‘Gray divorce’: How much of the growth in older people divorcing is due to the reluctance to try counseling, or skepticism that it can help?

Therapists have told me that when there is conflict, younger couples often begin therapy earlier than older ones. How much does this reluctance to begin contribute to Gray Divorce?

In 2013, a study came out entitled, The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990 – 2010.  Authored by Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, both in the sociology department of Bowling Green State University, their research is revealing.

Here are some of the results:

  • The divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010.
  • Roughly 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 occurred to persons ages 50 and older. . . .
  • The rate of divorce was 2.5 times higher for those in remarriages versus first marriages while the divorce rate declined as marital duration rose.

The study looked at many factors and circumstances that may contribute to gray divorces. Some of them are directly related to “the unique events and experiences characterizing” the “life course stages” of middle age (50 – 65) and older adulthood (65+). During these stages, “many couples confront empty nests, retirement, or declining health, which can pose considerable challenges for marital adjustment. These turning points can prompt spouses to reassess their marriages, ultimately leading them to divorce.” (Citations omitted)

Other findings include:

  • Middle-aged adults are experiencing a higher rate of divorce than older adults.
  • Men and women 50 and over are divorcing at very similar rates (9.8 divorced men per thousand married persons; 10.3 women divorced per thousand persons).
  • “There is some racial and ethnic variation in the risk of divorce among those ages 50 and older.”
  1. Blacks (20.5 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons)
  2. Hispanics (11.3 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons)
  3. Whites (9.0 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons)
  • “The divorce rate also differs by economic resources” – including education. Those with a college degree experience a considerably smaller risk of divorce compared to those with lower levels of education.
  • The rate of divorce is highest among the unemployed.
  • Older adults who are not in the labor force (presumably because they are retired) have the lowest divorce rate.

One factor that isn’t considered by the study is the hesitation by those who are older to engage in therapy.  While a younger generation has grown up with the idea of meeting with a psychologist or social worker, for people who are older the thought may have more of a stigma.  For older adults willing to try therapy and couples counseling, how many are skeptical or so uncomfortable that they are unable to fully engage in the experience, and therefore end the process prematurely, or otherwise hold themselves back and greatly lower the chances that it will be helpful in saving their marriages?

In addition to factors that apparently contribute to gray divorce, the authors discuss the “implications for individuals, their families, and society at large.”

  • It is likely that divorce has “negative consequences, particularly for those who did not want the divorce or who are economically disadvantaged or in poor health.”
  • “Divorced older adults no longer have a spouse on whom to rely and are likely to place greater demands on their children.” These children may be asked to serve as care givers in lieu of the absent spouse. “The strain of such intense obligations may weaken intergenerational ties. . . .
  • Adult children are particularly unlikely to provide care to their divorced fathers.”
  • “Some older adults may not have children available nearby to provide care,” and so “the rise in later life divorce may place additional burdens on society at large, as divorced individuals will be forced to turn to institutional” assistance rather than look to the family for support.

The study, which the authors acknowledge has limitations, is somewhat alarming. But having this information will surely help society deal with the consequences of gray divorce, which are likely to become more apparent over the coming years.

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All blog posts are for information purposes, and should not be considered as legal advice.

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