Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

What Rising Divorce Rates in Midlife Mean for You

You don't have to become a casualty of the rising midlife divorce rates

We tend to think of divorce as a life event that affects the 20- and 30-somethings. However, new statistics from the U.S. Census American Community Survey shows that divorce is becoming an increasing problem for the 50- and 60-year-old set. The problems of recently-divorced midlifers are receiving attention in the press, focusing on the stresses associated with this change in marital status as people enter their later decades of life.  What we still don’t entirely understand are the factors behind this population trend.

Without interviewing people intensively to try to find out why they’re getting divorced in the later years of life, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes. Also, without following people over time, as in studies on divorce prediction in younger couples, we can’t say for sure how those who ultimately divorced began their marital lives together. Nevertheless, large-scale demographic studies can provide valuable clues. Just such a study was carried out by Bowling Green sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin in a comprehensive analysis of U.S. Census divorce data (2012).  Brown and Lin attempted to untangle the many complex predictors of late-life divorce showing in the process who is most at risk for divorcing. They also were able to extract suggestive findings about the challenges of being a late-life divorced person, especially if you’re a woman. 

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Brown and Lin tracked census trends from 1990 to 2010, finding not only that there are more divorced individuals 50 and older in the population now, but also that the odds of divorce have greatly increased in this age group. On the one hand, the older the population, the more likely it will have people 50 and older who are currently divorced just because the divorce rates accumulate over time. If these people don’t remarry, they’ll up the number of the divorced in the older population. However, the more interesting question is whether people in their 50s and older now are more likely to be divorced than was true in past decades. Brown and Lin conclude that the answer is “yes.” Approximately 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 occurred among the 50 and older; in 1990 the ratio was 1 out of every 10.  These statistics also reflect another trend, which is that although the divorce rate in the general population has decreased since about 1980, the divorce rate among people in their 50s and 60s has continued to climb.  Those in their 50s and 60s have experienced a doubling of the divorce rate since 1990.

We might attribute this trend toward higher divorce in the 50 and older population to a sort of delayed midlife crisis. Apart from the fact that the midlife crisis is a myth, the argument doesn’t hold for a different reason. The divorce rate increases are actually the same for people 50-64 as they are for people 65 and older. However, there are more people in the population in the younger of these groups due to the greater mortality of people 65 and older.  Therefore, it’s the 50-64 slice of the population who have the greatest growth in numbers of divorcing individuals.  As they grow older, they will then potentially create a larger divorced population in the coming decades.

Now that you’re getting over your sticker shock of reading about these statistics, let’s see how Brown and Lin unpack them. Not everyone 50 and older is at equal risk of becoming part of the divorced population. There are significant variations in rates of divorce among subgroups of the middle aged and older population. First, as in younger age groups as well, it’s the college educated who have the lowest chances of getting divorced. Their higher education may play a role in protecting them from the strains of lower-status jobs that can affect those with a high school or less education. Higher education brings with it (on average) greater economic resources which, in turn, provides a protection against divorce. In addition, people who graduate from college tend to marry later, another plus when it comes to a relationship’s longevity.   Race plays a role as well, as Blacks have higher divorce rates, even in later life, than Whites or Hispanics. 

These demographics aside, the main factor, conclude Brown and Lin, in predicting a marriage’s likelihood of ending in divorce is the individual’s “marital biography.” People who are in remarriages are more likely to divorce than those in first marriages. More and more of the people in their 50s and 60s now were likely to have divorced and remarried earlier in adulthood. The odds of divorce are 40% higher for people in remarriages.  The people most likely to divorce late in life are the ones who divorced and remarried earlier.

You can see, then, that not everyone 50 and older is equally at risk of divorcing. However, for those who do, there are significant ramifications for the divorcing individual and his or her family.  We know from studies of the so-called “widowhood effect” that losing a spouse through death increases an individual’s (particularly a man’s) mortality risk.  There are very few studies of a comparable “divorce effect,” but Brown and Lin believe that the consequences may be the same for an individual’s overall health in later life. They propose that one of the most serious consequences of divorce, particularly for women, is a decline in financial stability which, in turn, can affect her health and overall well-being.

There will be consequences, as well, for the families of divorced middle-aged and older adults.  In the absence of a spouse, the families may very well be called upon to provide more caregiving and financial support for the now-single parent. The tension of having divorced parents and grandparents can also place a strain on members of the younger generation. Who do you invite for family gatherings? What do you do about holidays? Which parent should you show the greater allegiance to?  Given the relative recency of the divorcing trends, there are fewer guideposts out there for children and other family members to use when answering these questions.  Brown and Lin also note that there will be broader social effects of the rise in divorces among older adults. They may very well place strains on an already strained economy, including the healthcare and retirement systems. Their mental health may suffer, also requiring greater investment in mental health services.

In answer to the question, then, of what the rising divorce rates mean for you, by now you’ve almost certainly concluded “a lot.” You and your family may be directly affected if you, or members of the older generation become one of these gray divorce statistics. However, there may also be some good news to take away from the Brown and Lin analysis:

  1. People are living longer and wanting more out of life. Even though divorce is stressful, people who reach their 50s and 60s are now in better health than in decades past. As a result, they may be more open to ending a marriage that no longer works. Rather than feeling stuck because they’re in their 60s and think they only have a few years left to live, they realize that they can live out 1 or 2 (or more) decades without feeling trapped in a dysfunctional relationship.
  2. The longer you stay married, the lower your chances of divorce. If you are happily married, you’re insulated from these overall population trends. Brown and Lin found that longer marriages in midlife have a greater chance of continuing on without ending in dissolution. There’s no reason that your marriage has to end in divorce just because you’re statistically at an age of higher risk.
  3. Knowing the divorce rate may motivate you to find ways to avoid becoming a victim of the statistics. Perhaps you are sailing along through your 30s and 40s figuring you’ve made it past the rough early years. However, if you stop and think about your relationship, maybe it’s not really that great. If so, the new statistics may provide a wake-up call.  People who take their marriages for granted may realize that they need to put in extra effort to keep them vibrant and vital.
  4. Not everyone is demographically at equal risk for divorce. As we saw from the Brown and Lin study, some groups in the population are more likely than others to get divorced. With enough economic resources and good health, you may very well be able to weather the stormy seas that afflict your less advantaged counterparts. On the other hand, if you are statistically at risk, you can use the information from Brown and Lin’s study to do some preventative work on your marriage to keep it safe.
  5. Many close relationships improve with time. As I pointed out in an earlier blog, “The 12 Ties that Bind Long-Term Relationships,” time can be on your side in your marriage.  Older adults have the potential to be relationship experts. The ability to repair an injured bond can help people strengthen their closeness as they go through the years together.  There are still more many more married than divorced people in the population of people 50 and older (approximately 61%).

You can see, then, that the odds are definitely on your side when it comes to your relationship enduring over the course of your life.  If you have become one of the gray divorcees, however, you can take comfort in knowing you’re no longer an anomaly. You can use your lifetime of experiences to give you the confidence to connect and reconnect. The self-knowledge you now possess can prove an asset as you find fulfillment in new relationships, no matter what your age.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 

Reference:

Brown, S. L., & Lin, I. F. (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990-2010. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67B, 731-741. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs089

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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