As she and her husband drove home after celebrating their 25th anniversary on the California coast, Tracy Bryan realized with a shock that being married to him was not how she wanted to grow old.
"We had grown and changed," said Bryan, now 53, whose divorce from her college sweetheart was final in 2008. "I changed what I wanted out of life."
As baby boomers approach retirement age looking forward to many more long, healthy years of life, the number of couples calling it quits after decades of marriage is on the rise.
Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers already have a divorce rate triple that of their parents. And now they're pioneering a new trend in splitting up: the so-called "gray divorce" phenomenon of couples going their separate ways after 20 or more years together.
Their parents were labeled the "Greatest Generation." Now some experts are calling baby boomers "the greatest divorcing generation."
As AARP California's Christina Clem says, the baby boom remains at the center of a huge cultural shift.
"Older people grew up in a time when they had no choice but to stick together to make it through life," said psychologist Becky Shook, president of Fairway Divorce Solutions in Sacramento, Calif. "Baby boomers come from a very independent, 'make my own way in the world' point of view."
Or to put it uncharitably, it's still all about them.
For the most part, it's older boomers who are keeping divorce alive, even while divorce rates are declining for those born in the early 1960s and later -- and even while the national divorce rate has dropped from a peak of 5.3 per 1,000 people in 1981 to 3.5 today, matching the 1970 rate.
Divorce soared just as the earliest boomers were coming of age: In a sense, it's part of their value system.
The Census Bureau, which has tracked divorce only in recent years, reports that in 2008, one-fourth of new divorces took place in people married at least 20 years. The same year, almost 51 percent of all divorced (but not remarried) people were in the baby boom age cohort, according to the bureau.
Marriage therapists and divorce lawyers alike report seeing more and more baby boomers in their offices, coping with the end of long-term marriages.
"When their kids leave the house, the transition into being alone together can be difficult," said Roseville, Calif. therapist Amy Ellis. "One partner typically thinks the marriage is fine when really, they were just focused on different things. There's a lot of infidelity in that age range, a lot of infidelity.
"In the baby boom generation in particular, there's the thought that you don't have a good marriage if you fight. One partner is silently suffering, and now they've gotten tired of that and broken trust."
On the other hand, many other couples simply evolve in different directions, like Al and Tipper Gore, who announced earlier this summer that they were divorcing after 40 years of marriage.
"Were we designed to be married to one person for 50 years?" said Hal Bartholomew, northern California president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "In the old days, people didn't live that long."
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