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Divorce

Why the Divorce Rate for Older Couples Keeps Rising

Conflict isn't good for our health, especially as we age.

Key points

  • Since 1990, the divorce rate of people over 50 has doubled.
  • Researchers predict "gray divorces" will triple by 2030.
  • Many factors contribute to "gray divorce," including an increased willingness to face relationship differences after children leave home.
AUUSanAKUL/Shutterstock
Source: AUUSanAKUL/Shutterstock

For more than three decades, a silent revolution has been unfolding without much comment, creating a seismic shift in American families and families in other countries. Three to four generations of families are feeling the effects. While the divorce rate in younger age groups has declined, people over 50 are divorcing in record-setting numbers.

The American Association of Retired Persons coined the term "gray divorce" in 2004 when it published a study about divorce at midlife and beyond. In 2012, researchers at Bowling Green State University named this phenomenon the “gray divorce revolution.” Their study found the divorce rate for the U.S. population over 50 doubled in those two decades and more than doubled for those over 65. Since half of the married population is 50 and over, these researchers projected that, as the U.S. population ages, by 2030, the number of persons aged 50 and older who divorce will grow by one-third.

The explosion of gray divorces is not isolated to the United States. The same trends are occurring in Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Europe, Australia, and India. Canada’s national statistical agency indicates that “grey divorce” has been consistently growing among those 55 and over, including those 65 and older. And rates are expected to increase as more people continue to age. The United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics announced in 2018 that the divorce rate among those 55 or older, dubbed “silver splitters” and "silver surfers," has doubled. In the past two decades in Japan, couples married 30 years or more have seen their divorce rate quadruple. The Japanese are calling it “Retired Husband Syndrome.”

Gray divorce is an undeniable worldwide reality that is transforming the social and economic lives of divorcing couples, family members, and society.

Why is this revolution happening?

Myriad circumstances underlie the meteoric rise in gray divorce over the past 30 years. In the late 1960s and 1970s, a focus on personal happiness and self-fulfillment became prominent. In subsequent decades in most industrialized countries, life expectancy significantly increased, attitudes about marriage as a lifelong institution shifted, divorce became more socially acceptable, and women joined the workforce and became more financially independent.

Couples who married decades ago and have drifted apart or been unhappy for years become willing to face their differences about finances, interests, and emotional fulfillment and acknowledge their unsatisfying relationships. When they experience the empty nest syndrome as adult children leave home, they wonder what they now have in common. Infidelity and addictions often contribute to the decision to divorce. Spouses seek refuge from mental, emotional, and physical abuse. Betrayal from financial improprieties propels spouses to seek relief. People realize they are not living the dream they imagined when they married decades ago and are unhappy and unfulfilled. They look to the remaining decades ahead to pursue personal happiness.

The longest study on happiness

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world's longest studies of adult life, followed the lives of two groups of men for more than 80 years. A former director of the study, psychiatrist George Vaillant said, "When the study began [in 1938], nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships."

In his highly regarded 2015 TED talk, Dr. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, said, "It wasn't their middle-aged cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80."

Waldinger noted that the study's surprising finding is that taking care of our body is important but tending to our relationships is also a form of self-care. He shared the three lessons learned from the study:

  • Social connections are very good for us, and loneliness kills.
  • Living in conflict is very bad for our health.
  • Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies. They protect our brains.

The quest for personal happiness and self-fulfillment

People ages 50 and older who initiate a divorce report they want something more and different. Many of them grew up experiencing their parents' divorce and divorces of their friends' parents. They came of age in the late 1960s through the early 1980s when divorce became widespread and are more likely to have married as young adults, divorced, and later remarried. Some have lived for decades in marriages with conflict. Some have little or no interaction with wither spouses. They ask, "Is this all there is?" and report feeling lonely and disconnected from their spouses. "Staying in this shell of a marriage is killing me" is a common refrain. The findings in the Harvard Study of Adult Development support what they say and feel. They hope that pleasure, contentment, and joy await them as they move into the next stage of their lives.

Copyright Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT

Facebook image: AUUSanAKUL/Shutterstock

References

https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/67/6/731/614154.

https://www.everythingzoomer.com/sex-relating/2016/06/03/how-grey-divor…

https://aifs.gov.au/sites/default/files/publication-documents/rp46.pdf

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17214245/https://archive.macleans.ca/ar….

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/relationships/love-sex/s…

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/rising-grey-divorce-rates…

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/consumer-affairs/rise-silver-splitter…

https://www.everythingzoomer.com/sex-relating/2016/06/03/how-grey-divor…

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-har…

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