When an older couple divorces, perhaps after many years of marriage, theories and rumors may swirl around them as extended family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and casual acquaintances all struggle to make sense of the split.
Not long after a lifelong friend of mine left his wife of more than 40 years, a mutual friend was quick with assumptions and questions. “Are you going through a belated midlife crazy?” he asked. “Is there another woman? Are you getting a red sports car?” And he laughed uneasily, amazed that our friend, a devoted family man, would do such a radical thing on the verge of turning 70.
My dear friend wasn’t laughing as he thought later about our friend's comments and the stereotypes these embodied. “I’m sure there are some older divorced guys who do fit the midlife crazy stereotype,” he said quietly. “But my take on it is this: You don’t leave a marriage of four or five decades on a whim or for anyone else. My wife and I were unhappy for many years, but we loved our children. We also loved each other for a very long time. We tried so hard. I left only when I realized that my life was at stake — that the stress of our unhappiness together was killing me slowly but surely.”
There is a long list of things that people supposedly know about gray divorce: that the rate of those over 50 who are divorcing has doubled in less than 30 years, that such divorces happen in the wake of midlife craziness or after the nest has emptied or that only those rich enough to start over are willing to risk divorce later in life.
But according to some recent studies, the facts about gray divorce are somewhat different.
1. The gray divorce rate has doubled since 1990, but is still less common than divorce among those under 50. Many couples of our parents’ generation white-knuckled it through decades of unhappiness rather than endure the stigma of divorce. The Baby Boomers, who started turning 50 in 1996, haven’t been quite so reluctant to divorce — either in youthful or mature marriages. That may explain, at least in part, the increase in gray divorce. In 1990, 5 out of 1,000 married people over 50 divorced. By 2010, it was 10 out of 1,000. But the divorce rate for those over 50 is still less than half the rate for those under 50: Just about one in four divorces in 2010 involved couples over 50.
2. The biggest risk factor for gray divorce is not a life transition (like an empty nest), but one’s marital past. According to a recent study, those who have been divorced before are more likely to divorce again, and those in marriages of shorter duration are more likely to divorce. Baby Boomers have aged into the gray divorce zone, having been more likely to have divorced in their youth. For those over 50, the rate of divorce for those who are in remarriages is 2.5 times higher than for those in first marriages. And those in remarriages of less than 10 years duration are nearly 10 times more likely to divorce than those married 40 years or more (28.6 divorced persons per 1,000 versus 3.2 per 1,000).
3. Relative wealth can be a protective factor against gray divorce. This goes against a long-held belief that a lack of resources keeps many unhappy couples together. While many of us have seen couples who can’t afford to divorce or even to live apart, studies of gray divorce show that those who divorce are less likely to have college degrees or to be working. One study stressed that unemployment not retirement was present in many older divorcing couples. It may well be that the financial stresses of job insecurity and unemployment can tear some midlife marriages apart. It may also be that more affluent couples have more to lose in a divorce, or that the absence of financial woes can keep a less-than-ideal marriage viable. It may be, too, that those with more resources have more options — options like marriage counseling or building essentially separate lives with busy work schedules.
4. When a long marriage ends, the seeds of the marital failure may have been sown decades before. As my dear friend contends, long marriages rarely end on a whim.
One client, a man who left his wife of 32 years after falling in love with a work colleague, says that his move was less impulsive than it looked. “I married the woman I was supposed to marry when I was young,” he told me. “We shared the same faith. Our parents were friends. That was about it. We never did connect that well emotionally or intellectually. And especially after the children were grown, I dreaded coming home. My getting involved with someone else was a symptom, not the cause, of my marriage falling apart.”
For other couples, a festering resentment or issue unresolved for decades may be at the heart of a late-in-life divorce. “My husband and I were happy together until he got a job offer that required a cross country move,” another client told me. “I deeply resented that move, even though I went along with it and made friends, raised our kids, and experienced some happy times in that new location. Still, even though we ended up back in our hometown after some years, I couldn’t stop thinking about how my life would have been so much better if we had never moved at all. And the anger and resentment between us just grew over time until that’s all there was.”
5. Kids struggle with the reality of a parental divorce, whatever their ages. While many couples stay together until the children are grown, divorce is tough on kids of any age and can negatively impact parent and adult child relationships. One study found, for example, that adult daughters may tend to blame fathers for a gray divorce, and that changing family dynamics — like newly divorced mothers becoming more dependent on their children — also can negatively impact parent and adult child relationships.
“I think you always hope your parents will stay together, no matter how old you are,” the 42-year-old daughter of a gray divorce told me. “You think that if they’ve managed to put up with each other all these years, they could just keep on doing that. I mean, for the sake of their children and grandchildren and the life they’ve built together.”
6. Grief can linger long after a marriage ends, even when both agree that it’s better to part. After an older divorcee begins to get past some of the anger that propelled him or her out of the marriage, that person still may grieve what was good — even if there’s no inclination to go back.
“I really believe I would be dead if I hadn’t left six years ago,” my dear friend told me recently. “I don’t imagine ever going back. Still, I grieve what could have been. Our grandchildren have all been born since our split, and it would have been wonderful to enjoy them together rather than separately. I miss the family togetherness even though both my ex-wife and I are healthier and happier apart.”
7. There can be positive outcomes to late-in-life heartbreak. Sometimes improved health and happiness in a new and different life is the positive ending. Sometimes the relief and peace of ending a tumultuous relationship is its own reward. And sometimes finding love again is the positive result of a painful process.
Many years ago, a college friend I’ll call Jenny broke up with her high-school sweetheart Mike, because her parents strongly objected to his Catholicism. Jenny and Mike were heartbroken, but moved on with their lives. After college, they both married and built families and lives with other people.
They reconnected more than 40 years later — after his wife died, and she had divorced after a long and troubled marriage to an emotionally abusive alcoholic. A year after rediscovering each other, they married and recently celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary.
“Who could have guessed, after Mike lost his beloved wife to cancer, and when I went through a stressful divorce after a long marriage, what happiness awaited us?” Jenny says now. “We don’t look back with sadness or regret, we just live in our present happiness. Each day of our lives is a blessing.”
Susan L. Brown, et.al. Age variations in the divorce rate: 1990-2010. Family Profiles, NCFMR, FD. 12-05.
Lin, I-F, Brown, S.L., Wright, M.R. Antecedents of gray divorce: a life course perspective. Journals of Gerontology 13, Psychological Services and Social Services: 1022-1031. August 14, 2018.
Brown, S.L. and Lin, I-F. The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults 1990-2010. Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Psychological Services and Social Services, 67, No. 6: 731-741. October 9, 2012.
W.S. Aquilano. Later life divorce and widowhood: impact on young adult assessment of parent-child relationship. Journal of Marriage and Family 56 (1994): 908-922.
Adam Shapiro. Later life divorce and parent-child contact and proximity. Journal of Family Issues 24, No. 2 (2003): 264-285