixties with children, their kids have left home or, hopefully, they are independent enough that you don't have to worry about them so much, which is a catalyst for wanting change. “An empty nest can bring long-held resentments and problems that were hidden beneath family life,” said Blair-West.

Being locked down during the pandemic also played a part in raising tensions. “Some people got their relationship together and dealt with issues that they otherwise would have enough distance between them to be able to let it go,” said Blair-West. “When you're living in such proximity, these issues became more front and centre, and there's more of a healthy imperative to deal with them."

An older couple share a box of chocolates.
Many relationships break down after the children leave the nest. Source: Getty

That's one side of it. On the other, being cooped up acted like a pressure cooker. “People looked closely at whether or not they wanted to be in a relationship with their significant other,” said Blair-West.

And it appears more women than men are looking at their partners and saying nope than vice versa. Divorce statistics demonstrate that roughly two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women. Despite women usually being worse off post break up.

In his practice, Blair-West, who is 63, has grown old with his cohort of patients. “What I'm seeing is quite a few of them struggling with a partner who's maybe not caring for themselves and isn't very supportive of them either, to the point they're acutely aware of how it's a one-sided equation,” he said. “It’s particularly prevalent when one partner’s doing domestic duty for two people, and that’s not a very attractive future. So it comes into sharp relief when they start looking at those later years.”

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