Silver splitters: Breaking up after a long marriage


As what happened when Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce, ‘society’ wants to know why long-married couples are moving away

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Fri 21 May 2021, 11:34 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:22 PM

The numbers have caught our collective imagination. Total wealth of $180 billion. $130 million net worth of one partner. A mansion spread across 66,000 sq ft. $50 billion endowment in charity foundation. And 27 years spent in acquiring all that wealth.

Ever since the Bill and Melinda Gates divorce story exploded on our smartphones and TV screens, these eye-popping figures have been bandied about in various contexts. Not surprisingly, memes and puerile puns on Windows, Gates, PowerPoint and Microsoft swiftly followed as did comparisons with the equally gasp-inducing Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott split and a juicy $38 billion settlement.

Breakups of the rich and famous inevitably lead to speculation, gossip and social media chatter. Who gets what, why did they split, what happens to all that glorious money… the curiosity is endless. However, guessing games aside, the high-profile Gates and Bezos’ separation is emblematic of a rising social trend across the world where older couples are increasingly saying “We don’t”, years after saying “I do”. Researchers and social scientists have even coined a term for it — ‘grey divorce’ or ‘silver splitters’, a nod to the hair colour that older people often have. (Here’s some more context: Bill, 65 and Melinda, 56, had a 27-year marriage, while Jeff Bezos, 57 and Mackenzie Scott, 51, were husband and wife for 25 years).

The statistics are telling. In the US, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research Centre, since 1990, divorce rates have doubled among people over 50 and tripled among those over 65. Similarly in England and Wales, between 2005 and 2015, the number of divorcees aged 65 and more went up by 38 per cent. Incidentally, this is happening at a time when the general divorce rates have plummeted in the Western world, primarily due to late marriages and increased live-in relationships.

The figures essentially point out to one sad, albeit irrefutable, fact: That years of living with one person, getting used to each other’s idiosyncrasies and navigating life’s ups and downs together do not necessarily mean you want to walk into the sunset with him/her. Rules of engagement in long-term relationships have changed drastically with the ‘veteran marrieds’ being more than happy to become ‘happy singletons’ after decades of togetherness.

I, Me, Myself

“The trend of grey divorces is increasing because both men and women want to live the best version of their lives. After a certain age, a lot of people feel they have had enough of putting up with bad relationships,” says Mumbai-based divorce lawyer Vandana Shah, author of 360 Degrees Back to Life: A Litigant’s Humorous Take On Divorce.

The realisation strikes more acutely when there is a general drifting apart in terms of values, ideals and decisions, notes Sneha John, clinical psychologist at Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic, Dubai. “Couples who call it quits may show an unwillingness to communicate with each other over time. They may see areas in themselves that they need to change to make the relationship work but neither of them may have the motivation to do so,” she says.

This lack of enthusiasm can be attributed to several reasons. One, reality has sunk in that longevity of a marriage is no indicator of its success. Two, financial freedom allows you to lead life without the crutches of a long-term partner. And three, the notion that you don’t have to stay in a sad, bad, boring or dysfunctional marriage ‘for the sake of children or society’ has finally found wide acceptance.

Clara Campos, a hotelier who has been following the Gates and Bezos’ divorce closely, echoes this line of thought. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a long-time marriage or short one. Couples must be connected in every way and if they are not, it’s not worth it. I know a few couples married for a long time who got divorced and at least one of the partners is a lot happier living in their own truth and happiness.”

Society says so

Unfortunately, societal expectations do play a role — be it remaining in an unhappy marriage or in the decision to make a clean break. One of the most common questions asked of the Gates’ divorce is: why go through the hassle of a legal separation and risk acrimony over money and assets when you can easily lead separate lives living under the same big roof?

The answer, according to Caroline Stanbury, Dubai-based podcaster and former reality star, is simple: there comes a tipping point when it’s impossible to hide uncomfortable home truths, especially when there is a third person in the equation, or when one partner enjoys staying out of home more than within it.

“The three things I can’t bear in a marriage are compromise, security and sacrifice. Unfortunately, societal pressure to get married and stay married is still immense across cultures but you are not doing anyone any favours by remaining in one,” says Caroline whose Spotify podcast Divorced Not Dead has won a huge fan following with its inspiring conversations around re-building life, sex, relationships, dating and self-love.

A happy mother of three, Caroline’s marriage hit the rocks 18 years after tying the knot. “I loved my ex-husband but we just grew apart,” she recalls. Life took a 360-degree turn thereafter and, currently, she is in a blissful relationship with former Real Madrid footballer Sergio Carrallo with her life revolving around her children, shoots, new businesses and the podcast. “I am not an advocate of divorce but I do believe that we grow, change and move on in different directions. And that’s okay, you don’t need to be punished for it,” she says.

Vandana observes mature separations often do not become toxic unless there is a lot of money involved. “Joint properties, division of assets, board memberships etc are the issues that make these splits thorny. Otherwise, older couples bring a certain wisdom and maturity that prevent public mudslinging,” she says.

Freedom makes it worth it

The joy of carving a new identity after years of seeing their names suffixed with another person makes it all worth it, say those who have been there and suffered that. Nirmala Krupanandh, 58, a teacher and animal welfare activist didn’t exactly want to end her 30-year-old marriage but was left with no choice when her husband walked out on her.

Hers was a mismatched union from the word go: Nirmala’s effervescent, free-thinking personality clashed with her husband’s conservatism and, as years went by, the chasm widened. When he upped and left, she took the legal route to fight for her rights. “Our marriage had no big flaws, no deep wounds that could not be healed. Yet it broke because one of us could not stand the test of time. Both of us worked in the Gulf but one of us behaved like he’d returned home after being in the Gulf War!”

The legal fight is on but Nirmala is determined to live life to the fullest. “Today, there is a sense of excitement when I look forward to the future without the presence of something that wasn’t there.

My advice to those who are in a dysfunctional marriage is to look at the issue in the eye, talk it out and, if it cannot be fixed, accept divorce as the solution. I look back on our marriage as a lesson learned, an experience and just another event that happened. But I’m glad I got married because, undoubtedly, there were fantastic times we had together,” she says.

Such optimism helps in facing both the courts as well as nosy relatives and acquaintances. The D-word may have long been de-stigmatised but older couples often find themselves having to answer more questions than younger ones. Manish Khemlani* (name changed on request), a 50-plus entrepreneur who chose the single life after 24 years of marriage, recalls the awkward socialising with friends and relatives after his separation. “Most of them knew us as a couple so there were embarrassing questions,” he says. And there was the inevitable tattle. “A split gives a lot of people good gossip material, so we may have contributed to a lot of social entertainment,” he shrugs.

What about the kids?

Society can perhaps be brushed off but what can’t are the changed dynamics with children. Children leaving home or being mature enough to understand the truths surrounding their parents’

marriage are enabling factors in late divorces. But reaching that point requires a delicate balancing act. As Manish recalls, “We waited for a couple of years till both our sons left for the US before we announced the split. That was the most difficult part: they had grown seeing us as a loving couple and it shattered them to know that we separated.”

In instances where children are young, the challenges are different. Mark L, a consultant in Singapore, separated from his wife of 16 years after they realised their lives were heading in different directions. “We had always been very independent souls. Once we had kids, it also meant we spent more time together than we ever had in our married life until then and this made us realise how little we had in common,” he says. But luckily his mutual friends and family took a very mature approach, and he’s grateful for that.

For Mark, adjusting to life without day-to-day involvement with his children has been one of the biggest fallouts of the split. But he strongly believes that children should never be an excuse to stay on in a bad marriage. “Isn’t it better that the two people they love and trust most of all in the world should be happy and fulfilled in life, not living a lie in a miserable marriage? When parents stay together ‘just for the kids’ sake’, they are never serving their best interests.”

The newly single life

The key to overcoming these challenges, therefore, is to prepare oneself emotionally and legally. “Emotional preparation would mean intentionally creating the space for a good support system of friends and family. The next thing would be acknowledging the role of healthy grieving,” advises Sneha. Vandana, on the other hand, emphasises the need to keep it civil. “I always tell my clients to sit, think and keep the three big letters — ego — away. First, try and sort out things among yourself amicably. Bring in children or family friends who mean well. Bring lawyers last.”

And if it has to reach the lawyers, ensure that you are well-equipped, she adds. “Keep your business interests separate. Try not to get assets together. Have your assets valued, especially if there are problems in the marriage. And once you decide to split, make a clean break, do not have any other association with your soon-to-be-ex.”

It may be easier said than done — because divorce after a long marriage, however amicable, can never be smooth. As Caroline says, “In a divorce, one person inevitably gets hurt more than the other. But if you want the best for each other, it’s the kindest thing you can do. In a way, you are setting each other free to find the best version of yourself.”

Indeed, once the emotional, legal and logistical consequences are dealt with, grey divorcees, equipped with knowledge of past mistakes and the wisdom of age, are ready to welcome a new chapter in their life — one that includes new careers, friendships and even romances. Manish admits he hasn’t given up on love yet. “I am definitely open to a partner to hold hands and spend our silver years as lovers and companions. I have also matured a lot about love and relationships. Hence, mistakes made in the past would not be repeated,” he says.

Mark agrees. “My views on relationships and marriage haven’t really changed. It is perfectly possible (and becoming much more the norm) to enjoy love, companionship and security all over again.”

(Lekha is a journalist currently based in India.)

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