Divorce is never easy, but it can be a particularly difficult experience for those over 60 who end their relationship after spending decades of their life with their significant other.
Commonly referred to as ‘grey divorce’, the breakdown of marriages among older couples has risen in Australia and across the globe recently.
According to the most recent findings from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, in 2020 the median age at divorce was 45.6 for males and 42.8 for females.
The institute also discovered that the divorce rate among couples who had been married for 20 years and longer has increased in recent decades.
For instance, in 1980 and 1990, 20 per cent of divorces were couples who had been married for 20 years, which increased to 28 per cent in 2010 and 27 per cent in 2020.
Although much has been written in regard to the financial impact of grey divorce, little has been said about the emotional aspect of divorce in later life and how best to navigate the emotional turmoil that can arise during such a difficult time.
Having to face the end of a long-term marriage and such a dramatic change in one’s life can be a daunting and challenging prospect and for those who find it difficult to be alone or who have relied on their partner financially, the idea of divorce can be downright scary.
In an effort to help over 60s navigate the emotional turmoil and uncertainty of divorce later in life, Starts at 60 sought advice from the experts who provided insight on how to heal and rebuild from what can often be a difficult life event.
Author, life coach, and mental health expert, Christina Foxwell told Starts at 60 that “getting divorced at any age can be devastating and life-changing.”
“Yet going through a divorce after 60 can impact mental and physical health and the ability to navigate that incredibly challenging space of reinventing their life,” Foxwell said.
Foxwell spoke further regarding the myriad of emotions that may be experienced while dealing with a divorce later in life.
“Some of the emotions can range from anger, fear, and sadness to shock, grief and shame,” she said.
“The fear of facing a new life with new friends, new communities and a different ‘role’ can be daunting. The shame (the feeling that something about us is not worthy of love and belonging) can eat away at our ability to connect with others, and we could hide from our friends and community.
“A recent study into health and why people get sick discovered that loneliness is the foundation of mental and physical health issues. So if we hide, have negative emotions, and get stuck in our grief, we will isolate ourselves and lose our ability to feel positivity, courage and joy to live a fulfilled life. We could also develop illnesses that can impact our lives negatively.
“Finally, the grief we go through needs to be honoured, and we need to recognise that we will experience negative emotions and that we can make our way through because we are worthy of love and belonging.”
While experiencing such negative emotions during such a difficult time is often unavoidable, there are a number of tactics that Foxwell suggests to traverse such troubled waters and “increase the joy” in life.
Foxwell stressed that opening up about your experience is paramount to ensure healing can take place.
“Find a place to share your story,” she said.
“This is an incredibly important part of your healing and how to rebuild your life. A good family counsellor or therapist will be able to listen to you, help you open up and share your story and not judge you or try and fix it but simply hold your truth with love. You see, we need this; we need it because shame can’t survive being spoken.
“When we share our story with someone who does not judge us and cares for us, we can start the journey of acceptance and releasing our shame. Acceptance is the key; for so many, there is the hope that the relationship can be fixed, and maybe had done something to save it, it could have been different. If we stay in this fear story we can never be free to heal and live happily.”
As difficult as it may be, Foxwell pointed to “acceptance” and “forgiveness” as powerful tools to overcome the difficulty experienced following grey divorce.
“The way to freedom is grounded in acceptance and then forgiveness. So many people ask me how we can forgive. Forgiveness is not about the other person; forgiveness is the gift you give yourself to be free,” she said.
“If we look at our story and believe it is bad and never see the gift, we won’t be able to seed our story with love. Finding the gift in our life and story allows us to feel joy and love.”
Finally, Foxwell discussed the “practical activities” one can utilise to “rewire your brain” such as “a 21-day gratefulness challenge (3 gratitudes a day for 21 days)”.
“Start reconnecting with new people whom you find encourage you and where you can do things you love,” she said.
“Don’t hide; find a way to engage joy and happiness in your life. It will help you reduce negativity and increase the joy in your present moment.”
Foxwell also highlighted the number of support services available that can provide much-needed assistance in trying times such as Beyond Blue.
“Relationships Australia might be a good place to start,” Foxwell said.
Foxwell also suggested seeking out “your local religious minister or a counselling service” for help.
Overcoming the challenges of divorce is not just confined to those experiencing the relationship breakdown, friends and family also play a crucial role in the healing process.
“Love, acceptance and support are critical components of healing and recovering from divorce,” Foxwell said.
“Creating an accepting and loving space for your family members going through a divorce is really important. Encourage them to be brave, connect with new communities, and try new things.
“Don’t try to fix things or give them sympathy when they are negative and emotional.
“Rather simply sit with them as they feel the “feels”. Don’t minimise how they see their world. If you would like to offer insights and a few thoughts on how they could see a different perspective ask their permission, don’t just steamroll them to move the discomfort away!
“Maybe the best you can do for them is simply love them as they navigate a new world.”
As the old adage goes, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, and although going through a divorce can often present more negatives than positives, personal brand coach and advocate for age-positive solutions, Scarlett Vespa urged those experiencing a divorce to look at the matter “as your choice”.
“A choice that is good for you and meant to be. This way you take your power back and gain a proactive stance on moving forward,” Vespa said.
Vespa also pointed out that such a new path in life can present an opportunity to “build a new life”.
“Finding confidence in what you do starts by doing many things, making sure you keep connected to old and new friends, joining aligned groups and keeping fit and healthy by just eating fresh foods and walking everyday,” she advised.
“Moving your your body and mind keeps you positive and supported.”
If you or anyone you know needs help: Lifeline — 13 11 14; MensLine Australia — 1300 789 978; BeyondBlue — 1300 224 636; Suicide Call Back Service — 1300 659 467; Headspace — 1800 650 890; Kids Helpline — 1800 551 800.