Gray Divorce: Why Some Grandparents Are Calling It Quits

Breaking up in the age of longevity

Posted Oct 11, 2016

Alicia P., 66, an artist, has been married to her physician husband, Chet, 68, for 42 years. The couple had long had problems with intimacy, and Alicia complained that Chet was so involved with his medical research that family came a distant second. As long as the kids were at home, Alicia thought about divorce from time to time, but believed the couple had to stay together “for the kids.”

Now that the kids are out of college and starting families of their own, Alicia has asked Chet for a divorce. Her parents lived into their 90s, Alicia is in good health, and the idea of spending another 25 years in her unsatisfying marriage now is not appealing.

She's not alone. Many people over 55 today are opting for the possibility of a more satisfying life—and are becoming the face of “Gray Divorce.”

Until recently it was widely assumed that marriages of what we call “late-adult” people (55 to 80 plus) dissolved only when one partner died. That assumption is wrong. Even as overall divorce rates have begun to decline, the divorce rate among older Americans has more than doubled since 1990. A half-century ago, only 2.8 percent of Americans over 50 were divorced. Today, that number is over 15 percent with approximately 1 in every 4 divorces occurring among couples over 50.

Given how long we are living, we are bound to see many more 50-, 60-, and 70-year marriages—and more divorces. As Evergreen State University professor Stephanie Coontz comments, “If you are a healthy 65, you can expect a pretty healthy 20 years. So with the kids gone, it seems more burdensome for parents to stay in a bad relationship, or even one that has gone stale.”

Divorce, we believe, is an issue mainly for the young, who split after jumping too quickly into marriage, unprepared for the scale of the commitment or the strain of raising children. A couple past these hurdles is often considered to be “in the clear,” past the risk of divorce. However, such marriages are not risk free. Second and even third marriages are 2.5 times more likely to end than first marriages.

The rise in gray divorce may reflect the fact that divorce is now widely accepted. So, as generations for whom divorce is more common and accepted grow older, the divorce rate among older Americans is bound to rise even further.

By 2030, over 80,000 people 65 and older will experience divorce.

Why is gray divorce on the rise? Older couples aren’t staying put in marriages that no longer work and, people are placing more emphasis on their own fulfillment and marital satisfaction. Take, for example, Al and Tipper Gore, who met as high-school sweethearts. After a 40-year-long marriage, and four adult children, they decided to untie the knot.

It’s not just celebrities who follow this pattern. Regular folks do so as well. One man left a 30-year marriage because he and his wife had less and less in common and she was becoming increasingly unhappy. They agreed that they would both be better off going their separate ways. One of their kids said, “It’s about time!”

In the age of longevity, gray divorce will be less remarkable and more ordinary. Why?

As more women become economically independent, they will be better able to support themselves outside of marriage.
With people living longer, the odds are lower that marriage will end through death and higher that they will end in divorce. People will be at risk for divorce for more years than in the past.

The divorce rate also differs by education. Those with a college degree experience a considerably smaller risk of divorce (8.5 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons aged 50 and older) compared with those with lower levels of education (9.6–11.5 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons).

When late-adult couples divorce, relations with their adult children can suffer, with less contact, less closeness, and more tension. This is especially true for divorced fathers.

With the loss of a second income, divorced older parents—especially women—may turn to their children for economic help, thereby complicating their interaction.

Also, Gen-Xers may be in a bind, having to choose which parent to ask over for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, and other holidays, and which parent to invite on family vacations, or bring to school plays and recitals.

But there can be surprising upsides to late divorce. Katie Crouch writes in the New York Times that at 72, after 45 years of a difficult marriage, her mother divorced and set up a separate household. Katie says her four-year-old daughter is the clear winner. She is getting lots of attention: “All of the spoils, none of the pain.” Now that her grandparents live separately, “she has been in hot demand” with constant phone calls and regular Skyping sessions.

Whatever their situation, gray divorcees need to know that they are not “weird,” or merely selfish.  Nor are they harming their children—many of whom will be relieved to see their parents happier, not being stuck in what the kids probably know has been a bad situation.

By Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett

Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers are the authors of “The Age Of Longevity—Reimagining Tomorrow For Our New Long Lives” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). A version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles Times.