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I have a t-shirt that says “I’m sick of listening to old white men.” It’s meant to be a political statement about the perpetual ubiquity of old white men historically running the country (and the planet) into the ground for the last two and a half centuries. But apparently, recently, a lot of women have become very sick of listening to some very specific white men.
Over the last 20 years, divorce has declined across most age groups while the divorce rate for older couples has doubled. In 1990, 1 in 10 of all divorces were by people over 50; in 2009, 1 in 4 of all divorces were by those 50-plus. In fact, since 1960, “gray divorce” in the United States has increased 700%. It’s so common that various countries have given the phenomenon a name: “Silver separators” in the United Kingdom, and the “Retired Husband Syndrome” in Japan. In fact, Japan has seen divorces among retirees has increased four times in the last 20 years.
When Howard Stern interviewed Geraldo Rivera, who married a woman less than half his age, 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.”
Though the older couple divorce stereotype involves middle-age men ditching their perfectly fine, if not improved, wives for newer, younger models, this trope isn’t borne out by reality. According to an AARP study, wives were 66% more likely to end their marriages, while men were almost twice as likely to say that they never saw their divorces coming. Unlike the general population, infidelity was listed as a reason less than a quarter of the time. So, what’s behind all these menopausal mamas calling it quits on their decades-long marriages? Turns out that with their husbands home all the time, women are finding out that these guys are actually pretty annoying.
Take Japan, where there’s a popular book called Why Are Retired Husbands Such a Nuisance? and one of the most-watched TV shows is Jukunen Rikon, or “Mature Divorce”. According to one Japanese newspaper, “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.” In the 21st century, newly independent wives are increasingly sweeping these “wet leaves” out of their lives and moving the hell on.
Now that they’re home all day long, Japanese women are sick of dealing with them, and American baby boomers found themselves in the same situation. These women got married under one paradigm, and as decades went on found friends, other interests, and most significantly, themselves. Once their retired golf bro husbands were underfoot, they found them more of a demanding nuisance than a fun companion. Many baby boomer women had evolved from the women they were when they got married. The world had changed and so had they. The culture and women had moved on, and if husbands hadn’t now they found themselves having to move out.
There’s no one simple explanation, but it’s true that unlike previous generations, female boomers are the first generation of women to seek marriage and self-fulfillment. As a generation looking at both empty nests and decades more of healthy life, they look at their condescending husband on the couch asking for another beer and they ask themselves if there isn’t something else. ‘Til death do us part looks less like a vow and more like a prison sentence, one from which parole is now fairly accessible.
It’s a given that today’s Generation X and Millennial women can live longer and choose different paths than our parents and grandparents. There’s no predictable path, no assumed retiree identity. And that attractive guy we shared our lives with has become less appealing when he’s in your face day in and day out. Without children, budgets, and household doings to talk about, many retired women find they’re more attached to their friends and their interests than to the guy talking with his mouth full across the breakfast table. Unlike older women of previous generations, we have myriad options filled with possibilities, potential and zero shame attached. Perhaps so-called “COVID divorces” are accelerating this pattern.
Personally, I’m not sick of listening to all white men. My husband is wonderful, fun, and a caring companion. Getting married at 47 may have helped; I sometimes say that by the time we get sick of each other we’ll be dead. Still, I’m not surprised that many women hanging with husbands around the house have had it. As the shirt says, for many women, listening to old white men can be seriously exhausting. In White Houses, Congressional Houses, and in their houses, they can really use a break.
This is the third edition of Age Against the Machine by Dixie Laite. Read Dixie’s second column, A title called you: Who are you without your job?
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Dixie Laite has been a second-grade teacher and mechanical bull operator, and for the past 25 years she’s worked for a variety of TV networks as a writer, editorial director, trainer, advice columnist, even an on-air personality. But primarily she’s trotted around New York City in one cowboy shirt or another, lurking around flea markets, gyms, and anywhere they’ll hand her French toast. Currently she lounges around her apartment with one husband, one dog, five parrots, and roughly 2,000 pairs of shoes. Dixie is the main lady behind Age Against the Machine, a column about empowering women over 50. Sign up for the Jumble & Flowdown newsletter to stay in the know about Dixie’s latest columns.
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