- The number of single older adults is growing, with the divorce rate for 50- to 70-year-olds having more than doubled since 1990.
- Widowed older men remarry almost five times more than women do and cohabitate more than double.
- Older adults who are considering cohabitation or marriage should create shared meaning about the progression of their relationship.
The number of single older adults is growing exponentially with the divorce rate for 50- to 70-year-olds having more than doubled since 1990.
Differences by Gender
Men continue to jump into new committed relationships at higher rates than women.
Widowed men remarry almost five times more than women do (17.6 to 3.6 percent) and cohabitate more than double (6.7 to 2.4 percent). While both men and women are more likely to stay single after the death of a spouse, a full 94 percent of women remain single versus 75.7 percent of men (Brown et al., 2018).
Cross-cultural norms exert a disproportionate influence on women to go through extended periods of mourning and sometimes isolation after a spouse dies (Carr & Utz, 2001).
It is far less the case for men, who, whether widowed or divorced, are just as likely to repartner and get remarried or cohabitate.
Divorced women, particularly in their 50s and 60s, do remarry (15.3 percent) or simply cohabitate (8.6 percent). Yet, most remain unpartnered (76.1 percent; Brown et al., 2018).
The social constructs of marriage are being unexpectedly challenged by many who grew up seeing marriage as the only choice for the deepest intimacy. They are eschewing marriage to simply cohabitate.
That number of older and unmarried cohabitors has more than tripled since 2000. It is particularly representative of gray divorcees who have financial autonomy and value it (Brown et al., 2012).
Whether couples decide to cohabitate or repartner at all is also shaped by the extent of their social network.
In the face of withering friendship groups, the proximity of adult children appears to have some impact on repartnering. Researchers have found that gray divorcees who have children within 10 miles of their home are less likely to repartner (Brown et al., 2022).
The authors argue that these older adults have lives that are sufficiently peopled. In other words, they have all the intimacy and closeness they want with family around.
This emotional intimacy can also be generated in close-knit friendship groups, and women tend to fare better in forming those kinds of connections. Undoubtedly, a significant portion of single divorcees will remain single by choice or not.
But whether single or in a relationship, it’s important to ask yourself a few central questions after a divorce or the death of a partner:
- Have I allowed myself time to grieve? There is an aspect of grief that occurs at the dissolution of any marriage. The grieving process will vary and can be shaped by the quality of the attachment and the circumstances of the loss. Shocking losses can even lead to posttraumatic stress. Allowing yourself enough time to process a loss is important and can be supported by a licensed mental health provider.
- Do I know what I want? After a decades-long marriage, it's important that you examine how you’ve grown and changed over the years. Clearly express your dream about the life you want for yourself now and what’s especially important to you (i.e., core values, beliefs, ethics).
- Who are the people I love the most? Before considering a new romantic relationship, reflect on the five most important people in your life and the degree of intimacy and closeness you regularly experience. Having a supportive connection with family and friends is key during and after divorce.
- What would cohabitating or marriage mean to me? If you’re in a new relationship, living together or getting married would come with financial interdependence. That could mean safety for some and entanglement for others. Know what it means to you, then create shared meaning with your partner about it as your relationship progresses. Decide what you’d like to do from that shared meaning.
Every older adult's path will be different after divorce or the death of a spouse. Each path is deserving of reflection and intentionality. Each will shape our understanding of what is possible in the realm of relationships in the second act of our lives.
Brown S. L.Bulanda J. R.Lee G. R. (2012). Transitions into and out of cohabitation in later life. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 74, 774–793. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00994
Brown, S., Lin, I. F., Hammersmith, A.M., Wright, M.R. (2018). Later Life Marital Dissolution and Repartnership Status: A National Portrait, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 73, Issue 6, pages 1032–1042, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbw051
Brown, S., Lin, I. F., & Mellencamp, K. (2022). Adult Child Proximity and Repartnering Among Parents After Gray Divorce. Innovation in Aging, 6(Suppl 1), 41. https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igac059.156
Carr, D., & Utz, R. (2001). Late-life widowhood in the United States: New directions in research and theory. Ageing International, 27, 65-88.