Divorce isn't just for young people anymore.
Americans are living longer and as part of that trend, more people are getting divorced later in life. Fifty years ago, only 2.8% of divorces were between people over the age of 50. Now the rate is almost 12%. Obviously, there is a trend of gray divorces; the question is, why?
Since this is a fairly new trend, researchers are just beginning to focus attention on the subject and we don't have definitive answers yet. But we are aware of many social factors, which are probably primary contributors:
- Longevity. We are living very long lives these days. And not only are we living longer, we are healthier and more active for a longer time. However, as we grow older, our tastes and interests change and develop as well. Who we are at 20 or 30 is not who we are at 50 or 60. This relates to whom we want to spend our time with and how we want to spend it. So the partner of our youth may not be a good fit with the person we become later in life.
- Greater Confidence And Self-Respect. Women initiate almost 80% of divorces at all ages. With age comes wisdom, greater confidence and the ability to end a relationship that is not satisfying or supportive. For instance, one woman in her 60s got a divorce upon learning that she had a serious cancer diagnosis. Her reasoning was that if she only had a little time left to live, she did not want to spend it with the spouse she had grown to dislike. Her awareness of a shortened life motivated her to take action and end the marriage.
- Viagra. Medicines that reduce erectile dysfunction in elderly men have probably contributed to their willingness to seek out new relationships. In the past, with their sexuality waning, men may not have had the confidence to seek out a new relationship or be open to extramarital affairs.
- Unwillingness To Be A Caretaker. A recent study revealed that women over 50 who were diagnosed with a serious illness were likely to be divorced by their husbands. The reason seems to be that men are less willing to assume a caretaker role or tolerate a disabled spouse.
- Less Disapproval From Others. Divorce no longer carries an enormous stigma. Most Americans believe that divorce is morally acceptable in many situations. People over fifty are usually done with child rearing and couples who stayed together for "the sake of the children" now feel they can afford to put their own needs first. As a psychologist, I have talked to many people whose parents split up as soon as they left for college. Friends are less likely to criticize those seeking divorce when developing children aren't involved.
- Serial Monogamy. All studies of divorce show that second and third marriages have a higher rate of dissolution than first marriages; for instance, almost 60% of second marriages end in divorce. A larger percentage of people over 50 are in second or third marriages. Having divorced once (and survived), people are more willing to face the prospect again and have greater confidence that they will be able to cope with the changes.
The Negative Side of Gray Divorces
Statistics do show that, like younger people who divorce, older people who divorce are more likely to be low income. When people separate late in life, even if they are comfortable financially, they are exposing themselves to more financial risk because they are dividing up their savings and there is less time left for them to earn and accumulate more. Pensions, social security and savings can all be adversely affected and both partners may end up struggling. Finances are a factor in any marriage and later in life the financial impact of divorce can have particularly severe consequences.
Also, even adult children will feel the impact of their parent's divorce. People over 50 cannot assume that just because their children are now adults, they won't be affected by the changes in their parents' lives. Some may have grief or anger that the divorcing spouses will need to address.
Is Gray Divorce Good Or Bad?
Like all other divorces, there is no universal answer to the question of whether late-in-life divorce is a positive or a negative trend. For many people, at all stages of life, divorce can lead to improvements in how they view themselves and the opportunities that develop for new beginnings. For others, a divorce can lead to financial hardship, isolation and increased risk of depression. Our lengthening life spans lead to changes in all areas of modern existence and divorce appears to be developing as a major trend that is emerging. As it becomes more commonplace, we will be able to make more definitive conclusions about what happens to people after divorce.