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What Do Most People Over 50 Do After Divorce? Stay Single

What comes after divorce, and why many women welcome it.

Key points

  • People who are 50 and older are divorcing more often than they were in the past.
  • Some people just don’t want to get remarried or cohabit.
  • Women are less likely than men to remarry after middle age.

Overall, the rate of divorce in the U.S. is no longer increasing. There’s an important exception, though. People who are 50 and older are divorcing more often than they were in the past. So noteworthy is the phenomenon that it has gotten its own name: “gray divorce.”

Compared to younger adults, the 50+ group accounts for proportionately more of all divorces in the U.S. Back in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 people who got divorced were 50 or older. By 2010, the rate was about two and a half times that—1 in every 4 people.

What’s happening to all those older people after they divorce? That was the question addressed in a study by Bowling Green State University sociology professor Susan L. Brown and her colleagues, published in 2019 in the journal Demography. By the title of the article, “Repartnering following gray divorce,” you might think that what these gray divorcees were doing was repartnering. In fact, though, within 10 years of their divorce, 69 percent of them remained single.

The authors analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of people over the age of 50 first surveyed in 1998 and interviewed every other year through 2014, with refresher samples added in 2004 and 2010. In the study, 1,131 people who had experienced a divorce at age 50 or older were tracked for up to a decade. (Data from six people in same-sex unions were excluded.)

The women in the study were even more likely to stay single after divorcing at age 50 or older than were the men. About 77 percent of the women had never partnered 10 years after their divorce. They neither remarried nor cohabited. For the men, 62 percent stayed single.

Percent of People Who Divorced at 50 or Older and Did Not Remarry or Cohabit

  • 76.6 percent of women stayed single
  • 62 percent of men stayed single

The women who did partner again were more likely to remarry (12.5 percent) than to cohabit (10.9 percent). For men, it was the reverse: 16.5 percent of them cohabited, compared to 14.6 percent who remarried. Clearly, though, what both the men and the women were most likely to do was to stay single.

  • 12.5 percent of women remarried
  • 10.9 percent of women cohabited
  • 14.6 percent of men remarried
  • 16.5 percent of men cohabited

Why Do So Many People Stay Single if They Divorce After 50?

The authors looked at lots of different factors to try to understand what was driving the rates of remarrying, cohabiting, or staying single among these 50+-year-old men and women. Many of the findings were underwhelming. For example, economic resources, typically of significance to younger people, were not much of a factor in the re-partnering rates of these older Americans. The links between health and re-partnering were not all that impressive either. The implications of the availability of social ties (having friends or family nearby, or living with a child) were also weak. Race/ethnicity hardly mattered at all. There were a few statistically significant findings here and there for these factors, but nothing you could point to and say, “Oh, now I understand what’s going on.”

In this article, the authors did something very important and very rare. They acknowledged another factor that may have mattered: whether the participants wanted to become partnered again. They recognized that some people just don’t want to get remarried or cohabit. If you are not interested, it doesn’t matter how many available partners there are, how much money you have, whether you have other people in your life, or how healthy you are.

Why Are Women More Likely to Stay Single if They Divorce After 50?

In the Heath and Retirement Study (and just about every other study), the people who got divorced were not asked if they wanted to find another partner. From that study, then, we cannot know whether more women than men stayed single after divorcing because they wanted to stay single, or how that factor compared to other factors. For example, women live longer than men, so there are more older women than older men; that means that there are more potential partners for heterosexual men than heterosexual women.

Previously here at Living Single, I asked, “Is it true that single women and married men do best?” In some ways, the answer was yes. For example, older women do better than older men at living alone. They are more satisfied with the number of friends they have, they spend more time with their families, and they also spend more time than men do on their hobbies and whatever else interests them. In those ways, the women are flourishing. Economically, though, it is often the unpartnered men who fare better, especially after divorce.

Facebook image: Lopolo/Shutterstock

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