Lifestyle & Belief

In India, divorce among the elderly is on the rise

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An elderly woman reads in the lobby of an old-age home in New Delhi.

Credit:

Manpreet Romana

MUMBAI, India — The profile reads like many others: Vegetarian Hindu seeks Gujarati-speaking non-smoker to be life partner. Interests include traveling and old Hindi songs.

But unlike most men on Indian remarriage sites, this bachelor is 73.

Another profile says the woman is a divorced Bohra Muslim. She’s 4'5", a Gemini, and her “About me” section on Secondshaadi.com reads: “Fat woman. Understanding. U can be fat or slim. No problem. Have to earn lakhs [1 lakh equals $2,200].”

This candidate for love — and lakhs — is 90.

Over the past couple decades India has seen divorce become more and more common among young, urban couples. Now, even elderly couples are doing what was once considered unthinkable: saying goodbye to their spouses after decades of marriage and moving on.

“People are no longer willing to stay in relationships that have collapsed,” said Mumbai-based lawyer Amit Karkhanis. He said his law practice has seen a steady increase in divorce cases, which now includes elderly couples.

Changing attitudes in urban India along with the growing independence of women has led to this increase in divorce among older couples, say divorce lawyers, social workers and sociologists.

In the past, husbands and especially wives were expected to put up with undesirable behavior and “adjust” for the sake of the family.

“It was considered a virtue to be able to adjust and forgo and give up individual desires, wants, needs and instead to be able to cater to the requirements of the other,” said sociologist G. K. Karanth with the Institute for Social and Economic Change.

Couples did not divorce even in troubling or abusive situations because the act would bring shame to the person, his or her family and their entire lineage.

Pratibha Gheewalla used to work as a marriage counselor at Mumbai’s Family Court and said she almost never saw elderly couples divorce in the 1970s and 1980s.

Couples feared a divorce would bring stigma to their family and ruin the marriage prospects for their daughters, she said. A prospective son-in-law’s family would not want to take in the daughter of a broken home.

Urban society no longer views divorce as humiliating and shameful, and people are therefore more willing to let it happen, Karanth said.

This has led to couples whose marriages fell apart decades ago now ending their union.

“These are the people who had a need to divorce 20 years ago but then societal pressures were such that maybe they held it back,” he said. “Now they see everyone else going ahead with it, and they say, ‘What the hell, why don’t I go for it.’ ”

Karanth said children also no longer exert pressure on their parents to stay together as they may have grown up and moved away, no longer living in a joint family.

Older couples even look at the young living their lives as they choose and “want to capture that youth,” divorce lawyer Srikumar Boodgur told the Indian Express.

The change in social attitudes can be attributed to the influence of outside ideas and cultures as well as the role of the media, Gheewalla said.

Television series include the topic of divorce, and newspapers and magazines cover the separations and divorces of celebrities.

Last week’s Times of India included a pullout called “Divorce after a decade!” It explored the love difficulties of foreign celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver as well as Indian ones like divorced Bollywood actors Saif Ali Khan and Amrita Singh.

Another factor many attribute to the higher divorce rate is the change in status and education level of India’s women. As more women work and gain financial and social independence, they have the ability and mindset to end broken marriages, said marriage counselor Madhavi Desai as she sat in her office at the Family Court. Laminated posters decorate her wall with lists like, “Rules for a happy marriage.”

Desai said the changes in women’s expectations and attitudes have led to a disparity with those of men, whose views on what makes a good wife remain much the same.

Compared to the west, divorce in India is still rare. Experts say 11 in every 1,000 marriages in India end in divorce, whereas the rate in the United States is about 400 in every 1,000.

And among the elderly, the number of divorces may be increasing but the phenomenon is just beginning. Given how rare divorce has been among the elderly, statistics from Mumbai’s Family Court group everyone “above 40” in one age bracket.

And yet, many say that now that geriatric divorce is here, it will only become more prevalent.

“Divorce at a later age is here to stay,” said Vandana Shah, the Mumbai-based editor of India’s divorce magazine Ex Files. “This is a phase that India will have to go through.”

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