“Gray divorce” hasn’t made it into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary yet, but the term is likely to be eligible soon. It’s been widely used for years now to describe divorce among older adults, particularly those who have been married for decades. High profile splits are bringing gray divorce into the spotlight, along with a growing prevalence among the Baby Boomer generation. The United States Census Bureau reported about 43 percent of adults 50 to 64 years old and nearly 40 percent of adults 65 to 74 years old have been divorced, putting the rates of divorce for these age groups well above that of the general adult population.
With that in mind, here are some factors contributing to the phenomenal rise in divorce among older adults:
- Marital expectations have changed. Divorce has become more acceptable over time. Marriage was once expected to be a lifelong commitment, regardless of circumstances. That meant many couples stayed together despite infidelity, conflict or other problems that today might be considered deal breakers. Others remained in marriages even when their relationship needs were not being met. Today, however, people are more willing to seek a divorce if their partner is unwilling or unable to work on the marriage.
- People are living longer. Thanks to advances in medical science, many people in their 60s and beyond are leading vibrant lives. They may view 20, 30 or more years as a long time to spend with someone in an unhappy and unfulfilled marriage. Individuals are increasingly giving themselves permission to seek brighter futures, especially when they’re well past raising children and caring for a family.
- Economic independence opens doors. Divorce simply wasn’t an option for most women in the past. They were financially and economically dependent on their husbands. The 1960s and 1970s brought big wins in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights in the workplace. Today, many women approaching retirement age have worked most of their life and can support themselves financially. And those who were homemakers and gave up their careers to raise children are likely entitled to spousal support.
- Retirement can be a game-changer. Life happens fast when you’re advancing in your career and raising a family. But things change during the empty nest and retirement years when couples find themselves spending more time together. Some couples discover they don’t have much in common or that they’ve grown apart. Small cracks in a relationship are more apparent and can lead to bigger problems, especially when two people don’t share the same vision for their retirement.
Divorce looks different later in life. After sharing many years together, the idea of splitting up can be jarring. But even if divorce is more common among older adults who face challenges in their marriage, that doesn’t mean it’s unavoidable. If two people care about each other and are willing to put in the work, the odds are still in their favor for spending the rest of their lives together.
Be sure to check back next month to learn how older couples can avoid divorce and work toward a happy future together.
Dr. David Lowenstein is a Columbus, Ohio-based psychologist with more than 35 years of experience. He conducts individual, family, and group therapy sessions in his German Village office and also via telehealth. Dr. Lowenstein is also available for expert forensic testimony, and for educational workshops and presentations. He is frequently called upon as an expert source for print, radio, and broadcast media. Contact Dr. Lowenstein at Lowenstein & Associates, 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.