Gray Divorce: The Facts Behind the Headlines

Woman gazing wistfully into the distance

In June 2010, former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper shocked the nation when they announced that they were calling it quits after 40 years of marriage. The Gores, who were college sweethearts and high-school prom dates, appeared to be a truly happy and stable couple who were devoted to one another. They issued a public statement that their separation was “a mutual and mutually supportive decision.” Still, even the most jaded gossip columnists seemed genuinely surprised that the golden couple and parents of four, who enjoyed a very public six-second kiss on stage at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, were going their separate ways.

Shock and surprise were not exactly the words used when another high-profile political couple announced their split in July 2011, after 25 years of marriage. Journalist and Kennedy family member Maria Shriver filed for divorce from body builder-turned-movie star-turned- California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger after it was discovered that he had fathered a child with the couple’s former housekeeper. Although rumors of infidelity had dogged the couple for years, they seemed to be resilient, offering proof that love could overcome political divisions. However, they could not survive the bombshell that Schwarzenegger was father to the housekeeper’s 14-year-old son – a discovery Shriver described as “painful and heartbreaking.”

The dissolution of long-term marriages is always fodder for tabloid gossip, as well as entertaining fare at the box office. Witness the success of the book and film—The First Wives Club, in which three women of a certain age plotted revenge against their husbands, each of whom had ditched their first wives for younger and flashier models. But high-profile celebrity divorces and Hollywood movies aside, what does “gray divorce”—divorce among persons in their 50s and older—really look like? Who divorces, and why?

A New Phenomenon

The truth about gray divorce is just beginning to be discovered. For most of history, divorce was rare. In the 1970s and 1980s, divorce rates skyrocketed to as high as 50 percent and later reached a plateau, yet most people who were divorcing were young married Baby Boomers who were born in the period from the 1940s through the 1960s. Older adults, those born in the 1920s and 1930s, found divorce to be taboo, and most remained in long-term marriages, even if they were not always happy. Further, for much of the 20th century, older women had neither the education nor the employment skills necessary to provide for themselves financially. Women who lack economic independence are unlikely to divorce, since the fear of poverty is often more daunting than the dread of remaining in an unhappy marriage.

Most of what social scientists know about divorce is based on divorce among younger adults. For instance, we know that divorce takes a harsh economic toll on women, especially women balancing employment with the care of young children. We know that divorced men are far more likely than divorced women to remarry, and that remarried men with “new” families may provide little in the way of emotional or financial support to their “first” children.

In the past decade, however, researchers have learned much more about gray divorce, since it has become an increasingly common phenomenon. In 2009 alone, an estimated 600,000 Americans age 50 and older divorced, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Further, while the national divorce rate was relatively stable from 1990 through 2010, divorce among persons 50 years of age or older doubled. Although just 4.7 percent of divorces in 1990 occurred among persons in this age group, that figure more than doubled to 9.7 percent in 2009.

What Causes Gray Divorce?

What accounts for this steep increase in gray divorce? Sociologists point to four main explanations. First, the older adults who are now divorcing are members of the Baby Boomer generation, or the 75 million babies born between 1945 and 1964. In general, Baby Boomers, unlike their parents in the “Greatest Generation,” believe in the pursuit of personal happiness, rather than staying married because of traditional reasons such as religion, beliefs in the “sanctity of marriage,” or the fear of being stigmatized as a divorcee.

Second, adults who are middle-aged and older today were young adults during the 1970s, when divorce rates were high. As a result, many adults had divorced during those periods and subsequently remarried. Rates of divorce among persons in their second and third marriages are much higher than among persons in their first marriages. About half of the 600,000 Americans age 50 and older who divorced in 2009 had been married before.

Third, old age looks very different today than it did 50 years ago. Most people in their 60s, 70s, and older are healthy and energetic and can look forward to surviving many years into the future. Demographers predict that the average 65-year-old American today can expect to live another 18 years, until around age 83. Pharmaceutical advances including Viagra mean that marriages among older adults need not be sexless. As a result, a healthy 60-year-old may ask himself or herself, “do I really want to be married to my spouse for another 25 years?”

Women are far more likely than men to answer “no.” According to a recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons, two thirds of all divorced persons between the ages of 40 and 79 years say that the wife initiated the dissolution. One reason is that women tend to be slightly younger than their husbands, so most can anticipate that they will do at least some physical caregiving for their husband as he ages and struggles with chronic illness. For women in strained marriages, the prospect of becoming a full-time caregiver—often a physically and emotionally grueling task—is not appealing.

Fourth, two key transitions of later life—retirement and the “empty nest” stage—can threaten marriages, especially if spouses have grown apart through the years. For persons who are ambivalent toward (if not completely annoyed by) their spouse, the early years of retirement may force them to think long and hard about what a future together might look like. Upon retirement, spouses spend many more hours together than they did when they were working outside the home. Daily routines are shaken up, and roles are blurred. Some husbands criticize the ways that their wives have been running their homes, and career-oriented spouses may feel adrift and depressed once they exit the workplace. These stressors can threaten a marriage. Similarly, when adult children leave the family home for college or their own apartments, spouses must focus their energies on each other. Strong marriages can thrive and are re-invigorated as spouses rediscover one another. In weaker marriages, however, the subtle cracks that were always present may be brought into sharp focus.

Myriad factors influence a woman’s decision to divorce after age 50. The decision is rarely easy. It can take a year or two to adjust to one’s new post-divorce life. Luckily, though, most women make the necessary adjustments, and also go on to have satisfying lives even after their marriage ends.