All the single ladies: Why more women over 50 are going solo and loving it

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After 20 years of marriage and decades of hands-on mothering, Karen Avallone was not in a rush to go back into a romantic relationship, having separated from her husband at the age of 50.

“When it ended, I found myself very much back at the beginning again; even though I’d gone into my marriage with property and a successful career, my confidence had been stripped from me throughout that,” she says.

Karen Avallone, 56, came out of a long marriage at the age of 50 and was in no rush to re-partner.Credit: Simon Schluter

“When I came out the other side, I was quite determined that until I’d rediscovered myself, who I was, I wasn’t prepared to have anyone in my life … until I felt I was ‘me’ again.”

As the median age at which Australians are divorcing continues to increase, and nearly one-third of divorces now occur among those aged 50-plus, Avallone is among a demographic in which women, especially, say being single has “a positive or very positive impact on their life”, according to new data.

More women than men in the ranks of Australian divorcees aged 50-plus say they are satisfied with partner-free life, CoreData research shows, and just over half of divorced or separated women in this age-group say they would prefer to stay single.

After becoming single, Avallone moved back to the beach-side Melbourne suburb she’d lived in as a younger woman, formed new networks in the community by turning up alone to neighbourhood events, and spent time “doing activities that I’d given my kids the opportunity to do, that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do”.

“By the time two years were over, I came out quite strong within myself and ready to explore things,” says the mother of two.

Once lockdowns ended, Avallone, a buyer’s advocate, travelled overseas alone twice and walked the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory.

“I didn’t feel like I needed to have a partner, and I certainly didn’t want to fall into the same situation I’d been in before. I think I was quite successful at rediscovering me.”

The CoreData research, commissioned as part of a series by Australian Seniors, found that as stigma around divorce continues to decrease, more than half (55 per cent) of divorced or separated people over 50 are satisfied singles, but this is more common among women (61 per cent) than men (47 per cent).

More than half (52 per cent) of women said they would prefer to stay single, compared with about a third (36 per cent) of men; one reason for this being that “healing and recovery” is seen as a key benefit among more than one-third of women (about one-fifth of men).

The findings – from a representative, national sample of 1240 people 50 and older, collected in August – accord with academic research suggesting men benefit more from marriage, says psychologist Carly Dober, director of the Australian Association of Psychologists.

“This really doesn’t shock me; when you think about traditional heteronormative relationships, these women typically are leaving feeling relief and freedom, and not feeling that desire to re-partner because the emotional and mental load in the relationship was so skewed,” she said.

“The data shows men benefit from marriages – in their physical and mental health – irrespective of if they [marriages] are healthy or not, but this doesn’t benefit women … those women [in the study] may not know the data, but they’re living it.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2023 show the median age of divorce in Australia continues to trend upward to 46.7 in 2022 for men and 43.7 for women.

While divorce rates for other age groups have declined since the 1990s, they are increasing for men aged 50 years and older, and women 45 and older.

Australian Institute of Families Studies data shows couples who had been married for 20 years or more made up more than one-quarter of divorces in 2021, up from around 20 per cent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Karen Avallone said time single had helped her return to a strong sense of self.Credit: Simon Schluter

Nick Tebbey from Relationships Australia said the finding that women are more likely to be content single after midlife divorce correlated with his organisation’s research.

“[Our] research points to there being a more diverse, and perhaps healthier relationship ecosystem for women than for men,” he said.

“Women may come out of separation and find they still have quite a healthy and strong network of friends, and often it’s mothers who have closer relationships with their adult children than fathers do.

“Research shows that they [women] potentially feel they still have a full set of relationships around them without an intimate partner by their side.”

Men and women aged over 50 also realised stigma around divorcing had abated, and were more prepared to do what they felt was right for them, Tebbey said.

“We are seeing that trend towards older people whose children have moved out of home reassessing things and more prepared to call time on relationships … the [CoreData] research is certainly borne out in what we’re seeing through our services.”

It found contributing factors to “grey divorce” included empty nest syndrome , financial pressures and retirement.

More than a third of those surveyed felt divorce and separation were becoming more acceptable and that there had been increased expectations of marriage, compared with previous generations, something family lawyer, Michael Tiyce said he had also noticed.

“This is a trend that we certainly foresee maintaining if not increasing,” he said. “Previously there was a real stigma around singlehood that created a real pressure not only for people to pursue marriage but to stick in one regardless of how happy it is.

“Marriage was a true marker of success, however, now with both parties in a marriage more able to pursue career, education and life experience goals … people aren’t settling for sticking together in a partnership that isn’t working.”

More than two in five older Australians (41 per cent) had been divorced or separated, many citing falling out of love, feeling under-appreciated and infidelity as the main causes for relationship breakdown.

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