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When Happily Ever After Ends December 20, 2016

The termination of any relationship is complicated and heartbreaking for both parties, but the effects are exacerbated when that relationship is a lifelong marriage and the participants are in their golden years. For one reason or another, the divorce rates of those in their 50s and beyond has doubled in the last three decades, giving rise to an often undiscussed epidemic that many have dubbed "gray divorce."

Apart from the financial considerations - such as split retirement, alimony and who keeps the paid-off house - there are many psychological and mental health issues that arise. And while both parties may be older and wiser than when their high school crush broke up with them after a summer fling, the ensuing feelings can be devastating and difficult to manage.

The one silver lining is that many older adults rely heavily on their grown children for emotional support. They also do not have to deal with the messy custody issues that many younger couples face. Older children are also more understanding of relationship struggles and will not be as likely to "pick sides" as they may have been in their younger years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, older couples divorce for often the same reasons as those in their 30s and 40s, according to Christa Moody, a licensed mental health professional who practices in Pensacola.

"Sometimes, there is a success disparity where one individual does not find the fulfillment in their marriage that they do in their career and social circles," said Moody. "Other times, it is dishonesty and infidelity. Regardless, it is always true that the one who does not share the feelings of divorce will be disproportionately affected." When that happens, Moody said, coping mechanisms are vital. "You can feel like things are out of your control, so it's important to rely on friends, engage your social circles, see a counselor if you feel depressed or unsure, and engage in light physical activity like walking or yoga," said Moody.

For senior citizens who already struggle with social anxiety and depression - or for those whose friends and siblings are no longer around - this can be an especially difficult time.

"There is a correlation between lack of social connectedness and depression," said Moody. "I tell my clients to rely on their faith and spirituality if that is something they express. You can also join a civic organization, attend divorce workshops at your local place of worship, or even get involved in a free college class."

Online dating is also quite popular among older Americans, and whether those connections lead to a short-term spark or something more meaningful, it is important to not wallow in sadness for too long. In fact, as many as 20 percent of single seniors use dating apps.

However, most experts recommend waiting at least until the divorce is finalized before getting back out there. This time can help you process your feelings and work through whatever shortcomings the experience may have identified. Not only can a premature jump into the dating pool polarize friends and jeopardize legal proceedings, it can actually make you feel more alone than ever.

"When they are ready to get back out there, many seniors actually find great success," said Moody. "There's this notion that you shouldn't bother in any sort of relationship investment in your golden years, but many people actually feel liberated and can reclaim a teenage sense of fun." 

Through it all, it is important to be aware of your own feelings, your own boundaries, and your own goals. If you do find a special someone and desire another go at tying the knot, most experts recommend a prenuptial agreement, as repeat marriages are more likely to end in divorce.

No one can say how long it takes to get over a lifelong love, and many never fully recover, but with some professional help, light physical activity, and a shot at putting yourself back out there, you may surprise yourself.


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