The idea of your parents or grandparents divorcing after decades of marriage is likely shocking, but worldwide the number of "silver splitters" is increasing - and Tauranga is no exception.

Rob Cooke, co-ordinator of a Divorce Care course at the city's Holy Trinity Church, says more than half the participants on the most recent course were people who had been married to their spouse for more than 30 years.

"They've grown up most of their lives with this person," Mr Cooke said. "They've got nothing else to compare with and they've been working towards spending their old age together.

"All of a sudden that dream is shattered and some of them are really shocked and need help and support to get through."

Advertisement

The Divorce Care programme has been running more than 10 years and Mr Cooke says during his six years of involvement, grey divorce has become much more prevalent.

He said one participant had been married 38 years - the longer the marriage's duration, the greater the impact on the person.

"When the separation occurs they're having to do things they haven't done before. Friends and family tend to go to one side or the other. They don't meet and associate with people they used to and, financially, they're having to sort themselves out."

Grey divorce often involves losing a family home into which each partner has put a great deal of effort.

"A lot of their dreams and memories are going with the sale of their house and they may have to live with something not as good as they were used to. Some of them have to find employment to help themselves."

Loneliness can also be greater among older divorced people - "the fact you've got no-one else there when you were expecting not to have to go out and find a mate", Mr Cooke said.

Nationwide, the divorce rate is declining, but despite this, statistics show the age at divorce is increasing.

In 2004, the median age at divorce in New Zealand was 41.7 years, but by last year, it had risen to 45.5 years.

Advertisement

Statistics NZ says the trend is partly attributable to a rise in the average age at marriage, which is now 31.5 years, but Mr Cooke says this does not apply to the baby boomers who do the 12-week Divorce Care course.

"Some of them got married at 16 and they're now in their late 50s or early 60s. Finding a new partner was not on the agenda."

In 1999, 7.8 per cent of marriages that ended in divorce were marriages of more than 30 years.

By last year, the figure had risen to 11.7 per cent, and 3 per cent of those were marriages of more than 40 years, according to Statistics NZ.

In the UK, the number of over-60s divorcing has increased by more than one-third in 10 years, and in the US, almost one-quarter of people experiencing divorce are over 50.

A Time magazine report says more than half of US grey divorces are couples in their first marriage.

Advertisement

The reasons for divorce among older couples vary. Overseas reports cite the influence of increasing financial independence among women, and both sexes living longer and deciding they cannot bear the thought of spending a long retirement with someone they do not love - or, at worst, despise.

"Sometimes it's mutual, sometimes one partner decides to move out," Mr Cooke said. "It happens in particular when children leave home - empty nest syndrome - and when you haven't got the constant focus of children, your relationship goes to a different basis."

It can also happen because one spouse meets a new partner, but whatever the reason, says Mr Cooke - who has been through the experience of divorce himself - the impact is immense.

"If you're dealing with death, there's a finality. You can actually have some closure there. With divorce, it's still open-ended."

Financially, divorce can also be a bigger blow later in life, with people standing to lose more in terms of money and property, and having less time and resources to rebuild wealth.

Tauranga family lawyer Ewan Eggleston says property division is always an issue in divorce, but splitting assets accumulated over decades rather than years can be particularly fraught, and the issue of unequal share is often raised when people divorce after long marriages.

Advertisement

He says the typical scenario is a breadwinner/caregiver situation in which the husband has had a good career while the wife has been disadvantaged by being out of the workforce for many years.

"She certainly would have available an argument to say things shouldn't be divided down the middle," Mr Eggleston said.

Those in the breadwinner situation may also be liable for spousal maintenance, requiring them to meet the caregiver's "reasonable needs" for a significant number of years and, in some cases, there can be contests about the worth of superannuation, particularly if it is already being paid out.

Another issue to arise is inheritance, as people of advanced age are more likely to have received property from family members by the time of separation.

If this money is not protected by trusts or prenuptial agreements, it falls into the relationship pool for division, and can potentially end up in the hands of future spouses.

The date of separation is a fourth issue with bearing on the distribution of relationship property.

Advertisement

For couples living in "the shell of a relationship", there can be divergent views about the date their relationship ended.

Mr Eggleston says people have successfully been able to argue their relationship was over a long time before they actually ceased living in the same house, and thereby deprive a former spouse of any property acquired after that date.

In such situations, lawyers are forced to embark on a "fact-based inquiry" to dissect the minutiae of the clients' lives, including asking questions about people's sex lives and when, for example, they last introduced each other as husband or wife, or took holidays together.

Mr Eggleston, who also has a degree in psychology, says even if a divorce begins amicably as a mutual agreement to separate, it still always involves severe emotional and financial fallout.

"I often say to clients, divorce is the most significant stressful event in one's life to work through," he said. "You don't take it for granted. It can be enormously fraught and enormously heated."

At 70, marriage 'was just mental abuse'

Sarah (not her real name) was married for 42 years before she finally left her husband.

Advertisement

She was almost 70 years old and, having tried to leave her unhappy marriage twice before, she vowed not to return a third time.

"It was just mental abuse," she says. "I'd had enough."

Sarah says she had become immune to her husband's verbal attacks and it wasn't until a friend condemned his labelling of her as a "stupid bitch" that she felt compelled to leave for good.

"I thought, 'I'm not going back there. It's my turn'," she says.

She says her decision was not without pity for her former husband because he was unwell, but in the 10 years she has been on her own, the Tauranga grandmother has not looked back. "It's lovely being single. It's a ton weight gone."

The 80-year-old enjoys the support of family and friends and is "never lonely", spending time with her daughter in Australia and her two adult grandsons in New Zealand.

Advertisement

She also cherishes the little things about living alone.

"I've got the remote to myself. He used to sit with the remote under his chin. When he was eating, he chomped ... I don't want to share my life with a man at 80. They snort and fart."

Her and her husband owned three businesses when they were married and after she left, they ended up in court. The divorce took two years and after their assets were split in half and their house sold she did not have enough money to buy another.

She has rented in the decade since and has been happy doing so, saying she has not found it financially difficult being divorced.

But she says the process was nasty and she relinquished more of their stuff than she would have liked because she did not want to endure years more of legal arguments. "It was easier to walk away."

Even though she made the move later in life, she has no regrets about leaving her spouse and urges anyone else stuck in an unhappy marriage to do the same - whatever their age.

Advertisement

"There's another life out there and it's a far better life," she says.

What do you think?

Have your say below or email

, go to our

, text 021 241 4568 BOP (message) or write to Private Bag 12002.

Response may be published.