The Rise in “Gray Divorce”: It’s Always Hubby’s Fault
By Jeffery M. Leving & Glenn Sacks
In both the United States and Japan, divorce among older couples is on the
rise. The American Association of Retired Persons detailed the
phenomenon among American seniors in a study last year, and Japan’s
wave of gray divorce is expected to swell into a deluge, since Japanese
women will soon be legally able to claim half of their husbands’ retirement
There are various explanations for the trend but media commentators agree
on one thing–when the husband divorces his wife, it’s hubby’s fault. When
the wife divorces her husband, well, it’s hubby’s fault too.
In a recent New York Times article Terry Martin Hekker, whose husband of
40 years divorced her, criticizes what she and others in the media are
calling a trend: selfish older men dumping their wives for younger women.
In Japan, a popular book is Why Are Retired Husbands Such a Nuisance?,
and one of Japan’s most-watched television dramas is Jukunen Rikon
One Japanese newspaper says “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.” These “wet
leaves” are increasingly being swept aside by their newly independent
In both countries this “Pin the Blame on the Husband” is unfair. For one, the
stereotype of the husband trading in his wife for a younger model is by and
large a myth. The women in the AARP study were 60% more likely to claim
that they ended their marriages than the men were, and men were almost
twice as likely as women to say that they never saw their divorces coming.
In contrast to the Porsche and trophy wife stereotype, the AARP study
found that these divorced men had many serious concerns, high among
them their fear of losing touch with their children after their divorces.
Many of these men would see their fears in Hekker’s description of her
divorce. Hekker likens her anger to that of the jilted bride Miss Haversham
in Dickens’s Great Expectations who “spent decades…consumed with
plotting revenge.” She says that at a family baby shower recently, her niece
said “I don’t want to end up like Aunt Terry.”
In other words, Hekker plays the victim and the family has been instructed
to feel pity for her and outrage at her ex-husband, who now is apparently
persona non grata among his relatives. What a nice reward for the 40 years
he worked to provide his wife and children with a comfortable standard of
Japanese women–who enjoy one of the longest life expectancies in the
world—are apparently similarly ungrateful. Is it so surprising and
contemptible that after four decades of work, work, work, retired Japanese
men don’t know what to do with themselves? They’ve never known the
freedoms and unsupervised days that their homemaker wives have enjoyed.
This is not to say that there’s no validity to women’s complaints. Radio host
Howard Stern recently interviewed television commentator Geraldo Rivera,
who in 2003 married a woman less than half his age. Stern was only halfjoking
when 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.”
In this area biology dictates much–if men found 60-year-old women as
attractive as they found 30 year-olds, the human race would have died out a
long time ago. Yet marriages break up for a variety of reasons, most of
them having little to do with male perfidy. There’s a big distinction between
dumping your wife for a younger woman, and pursuing a relationship with a
younger woman after your marriage has ended.
Though nobody says it, “dumped for a younger woman” is sometimes just a
woman’s cop-out for not taking responsibility for her own contribution to the
marital breakdown. Hekker says her ex-husband spent 16 pages of his
divorce papers “meticulously detailing my faults and flaws.” Yet the New
York Times’ editors didn’t ask her to devote a single one of her 1,600+
words towards giving the reader a clue as to what her ex-husband’s feelings
and complaints might be.
Given the way the media is portraying gray divorce on both sides of the
Pacific, this is no surprise.
This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle (2/18/06).