The happily single women making a case for grey divorce

The truth behind this social phenomenon.

Marriages that endure to the end of life have long been celebrated, from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Noah and Allie in The Notebook. For some couples, however, the story plays out very differently. Since the 1980s, the proportion of separations among Aussie couples who’ve been married for 20 years and longer has been increasing – a phenomenon known as “grey divorce”.

And for the women leaving those relationships, facing the second half of their lives without the person they’d assumed they’d see out their sunset years with can be both liberating and confronting.

Melbourne woman Fran Roberts, 67, whose 30-year marriage ended in 2015, is emphatic that she will never remarry. She spends her days indulging her passions for art, music,
travel, books, podcasts, good food and wine.

Whether it’s attending an organ recital, lunching with her adult children or hitting the pavement with her weekly walking group, Fran relishes having agency over her time, and is
intent on making the most of that.

grey divorce
Fran Roberts enjoys having agency over her time without feeling guilty and indulging her passions. She swears she’ll never remarry.

“Who knows how long you’ve got?” she points out. Prioritising her own needs might have invoked guilt when she was a mum of two young children, but now that her kids are grown-ups, that’s no longer the case.

“I think I’ve shared enough of my life and devoted it to other people,” says Fran, who retired from her administration role last year.

“I was a pretty full-time mother for a long time, and now I’m just happy to enjoy my independence. And it might be a little selfish, but I think that’s okay. I love being able to plan my life as I please.”

It can be bewildering to find yourself suddenly single after the age of 50, but once the dust has settled, increasing numbers of women like Fran are embracing the opportunity to create a life that’s centred around their own dreams and desires.

Being partnered, they’ve found, is no longer an essential component of a fulfilling life. For Lindsey Leehy, 61, whose third marriage ended eight years ago, a typical weekend involves a long walk around her inner-Sydney neighbourhood or an ocean swim, a movie or lunch with girlfriends and maybe a visit to the art gallery.

She might swing by the pub for a drink on the way home, before heading to a gig, if it takes her fancy, or nestling on the sofa with no one else to stake a claim on the remote control.

“The thing that brings me joy is seeing a band with my mates, and I can decide to go and do that at the very last minute if I want on a Friday night,” says Lindsey, who works in an insurance company’s call centre.

“I don’t have to think about anybody else, I don’t have to compromise.”

Happily single after grey divorce

Grey divorce may not be a new phenomenon, but among those who’ve navigated this rupture of the life they had planned, a new trend is emerging.

In the US, a 2019 study published in the journal Demography found that within 10 years of divorcing, 69 per cent of participants over the age of 50 remained single. And among heterosexual divorced couples, the women were more likely to stay single than the men.

Demographer Mark McCrindle says a similar trend is happening in Australia. One contributing factor is that women are having fewer children than in previous generations,
meaning their maternal role finishes much earlier. That gives them more space to focus on how they want to spend the rest of their long lives.

“Women are more financially independent, particularly at that stage in life, and therefore there’s not as much of a requirement for another marriage to secure their financial living and,
indeed, financial future,” Mark says.

“Secondly, women of that age group are likely to be more highly formally educated and employed than previous generations in that age group. So they’ve got the financial base, the
education base and the employment base, and therefore have more independence. That has empowered women in this age group as well.”

It’s my time

Kerry Newling, 68, is among this growing cohort of contentedly single, divorced older women. When The Weekly catches up with her, she’s just returned from a trip to Uzbekistan,
Azerbaijan and Armenia – just a few of the 60 countries she’s ticked off her list in the nearly two decades since her marriage ended.

“I was married for about 25 years all up and then got divorced. And then, in trying to find out who I was again afterwards, I went back to travelling – I guess that had been my first love,”
she reflects.

Kerry’s fridge door is adorned with magnets gathered from her extensive travels. When she’s not reminiscing about her global adventures, or planning her next trip, she’s volunteering at her granddaughter’s school, walking near her Brisbane home with her dog, gardening, doing
crosswords, going to movies and people-watching at cafes.

“I think there is a stigma [about being single] as a woman, and I don’t think it extends to men,” says Kerry, a etired public servant. “As a traveller, that has really been brought home to me by people saying, ‘Oh, you’re going by yourself?’ When I’m away people will say, ‘Where’s your husband? Where are your friends?’ And then the next thing, of course, is: ‘You’re so brave’. While I understand that feeling, and it does take a certain confidence to travel alone, I don’t think I’m brave – I’m not fighting cancer, I’m prepared. I read as much
as I can about a country and have everything as organised as I can, leaving some time for spontaneity.”

grey divorce
Kerry Newling returned to her first love – travel – after divorcing 20 years ago. She has visited 60 countries so far and loves it.

If it sounds like Kerry is living the dream, she absolutely is. What makes her life particularly sweet is the fact that her marriage was not.

“I had a less than perfect marriage,” she reflects. “I find that you don’t recognise the traits in a marriage until you’re out of it.” Kerry says nowadays there’s a greater understanding of
what characterises an unhealthy relationship.

Although Kerry had been thinking about leaving the marriage for a while, her ex-husband’s decision to call it quits blindsided her. With two children still living at home and one at uni, her life was turned upside down overnight.

It was very traumatic. I call it a bomb – a bomb went off in my life, and that just changed everything.”

One of the hardest things to contend with was remembering who she was – Kerry says her identity had been so caught up with the business of mothering and being a wife that
she’d lost a sense of herself. It took a lot of therapy for the wounds to heal.

“I think that our biggest resource is our women friends. I had a core group of four great women who were always there for me – they were my soft place to fall until I could hold
myself up again.”

Surviving the break

Regardless of how long you’ve been married, separating can be bitterly painful – after all, no one heads to the altar thinking they’ll one day end up in front of a divorce lawyer. It can also
be costly – all three women say they’re worse off financially than if they’d stayed married. Yet the emotional gains have been immeasurable.

Lindsey was the one who ended each of her three marriages, but the last one was particularly heartbreaking as her husband was going through a challenging time. Leaving was a wrench – but the constant stress of “wondering if you’re going to come home and find some terrible situation” became all too much.

“You don’t like to give up on somebody, but I tried everything. I wanted to give it my all and it just didn’t work,” she says sadly.

The cracks in Fran’s marriage appeared when her children had flown the coop and her husband, who used to travel a lot for work, started a business from home, forcing the two of them to jostle together like never before. Fran made the decision to leave, but it was far from easy.

grey divorce
Lindsey Leehy has been divorced three times, each her choice, and says it’s always a tough decision. She enjoys living on her own and wouldn’t want to share her space again

“I still had a good cry every now and then. I think it’s the break with the other parent of your children that is the most difficult thing, because you’re no longer sharing that information about them,” she says.

Psychologist Gemma Cribb, author of Doing Single Well, says a sense of loneliness, anxiety about the future and a loss of purpose are all common for women who divorce later in life.

But for those who see it as a chance to create independent lives that reflect their own needs, being single can be a game changer.

“It can be difficult to imagine navigating the later years and age-related changes in health and functioning without your significant other,” she says.

“Some women can struggle with the change in their financial circumstances and it’s a steep learning curve if they have to take up responsibilities their partner might have previously been in charge of.

“On the other hand, many single women feel a sense of renewed vigour and freedom to pursue their own interests, and have great hope and excitement for their next chapter.”

Flying solo

Lindsey sometimes finds herself idly watching couples holding hands, and just for a moment she’ll wish for the companionship of a significant other.

There are downsides to the single life, she admits, and one of them is being struck down by illness. But even so, it’s unlikely she’d commit to another long-term partnership.

“I wouldn’t 100 per cent rule it out, but I’m not looking at all,” she says, adding: “I certainly
wouldn’t live with anybody ever again.”

Dating doesn’t appeal at all, she says. “Any spare money I’ve got, I want to spend on me and the things I like, like a good long lunch – not sitting in a pub with some random who might turn out to be a bit of a dick. That’s a complete waste of money, never mind time.”

Kerry is wary of making any declarations about her future, but after the amount of time and energy she’s put into creating a life she loves, someone would have to be pretty special for her to give up her independence (not to mention, put away her passport).

“I’m quite content to be single,” she says. “I like my own company – I don’t mind being alone.”

For her part, Fran is adamant – never again.

“I live in an apartment that’s mine. It’s my sanctuary,” she says, “so I walk in and I’m happy, I’m relaxed, I can do what I want. And I wasn’t necessarily feeling that at the end of my marriage.”

She’s proud to be part of a trend of women taking charge of their own lives after a long-term
partnership has come to a close, and encourages women in this situation not to be scared of
being alone.

“Of course, there’ll be some sad times when you think it’s hard,” Fran says. “But if you aren’t happy in your relationship, I think you definitely should do something about it. And then,
go and pursue what it is you like doing. Because that will make you happy.”

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