Gray Divorce and How to Get through Divorce Late in Life
Divorce isn’t exclusive to younger couples, or even couples in midlife. In fact, an increasing number of American couples make the decision to split later in life, after their kids are grown and retirement is staring them in the face.
While the overall divorce rate has actually decreased slightly (it remains around 50%), gray divorce has doubled since 1990.
As you can imagine, divorce looks different for individuals in the 50+ demographic than it does for couples in their twenties, thirties, or forties. For this reason, many people consider “gray divorce” to be a unique situation with its own obstacles to overcome.
What is gray divorce?
The term “gray divorce” refers to couples over the age of 50 (namely baby boomers) who decide to call it quits on their marriage, often after long-term marriages. These couples may have spent decades together before choosing to separate, a decision that often baffles their children and other loved ones.
On average, 10 out of every 1,000 married individuals make the choice to split each year. And while some of these silver splitters are on their second marriage by the time they separate, experts say nearly one-third of all gray divorces occur among couples who shared 30 or more years of marriage together. In fact, 1 in 10 couples are married 40 or more years before deciding to end their marriage.
What are some reasons for gray divorce?
Committing to someone for the rest of your life is hard, which is why nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. However, couples who separate later in life often do so for reasons unique to their age group. In addition to people simply living longer lives, the following are some of the most common reasons for an increasing gray divorce rate.
Societal acceptance of divorce
Many older couples decide to separate simply because divorce is more acceptable nowadays. About half of all marriages end in divorce, and most people know at least one friend or family member who has gone through it. This acceptance can be a blessing for couples who married at a young age only to realize it wasn’t the best decision later in life.
As people age, they change. Sometimes, these changes push couples in different directions and cause them to grow apart. As spouses approach retirement, they sometimes realize that the spark they originally felt in their marriage no longer exists. Or, they may feel they don’t share common interests or goals with their spouse anymore.
Similarly, some people become less tolerant and flexible as they age. If one partner is set in their ways while the other experiences a midlife crisis, they can quickly grow apart. People in these situations don’t feel like they can spend another 20 (or more) years with someone they barely know, so they opt for divorce.
Life expectancy and happiness
Medical advances and a better understanding of health and nutrition have helped gradually increase the average life expectancy over the past 50 years. Now that people are living longer, they want to make sure they enjoy their final decades of life, which sometimes leads to divorce.
An increasing number of people are focusing on their mental health and well-being, too. This can push people to make decisions to find happiness, including leaving a marriage that no longer brings them joy.
Empty nest syndrome
As children grow up and move out, many couples experience empty nest syndrome. This emptiness sometimes pushes couples to reconnect, but other times, it causes them to realize they no longer have anything holding them together. Also, some people who previously devoted all of their time to their children look for ways to “fill the void.” In doing this, they realize they don’t really need their spouse anymore.
No longer staying together for the kids
Sometimes the kids moving out isn’t the catalyst for divorce. Rather, it’s the final step in a planned series of events for parents. Some couples make the decision to “stay together for the kids,” then part ways when the nest is empty. Many older couples delay the divorce process until they feel it won’t impact the family as much.
Infidelity or addiction breaking down the marriage
A significant number of marriages end due to infidelity. This trend is fairly consistent, even as people age. Sometimes, affairs occur because of differences in sexual desires between aging partners. Other times, infidelity is more emotional in nature, especially if a spouse was already experiencing marital dissatisfaction.
Sometimes, affairs don’t even occur with people — they occur with substances or other addictions. Addiction is on the rise among Americans over the age of 50, and a fair number of marriages end due to addiction and related complications.
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What should you do during and after gray divorce?
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your gray divorce, you are allowed to do more than just survive post-divorce — you deserve to shine. In fact, many people who divorce later in life look at their separation as a chance to improve many areas of their life, from their self-esteem to their physical health.
In the early stages of divorce, you will likely need time to process everything that happened and work on yourself. You will want to take care of all the legal processes and updates after divorce, to ensure things like social security benefits, retirement accounts, and other assets and debts are properly distributed. One of you may need alimony (spousal support), in order to carry out your plans for retirement. You’ll also need to get your healthcare in order, especially if you were on your spouse’s plan. If your financial security is a big concern, you might benefit from meeting with a CDFA or other financial advisor.
Then, of course, there are a lot of lifestyle adjustments. Many older adults thrive after divorce if they do a few essential things. This is the perfect time to evaluate your core values and create fulfilling goals for yourself that allow you to reconnect with the most important person in your life: you. This can be accomplished on your own or with the help of a life coach, divorce therapist, or other professional.
You may eventually want to date after divorce as well. Although dating after divorce can seem daunting, try to keep an open mind so you can experience the happiness you deserve. Just make sure you have a clear idea of what your deal-breakers are, and take things slow at first. In time, you’ll find your groove again, no matter how long it’s been since you entered the dating pool.
A note for adult children of gray divorce
Although divorce is difficult for any child, gray divorce can severely impact adult children. This type of divorce can place lots of stress on adult children as they grieve the loss of their family unit.
If you are an adult child dealing with your parents’ divorce, know that your feelings of shock, anger, sadness, and grief are valid. You will need time and space to process this news and re-establish relationships with both of your parents, and that’s OK. Just like your parents, you are allowed to do what you need to heal after this devastating life event.
If you need support, look for a trained professional who has experience working with adult children whose parents separate later in life, or seek out support groups with other people going through the same thing.
SourcesAge-related aspects of addiction. National Library of Medicine.
Gray Divorce Rates in the U.S. Bowling Green State University.
Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America's 50+ population. Pew Research Center.