Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Tipper and Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. What do these couple have in common? In addition to fame and fortune each of these couples ended their respective marriages when the spouses were 50 years of age or older. Such splits — couples who divorce after age 50 — are referred to as “gray” divorces. The number of gray divorces is growing, and not only among the rich and celebrated.
A 2013 study “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, found that the divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010. Roughly one in four divorces in 2010 occurred to persons ages 50 and older, and 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.
There are many factors and circumstances that may contribute to gray divorces. The study says 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,” write Brown and Lin.
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 1,000 married persons; 10.3 women divorced per 1,000 persons).
• There is some racial and ethnic variation in the risk of divorce among those ages 50 and older, with 20.5 divorced blacks per 1,000 married persons, 11.3 divorced Hispanics per 1,000 married persons, and nine divorced whites 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.
In addition to the study’s findings — of which there are even more — the authors discuss the “implications for individuals, their families, and society at large.”
It says 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,” write the authors. These children may be asked to serve as caregivers in lieu of the absent spouse:
“The strain of such intense obligations may weaken inter-generational 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.
New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabi
Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.