The Rise in ‘Gray Divorce’: It’s Always Hubby’s Fault

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

In both the United States and Japan, divorce among older couples is on the rise. The American Association of Retired Persons detailed the phenomenon among American seniors in a study last year, and Japan’s wave of gray divorce is expected to swell into a deluge, since Japanese women will soon be legally able to claim half of their husbands’ retirement pensions.

There are various explanations for the trend but media commentators agree on one thing—when the husband divorces his wife, it’s hubby’s fault. When the wife divorces her husband, well, it’s hubby’s fault too.

In a recent New York Times article Terry Martin Hekker, whose husband of 40 years divorced her, criticizes what she and others in the media are calling a trend: selfish older men dumping their wives for younger women. In Japan, a popular book is Why Are Retired Husbands Such a Nuisance?,and one of Japan’s most-watched television dramas is Jukunen Rikon "Mature Divorce").

One Japanese newspaper says "some Japanese women see their husbands as an obstacle to enjoying their sunset years. With few hobbies or friends to turn to, many Japanese retirees, often nicknamed ‘wet leaves’ for their tendency to cling to their wives, spend their time at home." These "wet leaves" are increasingly being swept aside by their newly independent wives.

In both countries this "Pin the Blame on the Husband" is unfair. For one, the stereotype of the husband trading in his wife for a younger model is by and large a myth. The women in the AARP study were 60% more likely to claim that they ended their marriages than the men were, and men were almost twice as likely as women to say that they never saw their divorces coming. In contrast to the Porsche and trophy wife stereotype, the AARP study found that these divorced men had many serious concerns, high among them their fear of losing touch with their children after their divorces.

Many of these men would see their fears in Hekker’s description of her divorce. Hekker likens her anger to that of the jilted bride Miss Haversham in Dickens’s Great Expectations who "spent decades…consumed with plotting revenge." She says that at a family baby shower recently, her niece said "I don’t want to end up like Aunt Terry."

In other words, Hekker plays the victim and the family has been instructed to feel pity for her and outrage at her ex-husband, who now is apparently persona non grata among his relatives. What a nice reward for the 40 years he worked to provide his wife and children with a comfortable standard of living.

Japanese women—who enjoy one of the longest life expectancies in the world—are apparently similarly ungrateful. Is it so surprising and contemptible that after four decades of rigid structure and work, work, work, retired Japanese men don’t know what to do with themselves?

This is not to say that there’s no validity to women’s complaints. Radio host Howard Stern recently interviewed television commentator Geraldo Rivera, who in 2003 married a woman less than half his age. Stern was only half-joking when he asked "aren’t you worried about your future? Think of it—when you’re 75, you’re going to be stuck married to a 45 year-old woman."

In this area biology dictates much—if men found 60-year-old women as attractive as they found 30 year-olds, the human race would have died out a long time ago. Yet marriages break up for a variety of reasons, most of them having little to do with male perfidy. There’s a big distinction between dumping your wife for a younger woman, and pursuing a relationship with a younger woman after your marriage has ended.

Though nobody says it, "dumped for a younger woman" is sometimes just a woman’s cop-out for not taking responsibility for her own contribution to the marital breakdown. Hekker says her ex-husband spent 16 pages of his divorce papers "meticulously detailing my faults and flaws." Yet the New York Times’ editors didn’t ask her to devote a single one of her 1,600+ words towards giving the reader a clue as to what her ex-husband’s feelings and complaints might be.

Given the way the media is portraying gray divorce on both sides of the Pacific, this is no surprise.