“Please don’t ask me to stay,” Ginger Rogers said.
“Alright, I won’t. Don’t go,” said Fred Astaire. And they danced the night away to Cole Porter’s Night and Day. So it went, anyway, in The Gay Divorceé.
Another ending is becoming more common, now. At last count, roughly 1 in 3 Boomers—those of us born in the years 1946 to 1964—was single. And in the last generation, those numbers have dramatically gone up. A generation ago, just 16 percent of "gray" men men, and 27 percent of "gray" women, were unmarried; but 31 percent of "gray" men, and 37 percent of "gray" women are unmarried now. A small fraction of us are widowed, and a fair proportion have never been married at all. Most single Boomers—57 percent of men and 60 percent of women—are divorced.
And we’re splitting up later in life. Roughly 1 in 4 divorces are now granted to people 50 or older. In less than a generation, the “gray” divorce rate has doubled. Why?
Couples have always had trouble staying together for life. But even in the simplest societies—the hunters and gatherers studied by 20th-century ethnographers—they seem to have made an effort. There are exceptions, of course. In Paraguay, Aché women marry 10 husbands by the time they’re 30; and Aché men marry 7 wives. But “the high rates of marital instability among the Aché are particularly striking and may be uncharacteristic of traditional societies,” Kim Hill and Magdi Hurtado point out. More typically, in Tanzania, Hadza women over 45 report an average of just 1-1/2 husbands, though Hadza men average 3-1/4 wives. “Women appear to be undercounting,” Frank Marlowe admits. And in Botswana, 15 !Kung women over 50 were married to a total of 45 husbands—most often, when they were very young. Fifty six percent of !Kung divorces occurred in the first year, and 86 percent in the first five years. As Nancy Howell sums up: “When you combine the briefness of the marriages ending in divorce with the tendency for young, often prefertile women to have such marriages, it is clear that the demographic importance of divorce, while significant, is overestimated.”
Years ago, my friend Helen Fisher thought divorce might have something to do with a “Four-Year Itch.” She looked the evidence on !Kung foragers; and she looked at data on 62 countries put together in UN demographic yearbooks. She found that couples married for four years were the most likely to divorce. Early in marriages, divorce rates tend to be high. And fewer children are involved.
Across cultures, people with empty nests are more likely to split up. People say they divorce for a ridiculous number of reasons: bad tempers, bad manners, bad omens, bad dreams. But some reasons are reported again and again. In traditional societies, adultery is at the top of the list—and sterility comes next. “Frustration over childlessness causes violent arguments which precipitate divorce,” say the West African Fulani. “We went to each other for seven years until we were weary, and still there was no child,” said a separated husband in India. “A couple with several children stays together till death, but separations before many children are born are legion,” say the Brazilian Kaingang. And “a marriage is not regarded as fully consummated until the birth of a child,” say the Andaman of the Indian Ocean.
The latest data from United Nations demographers are consistent with that: couples with fewer children are more likely to divorce. The fraction of divorces to couples without any children ranges from a low of 24 percent in Mexico, to a high of 63 percent in Italy. And the fraction of divorces to couples with 3 or more children ranges from a high of 15 percent in Finland, to a low in Bulgaria of just 1 percent.
Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, most of us marry for love. But we stay together for more reasons than anybody can count. Money and compatibility matter. And children and grandchildren are good glue.
We’re living longer these days, and we’re having smaller families. We’re spending more time in empty nests. And more empty nesters are getting divorced.