It was with sadness that a month or two ago I read on the front page of the paper, “Bill and Melinda Gates, aged 65 and 56, are getting a divorce after 27 years of marriage, having said they can no longer ‘grow together as a couple’”. Sadly Bill and Melinda appear to be part of a trend. According to the North American Pew Research Centre, divorce rates among adults 50 and older (often called ‘grey divorce’) has roughly doubled since 1990. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in the last few years the over-50s divorce rate in the UK has also begun to increase.
It is all very different from some lines of Robert Browning in his poem Rabbi Ben Ezra which Caroline’s grandmother used to quote with her late husband in mind:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made!
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God, see all, nor be afraid!
Why does the prospect of a life-long marriage lose its attraction for some as they grow older? The suggestion is often made that is because people are typically living longer after they retire, meaning they have more years to spend at home with their spouse. Therefore, if a marriage is not working out, they could potentially have decades of unhappiness ahead of them, unless they seek a divorce. Furthermore, with lots of other over-50s also getting divorced, there are plenty of single people in this age category should people want another shot at finding love in their later years!
This August Caroline and I will celebrate our 54th wedding anniversary, and Caroline has already reminded me that next year she is looking forward to receiving an emerald which is traditionally given on the 55th anniversary! At our Golden Wedding I quoted from a Good Housekeeping article entitled, ‘Relationship secrets to steal from couples married for 50+ years’. It gave sixteen tips for staying (together) power:
- Talk to each other, don’t vent to friends
- Never stop creating shared memories – i.e. do things together
- Kids makes marriage stronger
- Give each other personal space
- Marriage is not always 50/50
- Make an effort to look your best
- Embrace your individuality – it’s important to be your own person
- Don’t overlook small family moments
- Get professional help when you need it – counselling”
- Expect there will be crises – but stick it out
- Love means being a team – when problems arise
- Never shop showing affection
- Talk out issues – don’t send texts/emails
- Have a standing date – without the kids
- History doesn’t have to be repeated – the fact that your parents split up, doesn’t mean you have to
- Pick your battles!
However, useful as some of these tips are, I was struck by the reason given by Bill and Melinda Gates for splitting up: we can no longer “grow together as a couple”. If a couple fails to grow together, then boredom and stagnation set in. This seems to me to be a particular danger for retired couples. It is all too easy for the retired to drop out of life now that they no longer go out to work. However, retirement rightly understood is not about endings, but about new beginnings and new opportunities. Couples, both together and individually, need to discover new ways of living that fullness of life that Jesus promised.
In our case, in retirement Caroline and I have both sought to expand our interests. True, lockdown did not make that easy for Caroline when she retired at the beginning of this year. Nonetheless, she has, for instance, become a governor for a new major hospital trust and through the medium of Microsoft teams is now helping to hold to account three acute hospitals in Essex and in the process is learning so much more about how the challenges they face. Since retirement I too have become more involved in the wider community. Add together our other interests, this means that when at the end of the day we have a Gin and tonic together we have far more to talk about than simply the grandchildren! Far from stagnating as we are growing and developing as people. In the words of James Woodward, for us “growing older is about adding life to years rather than just adding years to our lives”. Or to quote from David Adam’s poem, The Terminus:
It is the beginning of a new journey.
It is where we reach out beyond
where experience new adventures.
it is where we get off to enter new territory,
to explore new horizons, to extend our whole being.
We look forward to growing older together!