Netflix has now put out the first episodes of the last season for “Grace and Frankie.” A highlight in the long and storied careers of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, the show follows the fictional characters Grace (played by Fonda) and Frankie (played by Tomlin) as they form an unlikely friendship.
In season one, their husbands confessed that they were gay and had had affairs with each other over the 30 years they’d been married to the two women. Mere acquaintances up to now, Grace and Frankie find themselves suddenly bonded by the betrayal of their husbands and their new status as single women in their 70s.
In the final season, Grace is remarried to the wealthy and charming Nick (played by Peter Gallagher). It’s with this second marriage that the show challenges the narrative that marriage, by default, benefits women.
“I don’t think I’m interested in being a wife anymore,” Grace says to Nick.
Having been granted a new lease on love at 80, Grace is unhappy with the constraints she now sees conventional marriage placing on that love. Yes, she has a younger, handsome husband. Yes, he adores her. But in the years since her divorce, Grace has developed a deeper friendship with Frankie. They’ve spent the last six years living in a beach house together, starting a business that helps other women their age and writing their own rules for growing old.
Grace has lived free. More and more older women in America are doing the same, choosing to stay single instead of reentering an institution whose costs they see as too high.
Although Grace’s second marriage comes without the burden of child rearing or the lion’s share of domestic duties, being Nick’s wife immediately requires her to perform the role in the same way as marriage had the first time. She enjoys living with her best friend Frankie, but she’s expected to move in with her husband. He assumes that she will compromise on the growth of her business to appease him. He isn’t forthcoming about financial misdeeds, and when the consequences of his actions create trouble for Grace, she is shamed into standing by him and putting her own feelings of betrayal aside.
With Nick, she has gained a husband but lost the parts of herself she was finally able to access after eight decades on Earth.
Having a gay husband who left her for the love of his life was humbling. However, as she settled into her new life with Frankie, Grace came to appreciate the ending of that marriage. She and Frankie formed a family of two, using each other’s strengths to offset their weaknesses. They are able to pour into themselves while still being responsible for each other in ways women often struggle to do in romantic partnerships with men.
It was Frankie who told Grace to stop trying to force herself into the role that previously hadn’t ended well for either of them. At their age, weren’t they entitled to negotiate a relationship on their own terms? Why were they required to do a romantic relationship in any specific way just because they had found love again?
Watching Grace grapple with what she thought would be a different iteration of heterosexual partnership has been intriguing. She married the first time largely out of societal pressure and her children have spent much of the show’s run reminding her that she wasn’t a very involved mother. And here she is, having chosen to marry a man who really did sweep her off her feet.
Now, she wants to be put back down on solid ground — to stand next to her friend, to go back to living free.
According to the Pew Research Center, Grace is not alone. While divorce rates for middle-aged and younger couples have declined since the 1990s, it has tripled for women Grace’s age. Sixty-six percent of divorces in the 65-plus age bracket are initiated by women. Watching Grace go from giddy girlfriend to beleaguered wife in less than six months hints at why many of these women who were raised to value marriage are going back to the courthouse to sign a different document.
Yes, staying married is a better financial decision for many of these women. In exchange for their emotional labor and time taken from advancing their own careers to care for children, marriage promises a husband’s pension, a paid off mortgage, a nice nest egg in old age. However, hiding in that 66% are women who felt the cost of that exchange had always been too high. Now that divorce is no longer taboo, they’ve chosen not to wait for death to free them from their marital contracts.
I’ve chosen to remain single for 46 years in part because of what men (and women) said was required of me if a man chose me as his wife. A woman is expected to wrap her life around her man’s well before even discussing a wedding ceremony. I concluded long ago that going back to my own home after spending quality time with a boyfriend was better for long-term peace than living with a husband and raising his children. Many women of my generation figured this out. Thankfully, we were gifted with a world that made such a thing — an adult life that didn’t require a husband’s signature — possible.
Boomer women like Grace have come out of 30-year marriages no longer willing to downplay the work and sacrifice required of them. Within that 66% of senior divorcees are women who have lived the life they were supposed to live. Now, they want to spend their remaining years as committed to themselves as they had been to their marriages.
“I don’t want to end our relationship,” Grace says as she tries to ease Nick’s anxieties. “I just don’t think it’s necessary for us to be married.”
She wants her life back — the one where she determines how she will spend her days and who she spends them with.
She has been a wife. Now, she wants to be herself.