Gray Divorce

Relationships are as important in the second half of life as in the first half.  Unfortunately, relationships in mid- and late-life are not immune to struggle and even failure.  One recent phenomenon is an increase in divorces among middle aged and elderly couples.  I recently talked about what have been termed “Gray Divorces” with Dr. Peter Everts of Psychology Associates, the practice where I also work.  Peter is a clinical psychologist, having earned a Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary Graduate School of Psychology.  He has more than 30 years of experience with emphasis on issues related to marriage, to divorce and to trauma.  Here is what Dr. Everts had to say: 

Bob: Could you tell me about the part of your practice that has to do with divorce?

Peter Everts

Peter Everts

Peter: As my career has evolved, one of my specialties has been working with divorcing and post-divorce couples that have problems communicating as co-parents with kids.  In 2002, I took a training in divorce mediation.  So in the past decade I’ve had some opportunity to help couples who wish not to go to court to work out differences using mediation.  I also was trained in 2007 as a collaborative divorce professional.  The two roles that are associated with that training are a divorce coach and a child specialist.  Couples who choose Collaborative Divorce say from the beginning that they will make agreements about how to separate assets and to develop a parenting time plan if they have minor children without going to court.  The process employs attorneys, mental health professionals, and sometimes financial specialists assisting the family.  l’ve also been a trainer in collaborative divorce, and have been involved in doing assessments for the court. Thus, divorce has become a specialty for me.

What have you observed regarding divorce with older adults?

What’s been interesting to me is that, though the divorce rate in our country has evened out, there has been some slight decrease in the divorce rate for younger age people.  There have been some sociological reasons for this such as it being more acceptable to live together and people marrying later.  What’s fascinating is that if you compare the average length of a marriage today with the average length of a marriage back in the 19th century when the average life expectancy was about 45, it’s about the same.  The average length of a first marriage is still about seven to eight years.  It’s about the same stats, but for different reasons.  Currently, the age range where there is an increase in the divorce rate is over 50.

Denise Tamir

Denise Tamir

I’m going to quote here from a mediator named Denise Tamir.  Her article is on the website mediate.com.  She states, “Sadly, the divorce rate among couples over 50 has skyrocketed from less than 1 in 10 in 1990 to 1 in 4 today.”   She also adds that two-thirds of the time it’s the wife who asks for the divorce.  She’s using research by Susan Brown, the co-director the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University who is author of a book called The Gray Divorce Revolution. 

That’s a big change in divorce rates.  What seems to be responsible?

Denise Tamir points out there is less stigma about divorce.  Another factor is the entrance of women into the workplace several decades ago.  As women become more financially independent, they feel less trapped in a marriage.  Women can now support themselves and choose to do so when they are unhappy in a marriage.  Also, people are living longer.  When a woman realizes that she is unhappy say in her 50s, she contemplates three or more decades of unhappiness with her spouse.

In recent years older adults have become more likely to enter therapy.  It is sort of a parallel phenomenon.  In both cases, people are saying, “I have quite a few more years left and I don’t want to be miserable.”

Susan Brown

Susan Brown

Exactly.  Tamir quotes Susan Brown as saying that in the 1950s and 60s, marriage was role-oriented. As long as partners fulfilled their roles, the marriage was considered successful.  Now, personal happiness is much more valued than fulfilling a role.  So today couples focus on fulfillment rather than roles, and are often more concerned with what they get out of the marriage rather than what they put in.  It’s more about “What’s my level of satisfaction” rather than “Did I do my job.”  A lot of women are saying, “I’m not happy.”

Typically we think of the Boomer generation as more interested in fulfillment whereas previous generations were focused on roles. 

I think that’s a big part of it.  Another factor that Susan Brown mentions is the complex marital histories of the spouses.  Most couples who divorce in their 50s are on their second divorce.  Having been married before statistically doubles the risk that the second marriage will also end in divorce.  We know that the risk of divorce increases with each additional time you are married.  If your second marriage is failing and you don’t have kids in common, whatever bond you have with the other spouse’s children isn’t as much an inhibitor of divorce.  And if you haven’t been successful at solving the more complicated issues of loyalties and bonds and attachments in a second marriage and are unhappy in it, I can see why those in their 50s and beyond may be more susceptible to divorce.  Tamir goes on to state that couples in their 50s who have already gone through a divorce typically choose to more quietly divorce. They typically don’t go to court, look to solve their differences, and try to come to a sort of kitchen-table agreement about how to put an end to their marriage.  They’ve gone through the divorce wars earlier on and have seen the damaging consequences of too much fighting. So clinically I don’t see these couples, because they are saying, “OK, the second marriage failed, we don’t need to run by all these professionals, we kind of get what has to happen here.  Let’s not make this a bloody divorce.”

So in essence, they’ve got more wisdom now, and they apply that to divorce.

Right.  This isn’t their first time around.  That may explain why I haven’t seen many of these second marriages that have failed.  I mostly deal with first-timers.  Clinicians working with couples all know that one factor contributing to divorce is the empty nest syndrome.  When all the kids are out of the house, if there isn’t a firm friendship foundation based on having nurtured the relationship through the years, there is often a crisis and sometimes a divorce.  That typically happens in the 40s or 50s, depending on when you started your family.  Having children serves as a focus for why couples stay together.

The empty nest is one time when there can be a crisis.  Retirement is another one.

I recently attended a workshop on the unique features of older couples who divorce.  One case study we discussed was a couple who were coming to the end of their marriage.  She was a teacher who was nearing the end of her career and he had become disabled earlier.  It was a situation where each of them had sufficient income to live separately.  Some of the attorneys who were present pointed out that one of the problems that often occurs with a divorcing older couple is that, however you divide the assets, there isn’t a whole lot of time to gain back what you lost.  Being near the end of your life and on a limited income, one question is, “How will each of us make it?”

It certainly is more expensive to establish separate households again.

Right.  Another issue is the effect on the children.  I think the better literature says that divorce is difficult for children no matter what their ages.  When an older couple divorces, they typically don’t have dependent children.  But often there are children and grandchildren who will be impacted by this divorce decision.  It has profound ramifications for this family system.  Now what are you going to do about holidays, vacation times, and inviting grandma and grandpa to baptisms and christenings and school events?  All those things have to be negotiated.  You don’t just have minor children, you also have relationships with adult children and their children.  It makes life complicated.

I would think that another issue with older couples divorcing is the loss involved.  When younger people divorce, there’s often a prospect of replacing the lost relationship.  When the divorce occurs later in life, that might not be as feasible.

When you’re divorcing in early life or mid-life, you have the chance of developing another history, another story.  If you divorce later in life, even if you have 15 or 20 years left, there’s a natural transition, an adjustment to loss, but then how do you form new histories? It’s hard to do that.  It’s not totally up to the divorcing couple.  It’s also how other people respond to the divorce.

Thanks so much for your insights.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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