The Latest Research On Gray Divorce

Interview with Deborah Carr, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences

What are some of the new research findings about divorce after age 50?

Some interesting findings have emerged showing that older women –but not men--are happier in their 2nd marriages.  Older women seem to get the 2nd marriage right, and find it more rewarding.

What do you think the reasons for this are?

There may be a couple of reasons. First, novelty. New relationships, new love, heady days, things are no longer stale. Second, when you are older and remarry, you no longer have to deal with the stresses of young children or the financial challenges that you had to deal with when you were a young couple. Older women know how to make a marriage work; they can right the wrongs of the first marriage because of the self-confidence, wisdom and assertiveness that come with age, without the additional challenges that young couples have to deal with. Maybe men appreciate their wives more in 2nd marriages, too. Older men may be less focused on getting ahead in their careers, and can dedicate more time and energy toward the couple’s relationship.

What are the main emotional consequences of divorce for older women?

There is always sadness with change, even if the marriage wasn’t happy. Divorce is not going to be a cake walk. Change can be hard.

And for some women, there may not be a new relationship or 2nd marriage. There are 3 women for every 2 men over the age of 65. Men die younger, and men might seek out younger women. The reality is there’s a smaller pool of men. African American women have it the worst. Black men have a shorter life expectancy than black women by about 7 years. So women shouldn’t beat themselves up if they don’t find a new man. It’s not a referendum on their looks or their personality or their character.  It’s important for older women to realize what they’re going through is happening to other women.

Also, divorce can bring a sense of failure. Women shouldn’t feel this, but some do, especially those raised to believe that a “successful” marriage is one that lasts for a lifetime.

It’s important to remember that friendships can be a source of support for older women.  But friendships can change after divorce. Widows experience this, too. Married women friends may be afraid that a divorced woman will go after their husbands. They might see single women as a threat. These fears are largely unfounded and based on dated and sexist notions of single women as ‘predators,’ yet if these myths persist, they can take a toll on the social well-being of older divorced women.

What can older women do if this happens?

If your friendship base isn’t supporting you, maybe reach out to a support group or hobby groups. Look for opportunities to find like-minded women. Religious or spiritual communities can be a good place to look because you share the same value systems and core beliefs, which can make friendships more meaningful.

Any other advice for older divorced women based on the research?

Yes, take care of your physical health. Historically men’s health takes a plunge after divorce because the wife fed him healthy foods, encouraged him to exercise, and made sure he took care of his health. But women’s health can take a hit, too. Women on their own might not take the time to prepare a healthy meal, instead eating a bag of chips in front of the  TV. Eating healthy matters. Women who used to take evening walks with their husband may now give up that healthy habit. Physical health is as important as mental health because they’re closely tied together.

Also, if a woman is not doing things that she wants because she’s reluctant to do them alone, it’s important to recognize that, and come up with a plan. If you want to go to the movies, but don’t want to go alone, try an afternoon movie.  If you’re afraid to go out to dinner alone, try going out to lunch. Identify the fears that are stopping you from doing what you want, and come up with a plan that will allow you to do it. 

Deborah Carr, PhD is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Rutgers University. Her research interests include aging and the life course, psychosocial influences on health over the life course, including gray divorce.