Marital dissolution commonly occurs in later life through spousal death. However there are a growing number of voluntary marital dissolutions after the age of 50. Here’s a recent example Meryl Streep Confirms Separation From Longtime Husband Don Gummer | Vanity Fair.

Divorce after age 50 is called gray divorce and has more than doubled since 1990. These are divorces that take place after 20, 30 and even 40 years of marriage. The doubling of the divorce rate among individuals over age 50 during the past 20 years highlights the need to studying such divorces as well as their subsequent re-partnering. What is clear is that for adult well-being – men and women are affected differently by gray divorce. Joselyn Crowley in her book “Gray Divorce: What we Loose and Gain from Midlife Splits” concludes that there is a penalty for both men and women leaving long term relationships – but the penalties vary considerably for the sexes. (Gray divorce in the future is also likely to affect gay couples as they marry in greater numbers).

Divorce Statistics: Nowadays, one in four people getting divorced in the United States is older than 50 years (Brown & Lin, 2012). Revealing Divorce Statistics In 2023 – Forbes Advisor (for the USA). The reasons for these changes have to do with personal goals and life expectancy increases. Divorce Rates by Country 2023 ( Interestingly marriage rates dropped significantly in 2020, largely due to pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions on public gatherings. Divorce rates also dropped significantly in nearly every country in the world.

As life expectancy increases the risk of loosing a spouse to death decreases and the chance of losing a spouse to divorce increases. And a larger part of this older population then has the opportunity to remarry. As the number of remarriages increases here too we are likely to see an increase in older partners experiencing gray divorce.

Another factor that has contributed to growing numbers of gray divorce are the ‘no-fault ‘ laws around the globe. In many countries there is no longer need to establish ’cause’ for divorce. Now the primary goal is to separate husband and wife as quickly and fairly as possible. The rising labour force participation by women too, has meant that women have the opportunity to more easily choose to support themselves outside marriage.

The general weakening norms of marriage and the increasing desire of adults reluctant to stay in empty shell marriages have added to the increase in gray divorces as well. During middle and older adulthood, many couples confront empty nests, retirement, or declining health, which also pose considerable challenges for marital adjustment (Booth & Johnson, 1994; Davey & Szinovacz, 2004; Hiedemann, Suhomlinova, & O’Rand, 1998). These turning points can prompt spouses to reassess their marriages, ultimately leading them to divorce (Bair, 2007). 

Divorce represents the breaking up of a protective marital institution where the couple’s economic and social resources are pulled together. Should one half of the couple be struggling then the other half keeps them afloat and vice versa. Divorce destroys that partnership and each individual finds themself alone.

Women and Gray Divorce: In recent times women have seen their financial status increase. But it was not that long ago when women (and children) were in the main entirely dependent upon the husbands income. And while today women have made inroads in terms of earning power they still lag behind considerably. But these inroads have meant that they now have the capacity to leave less than fulfilling relationships more easily. Despite this there is still a large group of women who remained at home throughout their marriage and do not have the marketable skills nor sufficient retirement funds if they divorce mid-life. They are also unlikely to catch up financially even if they re-enter the work force, not to mention the additional burdens of healthcare costs and health insurance premiums. Economics heavily shape women’s prospects after gray divorce. The deprivation of not being able to support yourself adequately can have dire consequences for older women after divorce.

Men and Gray Divorce: Social support is the area in which men usually struggle. Men usually start out with weaker social networks prior to divorce and these only weaken further post divorce. The nature of male friendships and the kinds of exchanges men have together make it less likely that they express the depth of their feelings to friends.

Often in the couple it is the woman who has taken the role in terms of establishing and maintaining friendships. This means that when they divorce, the man is less likely to receive support. In addition if the wife was responsible for the maintenance of adult family relationships there is a good chance the man will loose that support too.

Often relationships with children change post divorce. Because of intense time investments with mothers and their children, bonds post divorce with father’s can weaken even further. Ageing fathers who require assistance may not be able to count upon their adult children.  (Aquilino, 1994; Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1991; Shapiro, 2003). Adult children are particularly unlikely to provide care for their divorced fathers (Lin, 2008).

The penalties that both sexes suffer are harsh and usually not visible to the onlooker. The rise in gray divorce raises important questions about how individuals experience later-life marital dissolution as a result of gray divorce. So before you leave your long term marriage inform yourself of what’s at stake. Knowledge is power.

If you would like to talk about some of the issues in your own relationship that this post raised – contact us.
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Aquilino, W.S., 1994. Later life parental divorce and widowhood: Impact on young adults’ assessment of parent-child relations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, pp.908-922.

Bair, D., 2007. Calling it quits: Late-life divorce and starting over. Random House (NY).

Booth, A. and Johnson, D.R., 1994. Declining health and marital quality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, pp.218-223.

Bulcroft, K.A. and Bulcroft, R.A., 1991. The timing of divorce: Effects on parent-child relationships in later life. Research on Aging13(2), pp.226-243.

Gray divorce and mental health in the United Kingdom, M Tosi, T van den Broek – Social science & medicine, 2020.

Repartnering Following Gray Divorce: The Roles of Resources and Constraints for Women and Men, Susan L. Brown; I-Fen Lin; Anna M. Hammersmith; Matthew R. Wright Demography (2019) 56 (2): 503–523.

I-Fen Lin, Susan L Brown, The Economic Consequences of Gray Divorce for Women and Men, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 76, Issue 10, December 2021, Pages 2073–2085.

Crowley, Jocelyn, Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits, Oakland, CA. University of California Press, 232, 2018.

Davey, A. and Szinovacz, M.E., 2004. Dimensions of marital quality and retirement. Journal of Family Issues25(4), pp.431-464.

(Kitson, Babri, Roach, & Placidi, 1989). from Susan L Brown, I-Fen Lin, Anna M Hammersmith, Matthew R Wright, Later Life Marital Dissolution and Repartnership Status: A National Portrait, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 73, Issue 6, September 2018, Pages 1032–1042

Koren, C., 2022. Dyadic experiences of love in late-life repartnering relationships. Journal of Family Issues43(10), pp.2624-2646.

Lin I.-F. 2008 Consequences of parental divorce for adult children’s support of their frail parents, Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 113– 128.

Samta P. Pandya, Meditation, Marital Adjustment, and Relationship Quality among Heterosexual Couples Who Remarry in Late-Life, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10.1080/15332691.2019.1661323, (1-25), (2019).

Shapiro, A., 2003. Later-life divorce and parent-adult child contact and proximity: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Family Issues24(2), pp.264-285.