Retirement Weekly: When older couples break up, it’s not always about conflict. There’s something else going on.


​As couples age, they’re less likely to split up. Every decade of marriage makes you less likely to divorce.

Still, older people do not necessarily experience a till-death-do-us-part love fest.

America’s divorce rate among ages 25-39 is 24 per 1,000 individuals. It slowly drops from there: Those between 40-49 face 21 per 1,000 odds of divorce, while the 50+ crowd have a divorce rate of just 10 in 1,000.

But recent history is not reassuring for older couples. Their divorce rate has gradually ticked up since the 1990s.

Read: Americans are lonelier than ever — and that’s bad for your health

Traditionally, the gender wage gap—with men earning on average more than women for full-time work—may have led some women to stick around in an unhappy marriage for financial security. The wage gap still exists, but more women in their 50s and 60s have accumulated their own financial nest egg that frees them to split up

For older couples that call it quits, what gives? Why bail now on a relationship built on decades of shared history?

Read: This is why baby boomers are divorcing at a stunning rate

“Oftentimes, what we see among retirees is ​that ​it’s typically not about conflict,” said Galena Rhoades, Ph.D., a research professor in the University of Denver’s psychology department. “The reason for divorce is lack of positives.”

For instance, lost intimacy or eroding friendship can cause a rupture. They may figure they’re getting too old to ride out their life with a partner who’s no longer their soul mate. 

It​ may be easier to understand why younger couples seek divorce. They may disagree over how to raise kids (or whether to have kids), argue over career choices or bicker over money.

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Older couples, by contrast, ​tend to ​confront different challenges. With their kids grown up, they may struggle to reestablish their identities as independent from their role as parents. Shifting into retirement mode can also throw a wrench into the relationship.

“There’s a link between transition and distress,” Rhoades said. “Going through any stressful event or change, like retirement, means changes in how couples interact with each other.”

For older couples facing a malaise, there are ever-evolving alternatives to divorce. Opportunities to redefine the relationship abound.

Read: Caring for grandchildren may be bad for you

Examples include cutting financial ties but continuing to live together as roommates or exploring having relationships with others, Rhoades says. Some retirees decide to spend some time apart—perhaps relocating temporarily to separate locales—as a way to sample a new life.

Aside from attempting to redefine a souring relationship, older couples that run into problems may want to take steps to reclaim a happier past. 

Two ideas:

1. Collaborate on solutions. While seeing a therapist can help, couples can also take matters into their own hands. Set time to talk—free of distractions—and establish ground rules.

“You want to bring your best self to the conversation,” Rhoades said. “Avoid ‘you should’ statements” and listen to confirm understanding before you rush to judge or reply to what you hear.

She suggests that couples read a book on relationships and discuss salient points. Or engage in shared activities or fresh experiences so that you learn something new together.

2. Displace negative with positive. Relationship experts urge couples to adopt a 5:1 ratio: Aim for five positive interactions for every negative one.

You can also make a mental list of everything you’ve come to admire and respect about your spouse.

“Think about all the positive aspects of your partner,” said Sandra Langeslag, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. “Think about it at least once a day. And look at pictures of your beloved. Looking at pictures is good at triggering memories and eliciting emotions.”

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