After the Ink Has Dried: The Consequences of Divorce

By Deborah Carr, PhD, Rutgers University

Two thirds of divorces are initiated by women. So does that mean that these women approach their new lives as single women with glee and gusto? Not entirely. Divorce at any age brings psychological, financial, and social challenges as the newly single person adjusts to the loss of a (once) loved one, a daily routine, and his or her long-term identity as a spouse. For most “gray” divorcees (women who divorced in their 50s and older), the decision to end a marriage did not come capriciously; many divorced women have told the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) that they tolerated unhappiness and emotional abuse, infidelity, and substance use by their spouses for years before ultimately divorcing—in part because they worried about what the divorce would mean for their futures and those of their children.

Although the transition is challenging, especially in the first two years after divorce, research shows that most women bounce back and lead full and satisfying lives. For divorced men, the pathway to happiness after divorce is typically remarriage. Among persons 65 years of age and older, there are 1.5 women for every one man, so an older divorced man has more romantic options. Since romantic prospects for women are fewer, women often invest in friendships, hobbies, or even new professional pursuits—although dating is certainly an important aspect of some women’s lives. What exactly are newly divorced women thinking, feeling, and doing? What are the consequences for these women and their grown children, many of whom may not warmly welcome their mother’s return to the singles scene—never mind sharing their future inheritances with her new spouse or stepchildren? Most of what we know comes from the 2004 AARP study of mid-life and later-life divorce, and from statistical studies that track cohorts of men and women over the first two to four years after divorce.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ADJUSTMENTS

One of the main consequences of divorce is uncertainty about what the future holds. Fully 40 percent of divorcees interviewed by the AARP reported anxiety, and one third reported loneliness or depression. One quarter reported feeling deserted, betrayed, a sense of failure, and unloved. One fifth felt “inadequate” because their marriage had “failed.” The specific fears that women reported were: being alone, failing in another romantic relationship, never finding someone to marry or date, financial strains, and becoming a bitter and angry person. Yet, importantly, most of these anxieties are fairly short-lived. Three quarters of older divorcees reported that they made the “right decision” to end their marriages – with many using words like “freedom” and “fulfillment” as they talked about their lives after divorce.

Sociologists who track divorced persons over long periods of time have also found that the sting of divorce is fairly short-lived. Most studies concur that during the first two or three years after divorce, women more frequently report feeling sad or blue than their peers who remained married, yet these feelings fade as time passes. Often, the short-term psychological challenges upon divorce reflect lingering stressors of the transition such as relocating or dealing with sticky legal complications. However, most women bounce back to positive mental health fairly quickly, especially those who initiated the divorce and those who left marriages that were unsatisfying. Women fare best after divorce when they have a broad base of social support through friends, siblings, children, or a “close confidante with whom they could share their private thoughts and feelings.” Research also shows that women who divorce enjoy better physical and mental health than their counterparts who have remained in unhappy marriages; in other words, divorcing is definitely better than staying in a bad marriage.

FINANCIAL ADAPTATIONS

One of the most persistent findings in divorce research is that divorce takes a more severe financial toll on women than men. However, most of these studies are based on relatively young women, many of whom had either cut back on their work to care for their children or had left the labor force altogether to care for them. Still, the direct costs of divorce, including legal fees, the indirect costs such as maintaining an independent household on one income (assuming that one will not receive alimony), and the costs of setting up a new home can threaten one’s bottom line. These challenges are all the more acute for women who left financial decision-making up to their former spouses. Financial literacy is a daunting problem facing many divorced older women today, especially those who have not previously learned how to manage their savings, assets, and investments. Fortunately, a number of organizations, including the AARP and the Council for Economic Education, have developed courses in asset management and estate planning that are targeted to women who are on their own.

Financial advisors caution that economic strains for newly divorced older adults may be particularly difficult given today’s sagging economy. Selling a home can take far longer than one anticipates, and many may be forced to sell their homes at a cut-rate price. Savings accounts are barely earning interest, and pension and retirement-fund values have plummeted. Further, Social Security payments (as well as payments from private pensions) are closely tied to one’s own earnings, and women who had worked only sporadically during their years as a wife and mother may find their monthly checks to be meager. To the extent that the recessionary economy is difficult for married couples, it is all the more difficult for individuals living on their own.

NEW ROMANTIC PURSUITS

One of the most common complaints of older single women is the dearth of eligible male romantic partners. This complaint is steeped in demographic realities, more so than in “pickiness” or unrealistic standards. After the age of 30 years, men outnumber women at every age, and the disparity increases with age. Many men prefer to date and remarry younger women, further skewing the ratio of eligible men to women. Still, women of a certain age have more dating options than ever before, in part because of Internet dating, which enables them to interact with men beyond their own geographic regions. According to one recent estimate, Baby Boomers now compose 20 percent of all on-line daters. However, Boomer women may face distinctive challenges with on-line dating that their younger sisters are spared.

First, the cost of enrollment in on-line dating programs can be high, ranging from $30 to $60 per month. These costs may be prohibitive for women who are living on a limited income. Second, most on-line daters use “screens” when they search for potential partners; some men may limit their searches to women younger than 50 years of age, thus missing perfectly lovely dating candidates who exceed that age limit. Third, women who have been out of the dating world for two or three decades may not have developed the sharp (and cynical) eye required to detect untruths in personal ads, such as “separated” men who are still technically married. Women who have had only one sexual partner for much of their lives will have to negotiate sensitive yet gravely serious issues about sexual health, including the risk of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Further, some women who hope to date may find opposition from their children. Studies show that children often are opposed to their mothers dating and are nervous about them meeting new partners. When a relationship gets serious, the children may oppose marriage because they fear that their mother’s assets may be bequeathed to a new spouse or, worse yet, stepchildren. Experts advise women to tackle these issues head-on and to be honest with their children about their dating lives—even before their new romantic relationships grow serious.

Every woman going through a divorce knows she may face serious psychological, financial, or romantic challenges in the near future. Yet, nearly all emerge from the experience feeling stronger, more self-assured, and more competent, given that they have withstood one of the most difficult challenges one can face. There are countless stories of newly single women, armed with decades of life experience, who follow new passions—whether pursuing an advanced degree, running a marathon, starting a new business, or discovering talents and interests that were hidden away during marriage. The ending of a marriage may signify the beginning of a new and unexpectedly rich and satisfying life.