When love meets retirement: The challenges faced by ageing couples

Jul 17, 2023
In 2021, of the 56,244 divorces in Australia, more than one in four divorces were people who had been married for more than 20 years. Source: Getty

I went to a wedding on the weekend.

My god-daughter Lauren married an Irishman named Stephen Page in Kiama, about two hours south of Sydney.

I don’t go to a lot of weddings these days. In my younger years, it was not uncommon to go to half-a-dozen weddings a year.

As the years go by though, you find that the wedding invites – apart from those to your own sons’ and daughters’ weddings – dry up.

I’m out of practice now when it comes to choosing what to wear and what is an appropriate gift.

What present do you give someone, in their 30s, who owns a house and has a well-paid job with a luxury brand?

Lauren and Stephen already live together, so I assume they have a vacuum cleaner, cutlery, sheets and long-stemmed glasses. 

Lauren probably earns more money than I ever did, so giving her cash seems a little pointless. And even if I did, how much would be enough?

Someone suggested that the present du jour is an experience. Something like a fully catered picnic in the park or a hot air balloon ride. What if the hot air balloon crashes? No, scratch that idea.

In need of help, I went to Google and did some research. 

According to a survey of 1000 Australians, the gift should be somewhere between $51 and $125 per person, depending on your relationship with the bride and groom, or bride and bride, or even groom and groom these days.

I asked Lauren’s mum for help. She said she’d get back to me with some ideas. I’m still waiting.

I set a $250 budget and ended up buying a travel voucher. I’m sure it will come in handy at some stage and at least pay for a night’s accommodation somewhere.

The funny thing is, I might start to get some more wedding invites in the not-too-distant future.

It seems people my age are becoming single again by opting for “retirement divorces”.

By nature, men tend not to stay single for long, so the wedding invites might just be coming in the mail if my mates follow this late-life divorce trend.

Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) figures show that in the 1980s one in five people who divorced had been married for more than 20 years.

In 2021, of the 56,244 divorces in Australia, more than one in four divorces were people who had been married for more than 20 years.

So divorcees are getting older and often retirement is the trigger for breaking up.

I was doing some content consulting work for a financial planner on the Gold Coast recently. He said that at least three-in-10 of his clients were separating post-retirement.

He said that couples were not necessarily on the same page when it came to what their retirements looked like.

“I don’t think people sit down and discuss what they want from retirement before they retire,’’ he said.

“Couples just assume that they want the same thing. But for three out of every 10 of my clients, that’s not the case.’’

I know this is a generalisation, but he said most of his male clients, after 45 years of work, wanted to go out and find some adventure. Have some fun.

They wanted to travel – either in an RV around Australia or hop on a cruise ship and circumnavigate the world.

He said the problem is that most of their partners, especially the ones who hadn’t been working for the past decade, already had a routine in place.

And that routine didn’t include their husbands being under their feet 24 hours a day.

They had friends that they golfed with. Friends that they lunched with. And another group of friends who got together on Friday night for champagne and canapés.

Some had significant grandchildren duties – that they loved and had no inclination to give up.

Travelling the world with their husband, a sometimes-grumpy old bastard, wasn’t high on the agenda.

So, my financial planner client said that after 12 months of frustration and fighting these people ended up at the lawyers’ office, next door, filing for divorce.

“That means splitting finances,’’ he said.

“That means selling houses and basically both people having to start again with half their assets.

“It is a costly exercise triggered by never having sat down and having had a conversation about what each of you wants out of retirement.’’

The AIFS study found that divorced people aged between 55 and 74 years had less household income and fewer assets than married couples of the same age.

Statistically couples over 55 are the least likely to go for relationship counselling. That means that instead of patching things up, they simply end up giving up.

Men of my generation are not good at asking others for help to sort out problems.

And when couples are not used to spending hours and hours together, ingrained problems become huge and extremely hard to solve.

And then comes the costly divorce and it’s time to start lives all over again.

Thankfully, Lauren and Stephen are a long way off retirement, so they won’t have to worry about any of this for some time to come.

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