“Salt-and-Pepper” Divorces: The Fight for Control When Long-Term Couples Split (Part I)

Stacy D. Phillips 

With the recent announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates, one of the wealthiest couples in the world, were divorcing after nearly three decades of marriage, I have seen an increase in interest in what the media refers to as “gray” divorces, or marriages that end after 25 to 35 years. Personally, I prefer the term “salt-and-pepper” divorce because most often these couples are not considered elderly. After more than a year of limited mobility and social distancing, many couples have felt that they have spent practically another lifetime together at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many couples closer together, but for others it has exacerbated tensions that have existed under the surface, often for decades. With time and soul-searching over the past year and especially now that COVID-19 restrictions are now being relaxed and lifted across the U.S. and much of the world, many older couples are building the courage to address the six big issues that I identified in my book, Divorce: It’s All About Control – How to Win the Emotional, Psychological, and Legal Wars, as the main causes of divorce. In Part I of this two-part series I discuss how salt-and-pepper couples approach three of these issues—money, property, and wealth; children; and health. Part II will focus on loss of love/intimacy; growth; and fear.

Money, Property, and Wealth

One of the biggest distinctions of salt-and-pepper (and gray) divorces is that couples in long-term marriages are more likely to divorce at or near the end of accumulating income from their prime working years. When older couples approach divorce and separation, each spouse is acutely aware that after the split, whatever assets are left may have to last them the rest of their lives. In particular, a spouse who was the non-earner during the marriage may not be able to force the other spouse who is at or past common retirement age to continue working to pay spousal support. What may be more likely to be left for salt-and-pepper couples that are no longer earning income from working is passive income from assets that are subject to capital gains tax if sold. In light of the impact of COVID-19, there are many couples who have income tied to previously cash-producing real estate assets that have taken a hit due to rent abatement, rent freezes, and eviction moratoriums. When the lockdowns began at the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed that many people either held off on initiating a divorce or filed for divorce because lower asset valuations were to their advantage. Now that the pandemic restrictions are ending and businesses are reopening, I am still seeing a good number of people waiting to see if the economy and the value of their assets will fully stabilize before pursuing a divorce, or they are jumping on the depressed economy to try and extract a valuation advantage.

Children

After a long marriage, chances are that any children that were a result of the relationship have grown and are now adult age. Although custody is unlikely to be an issue in a salt-and-pepper and a gray divorce, many people feel reluctant to break up a family that still gathers for events and holidays, with the additional risk of losing control over seeing grandchildren. Women tend to be more likely than men to stick it out in a flawed marriage for these reasons. In my empirical study based on handling divorces for 36-plus years, there are often exceptions, but generally men are less reluctant to break up a family when they are unhappy in the relationship unless and until they have someone else waiting for them.

Another trend I have noticed among couples who have been together for decades is that those still in their 40s but unhappy are often reluctant to split if their parents are still alive. They may wait until they are in their 50s, but after their parents pass away, a midlife crisis ensues where they are more willing to do things that they would not dare do when their parents were around. The death of one’s parents can also trigger a realization that life is short and there is less time they are willing to spend being in a broken marriage.

Health

A change in health circumstances is a leading factor in causing divorces. For younger couples, a diagnosis of a permanent long term illness has a dramatic impact that can be overwhelming in the way it changes the relationship dynamic. An older, longer term relationship is often more likely to be able to withstand a difficult illness. The pandemic has heightened our awareness that we must take care of our health, both physically and emotionally. The pandemic has also forced many issues to the surface for couples who were stuck in lockdown together 24/7. The feeling that we have one life to live combined with spending time with a partner who is less willing to take care of themselves, whether it be with regard to nutrition and exercise, abusing drugs and alcohol, or not taking COVID-19 safety precautions seriously, is leading to breakups. When one partner lives an active lifestyle and the other is less willing to travel, exercise, or even leave home, the tension can take its toll.

More than any other area, one’s psychological health takes the biggest hit in divorce at any age. When I was a young(er) lawyer, I had a client in his 70s (which seemed old at the time). He told me that he decided to end his very long marriage because he realized that: “A happy person cannot make a sad or depressed person happy, but a sad or depressed person can make a happy person sad or depressed.” That has stuck with me all these years later. At any age, we need to live positively and take care of our well-being.