Mum's had enough: more women in 50s and 60s getting divorce

Rising number of women in their 50s and 60s getting divorced after children grow up

A steadily rising number of women in their 50s and 60s are getting divorced after decades of marriage.

Most say they are done putting up with years of a bad marriage or their husbands' infidelity, according to divorce lawyers and marriage counsellors. So once the children are grown up and working, the women break free.

Slightly more than 1,000 women aged 50 and older got divorced in 2013 - almost six times more than in 1993.

They accounted for 15.2 per cent of all women who divorced in 2013, according to the latest data from the Department of Statistics. In 1993, these women made up just 4.8 per cent of all women who divorced.

Calling the rise dramatic, sociologist Angelique Chan said the trend has implications for the long- term care of seniors, if significantly more enter old age alone or with a new partner and may not have their children's support.

This surge in divorce among long-married older couples is taking place across the developed world, including in countries such as the United States and Britain.

American sociologists have signalled a "Grey Divorce Revolution" as the divorce rate for those aged 50 and older in America doubled between 1990 and 2010. For the first time in America, there are now more people in this age group who are divorced than widowed.

Divorce lawyers in Singapore say most silver divorces, as divorces among older couples wed for a long time are called, are initiated by the women. Many have been married for 20-odd to more than 30 years.

Ms Foo Siew Fong, a lawyer of 24 years, said almost all the older women she has seen were fed up with their husbands' unfaithfulness. She said many older women are prepared to tolerate their husbands despite years of a lousy marriage, provided the men do not cheat.

Some choose divorce to protect themselves. "Many women in their 60s divorce for practical reasons to protect their assets," she said.

Lawyers say the women want their fair share of the marital assets to see them through their old age, instead of watching their husbands spend it all on other women.

The wives also do not want their husbands to be the beneficiaries of their estate, should the women die first.

Aside from adultery, the reasons why older women divorce include the fact that the marriages have long broken down and they lead separate lives from their husbands.

Counsellor Arthur Ling said the women tended to place their children's needs first through the marriage, afraid that a divorce would affect the children badly during their growing-up years. Financial and housing concerns deter women from walking out, and some fear they may not get custody of the children.

"When the children have grown up, the women feel it's time to think of their own needs and want the freedom to lead the rest of their lives," Mr Ling said.

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar recalled a client, a housewife in her 60s, who endured a deadbeat, abusive husband for more than 30 years for her children's sake. When she finally filed for divorce, she had terminal cancer and he was puzzled by her insistence on ending the marriage.

"She told me she wanted to die peacefully and as a free woman," he said. The woman died a year after her divorce.

Lawyers told The Sunday Times that fewer older men file for divorce but when they do, there is usually another woman waiting in the wings.

Lawyer Tan Siew Kim said: "Men are inert creatures. They have no incentive to leave unless they have an exciting new option."

In fact, despite their cheating ways, many of the husbands feel aggrieved when their wives file for divorce.

Counsellor Jonathan Siew said: "They never plan on ending the marriage. They just want to enjoy the here and now with the other woman. They think it's okay as long as they provide for and go home to their families."

When older marriages break down, the children tend to take sides. Often, they encourage or support their long-suffering mothers to get a divorce.

Some children sever contact with their fathers after the divorce, especially if they believe their fathers wronged them and their mothers, counsellors say.

While most of these couples are in their 50s, lawyers have seen couples in their 80s divorcing.

Ms Tan said her oldest client was an 83-year-old grandmother married for more than 50 years. Her 87-year-old husband was not unfaithful but the woman did not want to tolerate his bad temper "for a minute longer".

Ms Tan said: "Her husband was devastated and even bought her flowers, but she said it was too late. She said she had a few years of life left and wanted to be happy and not put up with him anymore."

theresat@sph.com.sg