They have spent their whole adult lives together and have had two children, but now she has decided the time has come to start a life on her own. At the age of 80 and in good physical and mental health, María (not her real name) believes it is not too late to recover lost time. She has spent her best years running the family home while her husband, who is 84 and a businessman (he is still working) earned the money. She also worked for some time, in the family business, which is why she now has a pension.
Despite her age, she is not afraid of anything. She says she prefers to be alone rather than in the wrong company, but he won’t even consider a divorce. He doesn’t object to them living apart but doesn’t want a legal separation for financial reasons and he absolutely refuses to divide their assets equally. She, on the other hand, who has felt subjected to her husband’s will for years, now wants what she considers to be legally hers, to do what she wants with that money without anyone telling her what she can spend it on.
That was how it always used to be, a time marked by a conservative, patriarchal and religious society, where women were relegated to the role of mother and housewife. Anyone who dared to take the step of separation was stigmatised for life. That was the case for the first women who divorced after it became legal on 22 June 1981, but 40 years have passed since then and what was unthinkable at that time is now starting to become a trend.
“The social context nowadays is very different and that has been essential for María to have taken this step, even though she had tried beforehand with no success. In many cases, people are considering doing this, even if it turns out to be impossible in the end. What we try to do is enable it to be done peacefully,” said Trinidad Bernal, a doctor of psychology who is behind the Atyme Foundation, which has been mediating for couples facing separation for the past 30 years.
During these three decades they have seen how the average age of couples who come for this type of mediation has been increasing. “We started with married couples aged between 36 and 38, and now they are around 50,” said Bernal.
The present social context, which is less restricted and stigmatising than it was in the last century, means that break-ups of relationships are less abrupt. Also, in many cases, older couples follow the same path as their divorced children, when they see that the family is still going strong after they ended their marriages.
“They see that the family doesn’t break up; it just reshapes itself,” said Bernal.
In recent years, divorces between people over the age of 65 have increased by 70 per cent in Malaga province, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). The number has risen from 89 divorces in 2013 (when the first record was kept) to 153 in 2019 (the latest statistic available), when the age of the wife was taken as a reference, and from 167 divorces to 285 when based on the husband’s age.
This is especially significant for this age group, given that the total number of divorces in Malaga province has not changed greatly in the same period, as it only rose from 3,582 to 3,796.
This is not a local trend, either. An increasing number of older people are deciding to break up after spending a lifetime together. More than 1,000 people over the age of 70 get divorced in Spain each year.
This is not the age group in which there are more separations and, these days, their decision does not cause a scandal. Nor do these people feel condemned to eternal hellfire, but it does cause surprise and incredulity among their closest circle, when people cannot comprehend how they have taken such a transcendental decision at that age. “Have you really thought through the consequences of being on your own?” for example, or “Why on earth would you want so much upheaval at a time when what you need is tranquility and to support each other?”
But what makes somebody decide to end a marriage after several decades and spend the remaining years of their life on their own? Increased life expectancy and having to spend so much time together after retirement appear to be behind many such decisions.
“Retirement leads to major changes in a couple’s life. Their routine changes, they spend more time together at home and that can cause friction or increase tensions that already existed,” said sociologist Elisa Chuliá. “They go from being apart for eight or ten hours because of work, which is a large part of the day when each of them has a life of their own, to being together the whole time,” she said.
It can mean that tensions and bad moods, dissimulated for years because of the presence of children or because work gives them a break from each other for several hours a day, come to the surface when one of them retires.
So, face to face, they realise that they can no longer live together and that is when they wonder why they should keep putting up with it and they decide to break their marriage vows: what God has joined together let no man put asunder. However, for this sociologist it would be almost unthinkable for many women to take this step if they had no income of their own.
“They have their retirement pension and don’t have to depend on anyone to survive. That financial independence is what gives them freedom. That, and the lack of the social pressure which would once have pointed fingers at them for separating. It’s no longer frowned on,” she said.
In many cases, their professional career has given them a social life, and that becomes essential when they separate. “With the increased life expectancy, the perspective of loneliness and disability looks further off in time. When someone retires now it doesn’t signal their decline, on the contrary, it’s the moment to start living. Suddenly you have all the time in the world to do what you like, and when you are healthy and you have friends to do it with a new horizon opens up for you,” said Elisa Chuliá.
The problem with the plans for the future is when each partner in a marriage has different interests. While men tend to rebuild their lives, women want peace of mind.
“Now there are no children to bring up, because they have flown the nest. Couples no longer have those obligations and after years together they get bored. That is when many women, who are healthy and have many years ahead of them, question whether it is worth spending the rest of their life with a man with whom they share a worn-out marriage,” said Claudio Buenestado, a specialist in family law, who has seen how cases of divorce between older couples have increased. “People have lost their fear of legal proceedings, social conventionalism and religious criminalisation. Nowadays divorce is not seen as a bad thing,” he said.
Also nowadays, unlike the situation with younger age groups, the decision to divorce is taken in a “calmer and more reflective way”, said Trinidad Bernal. “At this age there is a better emotional balance, people’s ideas are clearer and the financial burdens which have to be taken into account when separating, such as a mortgage or children to bring up, no longer apply,” she said.
They are also very clear, she added, about how they want to spend the rest of their days and with whom they do not want to do so.
“The big problem comes when one of the two doesn’t want a separation. Many people are afraid of having to spend the rest of their days living alone, and they need help to combat the loneliness and to cope with their new situation,” she says.
Women’s financial independence, greater life expectancy, the relaxation of moral and social conventions and the reduction in legal obstacles have led to an increase in divorces at an older age in recent years. Another determining factor is the so-called empty nest syndrome. When the children have left home and couples are on their own, they sometimes realise they don’t really know each other at all. However, it isn’t always easy to end a marriage later in life. Many people are afraid they will be lonely if left on their own. “Some people refuse a separation or divorce because they are afraid of spending the rest of their life alone,” said Trinidad Bernal, who is a doctor of psychology and runs the Atyme Foundation.