Lee So-yeon was shocked last year when her mother told her she was considering a divorce. The 31-year-old had thought her parents were a happy couple, although she had rarely spent time with them since she moved out about five years prior.
“My mother said after my brother and I moved out, she and my father had not much to share in life,” she told The Korea Herald. “She said raising us was pretty much their only ‘joint mission.’ Now that it was over, she said she wanted be on her own and explore what else is out there.”
Lee’s parents are among the growing number of South Korea’s married couples getting divorced after spending more than 20 years together.
According to Statistics Korea, the proportion of such couples accounted for 30 percent of all divorced Korean couples last year. In 2012, such couples made up just 26.4 percent.
The same trend was noticed by the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations. While only 26 Koreans in their 70s visited the center in hopes to get divorced in 2004, the number of such elderly individuals increased dramatically to 325 in 2014.
Kim Young-ran, a researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, said the statistics is a result of many different cultural and social changes in Korean society.
“Koreans in the age range of their 50s and 60s tend to feel they deserve personal happiness more than those who are younger (and are busy raising children),” she told The Korea Herald. “It definitely has to do with raising their children. Once their grown children get married, they feel their responsibility as a parent is over. And they no longer feel they have to stay with their spouses, as they feel their children no longer need their parents to be together.”
Kim pointed out that Korean marriages tend to focus on children’s needs rather than on marital happiness. “We are so used to fathers earning money for children’s education while mothers are taking care of them and making sure they go to the right school, get a decent job and marry the right person,” she said. “Once those jobs are over, they are left with their spouses -- whom they hardly spent time with while raising their children. Most men spend most of their time at work, while mothers spend time with their children at home.”
Lee So-yeon said she was shocked at first, but now wants to support her mother’s decision. Growing up, she spent most of her time with her mother, as her father was busy at work, even on weekends. Lee said she never thought of it as something unusual, as most of her friends didn’t get to spend much time with their fathers, either.
“I guess I never really thought of my mother as a wife, and my father as a husband,” she said. “They were wonderful as parents. But I wouldn’t really fully understand what they were like as someone’s spouse, and I’m learning to accept that. Right now I just want both of them to be happy.”
The reasons for the rise in elderly divorce rate also stem from a deeper issue of distorted gender roles and abuse, according to Cho Kyung-ae, a legal counsellor at the KLACFR. Citing a closed court document, she said more women in their 60s and 70s file for divorce than their male counterparts.
The legal expert in family law said many women in the age group have said they endured long-term abuse for the sake of their children, as it was more difficult for single mothers to raise children in the 1970s and 80s.
As of 2012, 83 percent of all single parents here never received any child support from the non-custodial parents. Failure to pay child support has not been considered a crime in Korea.
“Things were different in their times,” she said. “It was very difficult for divorced women to get jobs, and the stigma against divorcees and their children were severe. So they needed to stay with their husbands to finance their children’s needs, especially the cost of education and weddings. Their husbands were their only source of income for themselves and their children.”
She said on top of physical abuse, many elderly women she spoke to experienced financial and emotional abuse from their husbands for a long time. One of the women Cho spoke to said her husband would control how all of the money in the house is spent, and would not give her any “allowance” whenever he did not like the meals she prepared for him.
Another woman had a husband who would check the refrigerator every night once returning home. “He’d check to make sure the fridge is clean and filed with the right food,” Cho said. “If he did not like what he saw, he’d yell and say things like, ‘You are not even making any money. And you can’t even keep a single fridge clean’?” Other women who visited the center also told Cho that they were body shamed by their husbands for a period of long time, often being called “fat and ugly.”
Cho said she also witnessed many men in their 60s and 70s who were clueless why their wives wanted a divorce. “Many would say ‘all I did was work hard to support my family,’” she said. “Many don’t realize what they’d been doing for a long time can be in fact considered as abusive behavior.”
The legal expert said more elderly women are filing for divorce because for some of them, it’s the only way to be financially independent. “They just want a court order that asks for division of assets and property,” she said. “This way they can avoid having to ask their husbands for money all the time. One of the women I spoke to said now that she doesn’t need her husband’s money for her children, she wants to live with dignity.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org