Indian ‘silver’ divorces rise, with couples more like ‘roommates than soul mates’
- Fed up of arguing and putting themselves last, many Indians, often women, are opting for ‘silver’ divorces in later life, even if their families do not like it
- ‘I have less money but peace of mind’ seems a common refrain, with experts saying it is healthier to split up than to constantly fight
Arti Krishnan*, 50, a Bangalore travel industry professional, left her husband during the pandemic after 30 years of marriage. With two grown daughters who took their father’s side, she nevertheless decided to take the plunge after decades living with a controlling mother-in-law and a partner who put his mum before his wife.
“I compromised for many years as I had married young and did not even realise I had the freedom to make choices for myself,” she said.
She tried to “please everyone” and also put a lot of energy into her career “as it gave me an outlet”. She always felt unappreciated and was exhausted trying so hard to make the marriage work. When she stopped trying, it “unravelled”.
She is now divorced and lives alone in a small apartment “with less wealth but more peace of mind. I want my daughters to understand someday, that if they are in a relationship and unhappy, they always have a choice to make it better and if that fails, they should choose their happiness”.
‘Silver’ divorces, or ‘grey’ divorces, refer to later-in-life separations of couples aged 50 or above. It is a trend increasing in several countries including Australia, Britain, the US and, more recently, in India.
Amita Patel, 65, a software specialist in the city of Pune in western India, said it was “ironic” that after the kids had “flown the nest, finances are better and couples have the time to rediscover each other, that becomes the time when some actually call it quits”. She divorced her husband, who was unfaithful throughout their three decades together, last year.
Many couples find they are more “like roommates than soul mates” and many adult children who have too often seen their parents argue are happier when they separate.
Deirdre Bair, for her 2007 book ‘Calling It Quits: Late-life Divorce and Starting Over’, conducted nearly 400 interviews with couples and their adult children and found that women often initiate the breakups.
One lady in her 80s, married for 53 years, woke up after surgery and told her husband she did not want to spend her last few years with him.
She is far from being the only woman to have such thoughts. While India’s divorce rate is only around one per cent, a United Nations’ report called ‘Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020’ found rates had doubled in the country over the past 20 years.
Men are also unhappy, including Rakesh Batra*, 64, from Mumbai, whose 35-year marriage ended in divorce in 2019. But he was “not scared of walking alone into my sunset years” as it meant he no longer had to “toe her line” and not socialise or pursue his hobbies. “You have only one life” is not just a mantra for millennials, he added.
Chennai based Shweta Kumar*, 60, also divorced after 35 years of marriage. She said living standards might plummet and you may be “an outcast with your own family” but “you come to realise you do not want to spend the next 30-40 years in an unhappy union”.
She said so much bickering and arguments were draining. “He is terribly materialistic and I am more spiritual and introspective. The children are abroad and are fine with our decision. I am able to wake up with a smile, and that alone makes it all worth it.”
Of course, living with constant conflict damages both physical and mental health. Robert J. Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in the US, was involved in a long-term study of 724 American men interviewed annually about their work, home life and health. The study began in 1938 and ran for 79 years.
In a viral 2015 TED Talk Waldinger said good relationships “keep us happier and healthier” and high-conflict marriages “turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced”. On the other hand, he said, “warm and close” relationships can “buffer” people from the problems associated with getting old.
Kamna Chhibber, a consultant psychologist and therapist in northern India’s city of Gurgaon, said couples were increasingly aware of the need to prioritise the individual, “unlike the past where the emphasis was always on societal norms and what the family expected”.
Now, she said, there is “greater acceptance” that if an individual’s needs are consistently not met “or they are in a space of increasing conflict or becoming disengaged and disconnected”, it is better to part, even if they are older.
Although it is generally the educated/affluent getting divorced, finances still need to be navigated. But Chhibber said “an openness and flexibility has come into the conversation, driven by many factors. Couples in their 50s and 60s have younger people in the work space and have these important conversations about seeking out your own happiness”. She said many couples actually support one another, divorcing “but still managing to be friends”.
So, how does the Indian legal system deal with all of this? In part, by trying to keep people together, at least at first. Rajesh Rai, a lawyer at the Supreme Court in New Delhi, said a family court in a contested divorce of an elderly couple “tries to persuade the parties to reconcile their differences”, referring them to counsellors or mediators.
Dates for hearings are delayed “with the intent that they (the couple) may reconsider their decision”. But, he said, when they are very sure, the process begins. He said if both husband and wife want to split up, it is best to apply for a mutual consent divorce.
Krishnan, the Bangalore travel professional, said even her own mother did not help her much during her divorce. “Indian society is still all about patriarchy and parents are also strangely part of the legitimisation where the onus is on the woman to make a marriage work.” But, she added, her female friends, her sister-in-law and other women did support her in her decision.
*Names have been changed