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

Stacy D. Phillips 

This is the second in a two-part series examining how older couples experience divorce and separation differently through the prism of 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. 

As previously mentioned, I have seen much interest in so-called “gray” divorces, or marriages that end after 25 to 35 years. I personally prefer the term “salt and pepper” divorce because most often these couples are not considered elderly. With the COVID-19 delta variant causing renewed uncertainty, many older couples are once again facing exacerbated tensions. In Part I of this series, I discussed how “salt and pepper” couples approach three of the main causes of divorce—money, property, and wealth; children; and health. In Part II, I focus on loss of love/intimacy; growth; and fear. 

Loss of Love/Intimacy 

A common cause of salt and pepper divorces is a waning desire for intimacy after many years together. Midlife crises and health issues are often at the root of these break-ups. A common divorce stereotype is that older men will ask for a divorce when they already have someone else who is more exciting and willing to take care of them. For women, the divorce stereotype is that their husbands have grown older faster than they have, and they have more energy later in life. For both men and women, there could be affairs that their spouses have suspected or known about for years, but have put off confronting or seeking divorce until they have built the confidence to do so. As the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted longer than anyone anticipated, many people in marriages where one spouse is satisfied with a more celibate relationship and the other is not, may have realized that life is too short to live this way. They are propelled and compelled to seek a divorce in order to spend their remaining years either contently alone or in an intimate relationship with someone new. 

Growth 

As we have been living longer lives than previous generations, the taboos surrounding older divorces have lessened and there are more opportunities for reinvention and growth, both personally and professionally. Over the course of several decades, many couples come to the realization that they have “outgrown” their spouse or have “grown apart.” Prior to the pandemic, there were couples willing to put in effort and stick it out despite the boredom of their day-to-day routines together. But over the past 18 months, many of these couples have been unable to do much of anything spontaneous to see if the spark could be rekindled.

Professional growth, or lack thereof, is another major factor that causes rifts and wreaks havoc in long-term marriages. When someone has climbed the proverbial workplace ladder, their spouse may not be able or willing to pick up the necessary slack to keep the relationship working. Because of the pandemic, there have been careers and entire industries that have either taken off to unimaginable heights or have needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. This has led to control battles in relationships over what to do next, including whether to take on new responsibilities at the expense of time with their spouse and family or take a new job that is below one’s position or even weighing whether to retire earlier than anticipated.

Fear

Lastly, marriages of any length can fail due to fear for one’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. When someone has been physically, emotionally, and/or psychologically abused, including being called horrific names for decades, they can fall victim to being frightened of being attacked if they were to walk away. It can take a long time for these spouses to build up the emotional, psychological, and financial wherewithal to realize they have the ability to divorce. But in many cases, these victims stay in abusive relationships for years, even decades, because it is what they know and because they are afraid of being alone/supporting themselves for those who have been supported/taking care of themselves for the ones who have not been responsible for making the trains run on time. After all, there are not many grandmothers willing to break up families. And lots of spouses end up feeling stuck and fearful that they cannot go anywhere or live on their own after being in a relationship, albeit a highly dysfunctional one, for so long. Do not underestimate the courage it can take to escape an abusive relationship, especially ones that have reached their “salt and pepper” years.