Gray Divorce: New Research Reveals a Surprising Increase

Gray Divorce: New Research Reveals a Surprising Increase

“I can’t remember the last time I slept without you. I know I’ve done it but I… I can’t remember.”

—Frankie Bergstein, from the TV series Grace and Frankie

For America’s population 50 years of age and older, some might assume marriage is smooth sailing. After all, by this age, a couple has been through just about everything, and they have come out on the other side wiser, more dedicated, and more resilient. Right?

Perhaps. But new research also reveals a somewhat surprising trend: not only is the divorce rate among this group increasing, it has doubled since the ‘90s. And for those 65 and older, the divorce rate has tripled.

According to a study released by Pew Research earlier this month, gray divorce is on the rise, “linked in part to the aging of the Baby Boomers, who now make up the bulk of this age group.”

“During their young adulthood,” says the study, “Baby Boomers had unprecedented levels of divorce. Their marital instability earlier in life is contributing to the rising divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older today since remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages. The divorce rate for adults ages 50 and older in remarriages is double the rate of those who have only been married once.”

However, a share of gray divorces do occur among couples who have been in longer-term marriages, for instance, marriages lasting 30 years or more.

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“Among all adults 50 and older who divorced in the past year,” the study continues, “about a third (34%) had been in their prior marriage for at least 30 years, including about one-in-ten (12%) who had been married for 40 years or more.”

So why this increase? “Research indicates that many later-life divorcees have grown unsatisfied with their marriages over the years and are seeking opportunities to pursue their own interests and independence for the remaining years of their lives,” according to the study.

The increasing trend can be problematic. Divorcing later in life tends to mean less financial stability (among women especially) and decreased well-being for those living alone. And it has a significant impact on a couple’s adult children and extended family members.

“Parent–adult child relationship dynamics often change following parental marital dissolution,” according to The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010.

“Divorced older adults no longer have a spouse on whom to rely and are likely to place greater demands on their children for social support,” says the study.“And, children may be called on to serve as caregivers in lieu of a spouse. The strain of such intense obligations may weaken intergenerational ties. Indeed, the limited research to date suggests that parent–adult children relationships suffer following parental divorce, as indicated by decreased interaction and relationship quality, especially among divorced fathers and their adult children.”

The study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, also cited more far-reaching issues for those divorcing later in life. Specifically, divorcing later in life may place burdens on society at large, as divorced individuals are sometimes forced to turn to institutional sources of support (rather than to their families).

According to the research, “A decline in economic well-being following divorce would suggest a greater reliance on public rather than private forms of support, possibly meaning a rise in Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income usage by older adults. Indeed, a recent study indicates that unmarried baby boomers are four times as likely to be poor and twice as likely to have disabilities as married boomers. Thus, the rise in later life divorce is likely to have wide-reaching consequences that may require coordinated responses through public health or policy initiatives.”

But, for those considering gray divorce, a little perspective: these divorce rates are still much lower than those of younger married couples.

“Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35,” according to the 2014 study, Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980-2010.

The divorce rate for those younger than 50 remains about twice as high as their older counterparts, though the trend seems to be stabilizing.

“Among the youngest couples,” continues the study, “divorce rates are stable or declining. If current trends continue, overall age-standardized divorce rates could level off or even decline over the next few decades.”

So as divorce rates among certain age groups continue to climb, drop, or level out, one thing is clear: divorce doesn’t have nearly the stigma it once did. And it doesn’t have to be catastrophic, either — even for those who end their marriages later in life.

British novelist Margaret Drabble refers to life after divorce “the third age.” Given the new lease on life we see among those who begin again (even after age 50), we tend to agree.

In the words of the recently divorced TV character Frankie Bergstein, quoted at the outset, starting over can be liberating.

“It is good, isn’t it? When you left, I thought my life was over,” she says. “I can’t sleep in that big ****ing bed without him. But I did it. And now I love having that bed to myself, it’s fantastic. I sleep in a giant X! You know what this means? I’m OK, and I’m going to be OK.”

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