The news that the battered and bruised institution of marriage has apparently received the kiss of life – especially among those aged over 65 – was greeted with enthusiasm last week; everybody loves the cheer of wedding bells and a sprinkling of confetti. Matrimony is at its strongest for a generation.
According to figures published by Britain’s Office for National Statistics, marriage in 2012 was up 5%, the highest total in any year since 2004 and older men and women, the silver splicers, are especially enthusiastic. It’s never too late to say, “I do”. The number of grooms in their late sixties increased by 25% (2011-12) while brides of the same age went up by 21%. One in 10 had been single, two-thirds divorced, and the rest widowed before tying the knot. So what’s going on?
Over the last couple of hundred years, for women marriage has moved through several guises. First, it was a matter of “I must” so a girl had to make the transition from her father’s house to her husband’s household, as a wife. Next came “I ought to” because of society’s expectations, notions of respectability and the fear of spinsterhood. This was followed in the 50s by “I want to” as individualism, the independence of the wage-earning woman and consumerism took hold. Finally – or so it seemed for marriage – we arrived at the 60s, feminism, liberation, and, for many, a resounding “I don’t” as divorce soared along with cohabitation while church weddings waned.
Now those same baby boomer firebrands who set a torch to the “bourgeois institution” and orange blossom appear to have had a change of mind. Or have they? “It’s not the percentage increase that counts but what proportion of the total number of men and women in this age group are getting married,” says Professor Sara Arber, co-director of the Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender at the University of Surrey, who has made studies into older people and relationships.
“Then, you have to consider that men marry women who are much younger,” she says. (The playwright Tom Stoppard, 76, married 59-year-old Sabrina Guinness, the brewery heiress, last month.) “For a woman over 65”, adds Arber, “there is a 10,000 to one chance of marriage and for a man the odds fall to a thousand to one.” And she adds, in her research, some widows and divorcees wouldn’t want the odds any other way. “Widows in our research often told us, ‘I’m sorry he’s gone but now it’s really quite nice’.” Our research indicates a lot of older people prefer living apart together to remarriage. The women say, ‘I don’t have to watch the World Cup. I don’t have to wash his socks. I can see my friends whenever I want. I like having a companion, but I don’t need someone to look after. I don’t want to be a housekeeper again.’ It’s about freedom.”
According to Age UK, 10.8 million people were over 65 in 2012; a year when 800,000 celebrated their 65th birthday. Among men in their late 60s, 3,520 became bridegrooms; among women 1,990 became brides. While the percentage rise is significant, the numbers are small. However, given that there will be 20 million over 65s by 2031, a tiny show of wedding bunting, at this stage, could yet turn into yards of the stuff relatively soon.
So what’s driving the change?
Practicality is one answer. Marriage sorts out pensions and avoids a 40% inheritance tax for a surviving affluent partner who has cohabited for several decades. Longevity is another. People are living longer and healthier lives. But Dr Kate Davidson, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender and co-author of Intimacy in Later Life, says what should not be forgotten, even for octogenarians, is the power of love. “Older men and women who had embarked on a new relationship made such poignant remarks to us as, ‘I’ve lost weight just with the energy of thinking about her all the time.’ And ‘I had terrible butterflies. I thought I had stomach problems but I realised I was in love.’ They never thought they would feel like that again, and it was lovely.”
Davidson’s research shows that, in repartnering in later life, men seek a resumption of a private life; women seek a public life. “Men want someone to come home to, women want someone to go out with. Divorced women often say they are in their mellow years now and they hope to find a mellow man. Widows tend to remarry widowers, often someone they have known for years. Widowed men marry women, single, widowed and divorced.”
Across the classes, older women seek a man who has health and wealth (one in five pensioners, says Age UK, is in financial difficulties, most of them women); men seek a woman with good health – wealth is irrelevant – so they don’t end up as carers.
Now retired, Davidson says she used to tell her students the story of a wealthy man of 75 who married a divorced woman in her early 60s. “Botox, gym twice a week, a dish. ‘How did you get someone so scrumptious?’ his friends asked. ‘I lied about my age’,” he replied. ‘I told her I was 90.’
“Relationships in later life are about motivation, desirability and availability.If you meet on a cruise and you live in Exeter and he lives in Newcastle that’s a challenge.”
Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb of the Open University have just completed a two-year project, Enduring Love funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. A book, Couple Relationships in the 21st Century, is published next year. “Couples who divorce and marry later in life often have a better sense of who they are and what they want from a relationship,” Fink says.
“What matters is good communication and thoughtful gestures; a cup of tea in bed in the mornings. Couples of sixties-plus see a much longer term future for themselves; it’s another adventure to be had in life.”
Denise Knowles, a Relate counsellor, says older couples have more time, some have more money and no longer have childcare commitments, they are free from the stress of work, but there are still rocks in the lagoon of love – for one, the reactions of grown-up children. “Some daughters and sons are happy for a parent. They are realistic, if there’s a partner it may ease the burden of care on them later in life.
“Others are concerned about inheritance, so wills have to be carefully thought through. In 24 years as a counsellor I’ve seen so many manifestations of what holds a couple together, including toy boys. Today we are seeing a huge diversity in what makes relationships work.”
In The Anatomy of Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher inelegantly referred to the impact of the baby boomers travelling through society, “like a pig moving through a python – visibly changing culture as they grow older”. However annoying, now the 60-plus generation may be turning the institution initially established to protect property, forge alliances and procreate, into something customised and private. One that offers the possibility of contentment and companionship in older age that, in these material times, can’t be bought at any price.
For better or worse, Crimplene and cocoa is not for them. Relationship therapistChristina Fraser of Coupleworks, sees hope and energy in that. “The baby boomers have a curiosity about life. They want a chance to stave off decay, have fun and enjoy sex. Men dye their hair, women have Botox, and they can all wear jeans in their seventies.
“When they get married, they say, I’m doing it again and this time I’m going to get it right. They want to reinvent older age, but not just as youth reworked.”
In my case, next week, aged 65 and after 25 years of cohabiting, we celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Touch wood, and hopefully happily ever after, it’s more of the same.
Originally posted: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/15/why-over-65s-have-fallen-for-marriage