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Why Can't Love Keep Us Together?

The Captain & Tennille join the gray divorce trend — couples over 50 calling it quits

By Diana Reese | February 12, 2014

After 39 years of marriage, The Captain & Tennille are calling it quits.

Toni Tennille, who’s 73, filed for a divorce from Daryl Dragon, 71, in Arizona Jan. 16. Headlines around the country announcing the news mocked the title of their first hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

But the 1970s Grammy-Award winning duo is not alone in their decision to untie the marital knot after decades of seemingly happy wedded bliss. The divorce rate for people age 50 and older more than doubled from 1990 to 2010.

“We were just floored. We thought older people don’t get divorced,” says Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Marriage & Family Research at Bowling Green State University and co-author of the 2013 study, “The Gray Divorce Revolution.” The landmark research revealed the trend.

One in four persons divorcing in 2010 is 50 or older, Brown says, compared to less than one in ten in 1990.

(MORE: Divorce After 50 Calls for Special Money Strategies)

People 50 and older in remarriages are much more likely to opt out; their rate of divorce is 2 ½ times higher than those in long-term first marriages.

Why People Choose Divorce
           
The stigma once attached to divorce is long gone as it becomes commonplace. “It’s easier to walk away, especially if it’s a second marriage,” says Phyllis Goldberg, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and co-creator of the website HerMentorCenter.com with fellow therapist Rosemary Lichtman.

Boomers — the “me generation” devoted to self-fulfillment whose youngest members turn 50 this year — may have unrealistic expectations of their relationships, including what to expect during the so-called Golden Years. “They have an idealized version of retirement, of walking off into the sunset, that’s not realistic,” Goldberg points out.

Mid-life is also a time of great change: Retirement. The issues of aging parents, their care and eventual deaths. The empty nest, as children grow up and leave home.

With kids out of the house, couples may wonder: “Who is this person and do I want to spend the rest of my life like this?” says Goldberg. They discover they have nothing in common without Little League games and dance recitals.

(MORE: Rediscovering Old Passions)

Retirement also brings with it the pleasure — or the agony — of spending time together 24/7. With a longer life expectancy, couples may expect to share another 20 years after age 65, Brown says.

But people grow apart, which may be part of the reason for the breakup of The Captain & Tennille. An explanation on the couple’s website states: “…almost all people naturally evolve over time, & sometimes hidden feelings start to be uncovered.”

The couple’s divorce papers also mention health-insurance coverage. Dragon has had Parkinson’s-like symptoms for more than a decade and the couple may be facing a medical-coverage gap that could cause financial problems. Marketwatch.com's Matthew Heimer has speculated that The Captain's healthcare costs may have strained their marriage.

All this “stress and tension can break a fragile bond that’s already in trouble,” Goldberg says.

Women Drive the Trend

In two-thirds of the marriages that end after age 50, it’s the wife who instigates the divorce, according to a study by AARP in 2004. Around 25 percent of those may be blamed on the husband’s infidelity, says Lichtman.

(MORE: The Secret to Surviving Infidelity)

The rest may have more to do with escaping an unsatisfying “empty-shell” marriage, she says, as women decide to focus on their own goals and needs.
           
Women also have better-developed social networks than men. “If you ask a married woman who her best friend is, she’ll name another woman,” Lichtman says. “But ask a married man and he’ll probably say his wife.”
           
That complex support system serves women who choose to go it alone rather than stay in an unsatisfying marriage. “They have such good experience with social networking and taking care of themselves that being alone (from a divorce) doesn’t frighten them as much,” Lichtman says. Women are usually more involved with their children and grandchildren as well.
           
Societal Toll

This generation of women is also more independent — financially and emotionally — than their mothers or grandmothers. Many have jobs and careers. They’re more confident and more willing to trust themselves, Lichtman says.
           
Even women who’ve focused their attention on raising their kids may find now is the time to go back to work or to school. “They may look at the marriage and think, ‘I don’t want to be that person,’” Goldberg says.
           
The increased rate of divorce may have an unexpected impact on society, Brown says. “People have historically relied on spouses and children to take care of them,” she notes.

That will change, though, as more and more people over 50 opt out of marriage.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kansas who blogs regularly for the Washington Post's She the People. Follow her on Twitter @Diana Reese.

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