Due to the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, “gray divorces” are spiraling. One out of every four divorces are people over the age of 50. In 2010, there were over 643,000 divorces. By 2030, this number will rise to approximately 828,000. This startling rise in the dissolution of marriages is alarming and should be a wake-up call to our political leaders to address this problem.
Why Should We as a Society Worry about the Tidal Wave of “Gray Divorces”?
That’s the question Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D. explores in her new book Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits (January 2018, University of California Press). She spoke with 40 men and 40 women, who had gone through a gray divorce, asking them questions such as why they got a divorce, how their finances were affected by the divorce, and how their social relationships changed. Crowley tells their personal stories about how their lives were completely transformed in the aftermath of their gray divorces.
Crowley’s interest in gray divorce came from her childhood, where she spent a lot of time with her grandparents. They were married for 68 years! They loved each other, but that did not mean that their marriage was perfect. Yet, never once did they consider a divorce. Coming across these modern statistics on gray divorce made her want to study this phenomenon more deeply.
Men and women in her study offered some of the same reasons for getting divorced in mid-life, such as growing apart, infidelity—one woman stated that she found a hotel receipt “for the Oriental Fantasy suite…at 11:00 o’clock on a Tuesday morning and I’m quite certain I wasn’t there at the time”—and mental health issues. But Crowley also found that there were differences between the sexes when they explained the causes of their divorces as well, with men complaining about “how things were done in the household” such as managing finances and disciplining children, and women objecting more to men’s “bad behaviors,” such as addictions and many types of abuse.
The most important findings are that women face an “economic gray divorce penalty” while men face a “social gray divorce penalty” when they split up in mid-life. For women, finances become a challenge when they divorce in mid-life because they often spend more time taking care of children rather than working regularly outside the home when they are younger and lack a livable income in their older years. Men, on the other hand, lose many of their social relationships after a gray divorce because friends and adult children often tend to side with their ex-wives, who may have kept these relationships going when they were married. Yet, changes in public policies, such as an improved Social Security system and better retirement savings options for women, and funding for social support groups for men, can help both sexes recover from their gray divorces.
Stressing that mid-life couples do not easily throw away their marriages, and it’s a crisis or a chronic relationship stressor that finally pushes them to the divorce decision, Crowley is optimistic about their future. Although she believes that public policy action is needed to address the growing needs of the “gray divorced” population, these mid-life splitting couples had hope about moving forward with their lives and that gave Crowley hope in telling their stories.
Actress Melanie Griffith, 58 years old, divorced Antonio Banderas, 55 years old, after almost two decades of marriage.
Blockbuster movie star Harrison Ford, 61 years old, divorced Melissa Mathison, 53 years old, after 20 years of marriage.
Actor/Director Mel Gibson, 55 years old, divorced his wife, Robyn Moore, 55 years old. They had seven children and had been married for over three decades.
After 20, 30, or even 40 years of marriage, countless vacations, raising well-adjusted children, and sharing property and finances, what could go wrong?
Evidently, a lot can split up marriages in mid-life, says Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D, author of the new book Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits (January 2018, University of California Press).
The contemporary numbers on divorce for people over 50 are striking. One out of every four divorces is “gray” (*Brown and Lin, 2012).
Over the past several decades, the divorce rate for the overall population has stabilized and even declined a bit. In contrast, the gray divorce rate has risen. In fact, between 1990-2010, the divorce rate for this age group actually doubled!
The explosion of these numbers means that these divorced couples’ lives will be altered in financially and socially significant ways.
Observing that her grandparents were married for 68 years, and never considered divorce, Crowley, who has written widely on family issues, began exploring this new phenomenon of “gray divorce” including why the previous generation did not also have record divorce numbers as they aged.
From the outside, many may ask why couples in mid-life and readying for retirement choose to make a drastic change in their marital status. Crowley sheds light on why divorce occurs after 50 by showcasing the voices of men and women who have undergone a gray divorce.
Click to see the book Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits