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For ‘silver separators’, it's never too late to pack up and start again

A rise in divorce rates for elderly couples could make the world a happier place

We all know that marriage is a great institution, but as Groucho Marx said, “Who’d want to live in an institution?” Marriage is a subject that affects the vast majority of us. Your parents probably had one; you may have one – or (like me) have had several; and you expect your children to go that way too.

But the latest attack on the venerable state has come from an unusual quarter. Men and women over 60 are splitting up at a much higher rate than ever before: from 1991 to 2011 divorces by women over 60 went up 81 per cent; for men the figure was 73 per cent.

These “silver separators” as they’ve been dubbed by the Office for National Statistics, are the fastest growing divorce group in the UK right now. For younger couples the trend is reversing. The ONS puts it down to the de-stigmatisation of divorce plus women’s increased economic power. But I think you can also blame the baby boomer mentality: like their spiritual guru, Mick Jagger, they’re never going to grow old.

You can’t open some papers without being hit with another story about the increase in life expectancy – if you eat no fat, salt, carbs, sugar, run around like a Jack Russell, and have sex at least once a day. Sign up to pursue this kind of super-youth and you may also prefer  to have a genuinely youthful partner at your side, rather than the drone you’ve limped along with up to now. Time to phone the divorce lawyer.

Retirement is often the instigator for this radical act. Suddenly, instead of the busy couple meeting only for breakfast and dinner, they are face to face all day long with nothing much to do with themselves. I didn’t know I would be asked to write this piece when I (not quite in the target group) smiled wryly at a cartoon in this week’s New Yorker: seated man asks an arms-folded woman “When exactly did all the stuff you love about me become all the stuff you hate about me?”

While many studies show that the overall the rates of happiness increase for married couples once their children have left home, for those who were “staying together for the children’s sake” the very reason for the marriage’s continued existence has evaporated.

If they never got along terribly well – lots of fights or conversely, contemptuous silence – the world will be a much happier place by their “silver separation” rather than hanging in for the  silver wedding anniversary.

But, a warning: not everyone will agree. In most cases, children want their parents to stay together. Just because they’ve grown up doesn’t take away from that child-like feeling of wanting their family to be united under one roof.