The Korea Times 칼럼

황혼이혼: Twilight Divorce (2011년 6월 4일)

divicom 2011. 6. 5. 11:52

When he proposed to marry her after a few years of courting, she hesitated to say ``yes” not because she didn’t love him but because she didn’t know much about marriage. For him, the decision was easy as she was beautiful and bright enough to lighten the dark corners of his inner self. He thought she was the better half he hadn’t yet found and persuaded her night and day to be his wife.

His endeavor paid off and they tied the knot, yet living together in wedlock seemed to expose growing room for contention. Children were born like flowers in battlefield and their marriage could be sustained owing largely to the separation of labor between them: he made money through his hard work and she managed their four-member family as a devoted mother and housewife.

When he retired from his job involuntarily around their 32nd wedding anniversary, they were left with plenty of time to spend together for the first time in their lives. They thought they knew each other well, but the reality wasn’t quite what they had expected. She was too assertive for him to endure, let alone love. She didn’t like the way he interfered with her home management. Three years into his retirement, they now wonder if they will be able to remain married until death does them apart.

The couple showcases the decades-old relationship which tens of thousands men and women terminated last year. A total of 33,200 men in their 50s or older sought divorce in 2010 compared to 15,500 in 2000. For women in the same age group, the figure was 7,500 in 2000 and 20,900 in 2010. The rate of males over-50 divorcing more than doubled from 13 percent to 28.3 percent during the 10-year period. The increase was more conspicuous among women as divorcees aged 50 or over accounted for 17.8 percent of the female divorce last year from 6.3 percent in 2000.

Noteworthy is that ``twilight divorces” continue to increase despite an overall decrease in marriages ending. Last year, 117,000 divorces, 7,000 less than 2009, were finalized recording the lowest rate in 13 years. Though worldwide statistics on twilight divorce are not available, Korea is believed to register the fastest growth of marriage breakups among elderly people and few predict the trend will cease soon.

The primal cause of twilight divorce seems to be the psychological fatigue and repugnance women feel in male-dominated families. Until around the 1970s, women were not treated as equals in Korean society and such a tendency dies hard in some families. Governmental and private efforts have succeeded in eliminating social and legal discrimination against women to a great extent, yet democratic progress has been slow in some individual homes.

For more than a few men in their 50s and older, women are still regarded as the ``second sex” as the 20th century French philosopher-writer Simone de Beauvoir said and are forced to live in a way their men or the ``first sex” wish them to live. These men like obedient wives who don’t have opinions or don’t express them. They think tolerance and endurance are the most important requirements and assets of the female sex.

In the meantime, the socio-economic development and democratization of Korea dramatically changed women’s social status and their psyche. ``Mature women used to think that they should put up with their husbands’ conceit, but they no longer think so these days,” reasons Chung Mi-young, a counselor for senior citizens. The change of public attitude regarding twilight divorce is also an encouraging factor, she says. People don’t particularly blame older women for divorcing their opinionated husbands nowadays.

Since the first twilight divorce was granted by Korean courts in 2000 for a 78-year-old woman and her 92-year-old husband, such cases have been on the rise almost uninterrupted and the epidemic affects couples much younger than the first one.

Another factor fanning the late divorce is longevity. As people’s lifespan becomes longer, the time spent together increases for married couples. Aged Korean men usually spent their younger days working long hours outside the home, leaving all family affairs to their wives. They thought they were performing their roles as husband and father as long as they were good financial providers. It can’t be denied that their workaholic attitude contributed to the nation’s economic development, yet they have become guests in their own homes knowingly and unknowingly.

Retired and mostly unable to make money in the rigid labor market in the nation, the older men seem to fight two challenges at a time. They need to overcome the feeling of uselessness while sweating to learn to live as members of their own families.

The only way to save a marriage and all the headaches subsequent to ending it would be acknowledging by the changing circumstances and the frustration that they each face. It would be best if they could forget about the husband-wife thing and sympathize with their partners’ struggle to adapt to a new phase in life.


우리나라의 이혼율은 전반적으로 줄고 있는데 황혼이혼만 증가한다고 합니다. 첫번 째로 황혼이혼한 부부는 78세 아내와 92세의 남편이었지만 이제는 50대 부부의 이혼이 크게 늘고 있다고 합니다. 이혼의 이유는 무엇보다 변하지 않는 남편의 의식입니다. 젊어서부터 아내를 업수이여기던 버릇이 나이들도록 계속되면서 아내들의 인내심이 바닥나는 겁니다.


나라의 민주화와 경제발전과 더불어 사회적, 법적으로는 남녀차별이 많이 줄어들었지만 가정에서는 그와 같은 개선이 이루어지지 않은 경우가 많습니다. 아내의 의식은 사회적 변화에 맞추어 변했지만 남편은 여전히 자신이 청춘기를 보낸 시절의 가치관을 고집하는 일이 적지 않습니다.


지금 중년을 넘긴 남편들은 대개 밖에서 열심히 일해 가족을 부양하면 남편 노릇, 아버지 노릇을 잘 한 거라고 생각하며 살았습니다. 하루에 12시간 넘게 일하며 가족을 부양한 남편들도 많습니다. 하루의 대부분을 회사 일에 보내다보면 집에선 손님 노릇을 하게 되는 일이 흔했지만 괘념치 않았습니다. 그런데 쉰 살 넘어 은퇴하여 집에 들어앉으니 아내와도 자녀와도 대화가 되지 않는 것입니다. 남편은 그대로인데 다른 가족들은 그새 다 변해버린 겁니다.


남편은 자신이 사회에서도 집에서도 쓸모없는 사람이 되었다는 자괴감과 싸우며 어떻게 해야 가족의 일원으로 복귀할 수 있을까 고심하지만 그것은 쉬운 일이 아닙니다. 자신을 바꾸려 하지 않는 남편이 있는가 하면, 바꾸려 해보려다 포기하는 남편도 있습니다. 남편이 노력하면 대개의 아내들은 기다려주지만 노력하려 하지 않는 남편을 기다리는 아내는 없습니다. 그렇게 황혼이혼의 주인공이 됩니다.


또 한 가지 이유는 늘어난 수명입니다. 수명이 길어지면서 함께 보내는 시간이 늘어나 갈등이 자꾸 표면화되는 겁니다. 작년에 이혼한 50세 이상 남자는 33,200명이나 되었습니다. 2000년에는 15,500명이었으니 두 배가 넘습니다. 또래 여성들의 이혼도 2000년 7,500명에서 2010년엔 20,900명으로 늘었습니다. 


노화는 남자에게나 여자에게나 낯설고 괴로운 경험입니다. 그 어느 때보다 남편과 아내의 사랑과 위로가 필요한 시기가 노년입니다. 끝없이 스스로를 변화시키며 상대가 처한 상황을 이해하려고 노력하는 것, 그것만이 황혼이혼과 그것이 야기하는 복잡한 일들을 피할 수 있게 하는 열쇠일 것 같습니다.