Gray Divorce

The recent announcement about the divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates ignited again the interest in the Gray Divorce phenomena.

Though there is a decline in the overall divorce rate in the United States, the divorce rate for adults 50 and older, often referred to as “gray divorce,” is on the rise. According to findings from the 2017 Pew Research Center the divorce rate for people aged 50 and above has doubled since the 1990s. And for people aged 65 and above, it has tripled over that same time period. Gray divorce in the older population is often fueled by major life transitions, like ‘empty nesting’ or more significantly retirement, in addition to poor quality of marriage which is the reason for divorces in all age groups

It is important to know that compared to those whose spouse died, people who went through a gray divorce had worse feelings of depression.

Here are additional facts related to Gray Divorce:

  • About 1% of married Americans over age 50 get divorced each year.
  • 55% of gray divorces involve couples who have been married for 20 years.
  • Remarried couples are 2.5 times more likely to divorce compared to couples in a first marriage; thus, ending in as “gray divorce.”              
  • The percentage of the population of 65 years and older who were divorced in 2018 was greater than 10%
  • Women 63 and older who went through a gray divorce have a poverty rate of 27% compared to only 11% for men of the same age who went through gray divorce.
  • Divorced women aged 50 and above saw their living standards drop to 45%, compared to a 21% drop for men above 50.
  • The odds of a gray divorce were about 38% lower for couples with more than $250,000 in assets, compared with those with $0 to 50,000.
  • More than 1 in 10 seniors across 133 cities is divorced
  • Denver has the highest rate of gray divorces – at 28% of residents 65 and older.

Financial Implications of Gray Divorce

Gray divorcees tend to be less financially secure than married and widowed older adults. Divorce, at any age, is often accompanied by financial considerations, and may be financially damaging , However, gray divorce may lead to even more financial insecurity especially for women, as individuals are less likely to be working and have a less steady income stream. Even senior divorcees who are still working, are closer to retirement and in turn have a smaller time period over which to save and recover financially.

The three most important financial considerations for seniors getting divorced are Social Security and Medicare, retirement savings and long-term care.

Reasons for the Increasing Prevalence of Gray Divorce

Several factors have contributed to the rise of gray divorce rates over the past 30 years. The climbing rate stems from a host of societal factors.
In its 2017 study by the Pew Research Center links increases in gray divorce to the aging of baby boomers, the generation made up of individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Specifically, baby boomers had high levels of divorce during their young adulthood, and marriage instability earlier in life has continued later in life. Given that remarriage tend to be less stable than first marriages, the divorce rate for adults ages 50 and older in remarriages is double the rate for those who have only been married once. Additionally, divorce risk is higher among couples who have been married for shorter periods of time.

While the greater frequency of remarrying among baby boomers partially explains the increase in gray divorce, it is important to note that a significant share of gray divorces occur among couples who have been married for 30 years and longer.

Another factor contributing to this increase divorce rate is change in divorce stigma. Research has shown that with general attitudes toward divorce becoming more relaxed the stigma of divorce is decreasing. Those who have grown unsatisfied with their marriages may be more likely to choose to leave. In today’s world, women are more empowered and educated. Additionally, the reduced divorce stigma is giving women more freedom to walk away from a less-than-ideal or emotionally draining situation.

Longer Life Expectancies are also upping the stakes for women who are unhappy in their marriages. Better medical treatments, more health care awareness and enlightenment around what will help us live longer have also extended the years spent together in marriage. For a 55-year-old woman, her marriage may last another 30 years, or even more. This ups the ante for those in unhappy marriages and may prompt them to question whether they can put up with their spouse for that much longer.

Postponed Divorces: Some adults admit that they stay in their marriage to set an example for their children, and to keep a united family unit while raising them. This causes unhappy couples to put off divorce until kids are grown and possibly even starting families of their own. When couples who stay together “for the kids” are free from the day-to-day responsibilities of raising children, new light is shed on the relationship, and a late-life re-evaluation of their marriage may come to the forefront of their thinking.

Repeat Divorces: Some Baby Boomers are on their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th marriage. Studies show that these marriages tend to have lower success rates. The divorce rate for people over 50 who have been married more than once is 2.5 times higher than those who have been coupled with the same person throughout their life. This high divorce rate is a significant reason why it is recommended that couples should enter into prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, especially if they have been married before.

Retirement. With Americans staying healthier and living longer, the retirement years stretch out, giving couples more time together. Among many couples, retirement often creates friction and weakens even the strongest ties. The increased amount of time spouses spend together, when one or both are retired, can exacerbate existing problems & bring tensions to the surface. Without child- raising duties and demanding job responsibilities to provide structure, distraction, space away from each other – people are more vulnerable to conflict. It becomes much more difficult to ignore or avoid addressing long-term unresolved issues as well as newly created ones. Many retirement age adults refuse to settle for loveless retirement years filled with marital discord frustrations and disappointments.

General Dissatisfaction and COVID.   We can also blame some of the most recent rising divorce rates on the COVID pandemic. “The unexpected in-home isolation puts a sharper focus on issues in the marriage that may have otherwise been overlooked. Loss of income, employment and separate routines that allowed healthy time away from each other have produced an unbearable situation. With these additional pressures, some marriages are crumbling under the added stress.

Different reasons why men and women divorce in their senior years.

Men are more likely to end a marriage in middle age to either pursue another relationship or engage more fully in a relationship they are involved in already – similar to the midlife crisis stereotype: men chasing youth by feeling desired, often by younger women. Some men also say they have fallen out of love, and they want to afford themselves the opportunity to find love again before their time runs out. Their reasons tend to be based on what they feel is missing in their marriage, which they feel they can discover in another relationship.

On the other hand, women who initiate breakups in their middle to late years are often looking to change their lives and their reasons are more experiential. Often these women have had it with their spouses and are ready to get away from all the tension and fighting. They ask themselves “I may have another 25-35 years to live, do I want to spend it with this person?” Others have described that they still feel quite young in their 50s and 60s and that their husbands seem older and less energetic. They tend to be the spouses seeking new careers, new adventures and new opportunities. They may start a business or get in shape or move to another part of the world. Some of these women are not even picturing future relationships they just want out.

In summary it is clear that if possible it is best to try and avoid gray divorce for emotional and financial reasons. Preparing for retirement and life in the “third age” can help to align expectations. Reading books like “A Couples’ Guide to Happy Retirement and Aging” and having good conversations about life ahead can help individuals to improve their marriages and wellbeing and avoid becoming part of the gray divorce statistics .