Since 1990 the American rate of divorce has actually declined. But not for the over-50s. Their divorce rate has actually doubled.
In fact, of those who divorced in 2009, 25% was 50 or older according to sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University. In their The Gray Divorce Revolution, they sited these factors: the economy, history of relationships, and the role of men and women in general.
The baby-boomers came of age during the 1970s and early 1980s when divorce started to accelerate and become widespread. Now many of those who got divorced as young adults are remarried. And remarriages are at higher risk of divorce than first marriages. Sightly over half of all of those over age 50 who got divorced in 2009 are in remarriages. Those who are remarried are over-represented in the divorce experience. Only about 30 percent of the remarried are still married to that spouse, although some of those who remarried are now widows or widowers.
The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, and as more older adults either experience divorce themselves or see people around them get divorced, they have become more accepting of divorce. In fact, for many boomers, it is not their first marital split. Fifty-three percent of the people over 50 now getting divorced have done so at least once before.
The societal norm of marriage as a lifelong institution weakened as marriage became more about individual fulfillment and satisfaction. As older adults experience other life transitions such as retirement or having an empty nest, they may evaluate whether this is the person with whom they want to spend another 20 or 30 years.
Among divorces by people ages 40-69, women reported seeking the split 66% of the time according to a recent study by AARP. The expectations for women in society today are quite different than they were 30 and 40 years ago. Marriage is also much less about an economic exchange or a financial bargain than it was in the past. With most wives in the labor force, they have the economic autonomy to be able to leave a marriage.
Infidelity doesn’t appear to be the driving force in gray divorce. The same AARP survey found that 27% of divorcees cited infidelity as one of their top three reasons for seeking a divorce, which roughly similar to the estimates of infidelity as a factor in divorce in the general population.
John Mordecai Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle and author of What Predicts Divorce?, says the behavioral precursors to later-life divorce are no different from those for younger couples—criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. The longer these behavior have persisted, the more deeply ingrained they have become in a couple’s personal dynamic.
As older people are living longer, and they’re living healthier, as they age or reach retirement age, they realize they’ve have decades to live. “Some of those marriages that in previous generations would have ended in death now end in divorce,” says Betsey Stevenson, assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies marriage and divorce. In the past, many people simply didn’t live long enough to reach the 40-year itch. “You can’t divorce if you’re dead,” says Ms. Stevenson. Maybe the person that was a good spouse 30 years ago isn’t compatible today.
However, financial implications can be a huge issue. This is especially true for women who are past their biggest money-making potential. Marital assets need to be divided so it can be rough dealing with the considerably lower financial stability of the previous household. Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State, said the trend would transform the lives of many older people.
The elderly, who have traditionally relied on spouses for their care, will increasingly struggle to fend for themselves. Federal and local governments will have struggle to shoulder much of the cost of their care. Unmarried baby boomers are five times more likely to live in poverty than their married counterparts, statistics show. They are also three times as likely to receive food stamps, public assistance or disability payments.
The family home is often awarded to the wife but this can be a burden when she’s left with expensive upkeep and a collapsed housing market. When it comes to obligations to kids like continuing education, weddings and down payments on homes, according to Janice L. Green, a divorce and family law attorney in Texas, “it’s always the mother who is willing to give up settlement money that should be on her side of the ledger.”
Divorcing fathers have their own reasons to be concerned. According to a 2003 study from the University of North Florida, they are more likely to see a major decline in contact with at least one child, compared with stably married fathers. Divorced mothers tend to get closer to their children.
Another concern is the collapse of social circles that for decades had revolved around their married friends. It may seem as though social life is dependent upon being part of a couple. Invitations to join activities with couples may dry up for the divorced person.
“Being alone” was the top fear among both men and women. Those who had remarried reported significantly higher levels of life satisfaction. A new solution between marriage and living alone has also recently developed. In 2010, about 12 percent of unmarried adults ages 50 through 64 were living together but not married, up from 7 percent in 2000, census data show.
In spite of all the issues involved, older divorcees say they’re happy. According to the 2004 AARP survey, the vast majority of divorcees ages 40-79 (80%) consider themselves, on a scale from 1 to 10, to be on the top half of life’s ladder. A majority, 56%, rate themselves to be on the uppermost sections of happiness (8-10).