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Successful Aging: What you need to know about gray divorce


Q. My parents have been married for almost 40 years. Even though I know their marriage hasn’t been great, I was shocked by the news of their divorce. If they managed to get along for so many years, it seems unreal that they would split now. My mother was the initiator. I know you can’t cushion the disappointment or sadness, but can you shed some light on this? Many thanks. S.P.


As we know, marriages often don’t last. About 40 to 50 percent of all first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. In recent years, the number has declined – except for the 50-plus folks. The most significant increase in divorce rates is among those age 65 and older. In fact, that rate has tripled from 1990 to 2021. Sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University refer to this phenomenon as “The Gray Divorce Revolution.”


Your mother as an initiator reflects a trend. AARP reports that over half of divorces after age 40 are initiated by women. The biggest reason is the changing status of women in terms of their independent income and changing aspirations. So, what is going on with these older adults? Why is their divorce rate so high?


Life expectancy: Living longer may mean living more years being unhappy or even miserable. Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, was quoted in the New York Times on October 31, 2015 as saying. “Let’s say you’re 50 or 60. You could go 30 more years. A lot of marriages are not horrible, but they’re no longer satisfying or loving.” You may say, “Do I really want 30 more years of this?”


Financial disputes. According to attorney Esther R. Donald, one of the main reasons for gray divorce is disagreements over money. Disputes are over investments, budgeting or how to best spend retirement funds.


Empty nest syndrome. The preoccupation with children is no longer present. The kids have gone off to school, are working and have families of their own. It may be difficult for some to adapt to a life and marriage without children. Couples may realize they have less in common and find irreconcilable differences that may lead to later-life divorce.

Individual growth. We know people change with age. One may continue to grow with new priorities that may include a new career, going back to school or traveling across the U.S. in an RV, all growth experiences. These new experiences can be mutually enriching. However, the lack of commonality, support or understanding may lead to gray divorce.


Seizing the moment: Deidre Bair, author of “Calling it Quits: Late Life Divorce and Starting Over,” (Argo Navis, 2013) conducted 400 interviews of those splitting in later life. She is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “There is an overwhelming, urgent feeling among those interviewed that they had to “to strike out now, or I’ll never have the chance again.”


Lack of spontaneity. Donald notes that older couples may be set in a routine after being married for many years. They may feel stagnant, that life is passing them by and is too repetitive. Again, that may lead to late-life divorce.


We cannot overlook the fact that more women are working and earning income independently from their mates. This is a plus for women. However, women aged 65 and older earn just 63 percent of what men are earning. Many pay an economic price as divorced women aged 50 and older will see their income reduced by an average of 41 percent.


Past marriages. The biggest risk factor for gray divorce among older married couples is their marital history according to Donald. Those who are on their second or third marriages are more likely to divorce again. Furthermore, older couples married for 10 years or less also are more likely to divorce.


A good life consists of friends, finances and a forward future according to Joe Coughlin, head of AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as quoted in Forbes (August 12, 2021). Having these elements as part of one’s life increases the chances of moving to a better place, despite unexpected life changes.


S.P., Hopefully, this information will help you understand changing expectations, circumstances and the influence of just living longer. I hope each of your parents find fulfillment and peace while they maintain a good relationship with you. My best wishes to you for personal healing…and thank you for your good question. Stay well and be kind to yourself and other.


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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