American marriages have changed immeasurably over the years as law and society morph to fit the needs of their people. As the economic and social circumstances for many citizens improve, America has seen a rise in divorce rates over the past 100 years. One interesting phenomenon in the area of family law is “gray divorce,” a term coined to reference divorce in couples older than fifty.
The American Association of Retired People has found that Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are divorcing more frequently than any other generation. Understanding this unlikely statistic is dependent on the context of aging in a time where more Americans are financially and socially independent.
In a 30-year study conducted by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rates amongst those aged 65 and older had tripled by 2021. The reasons for this sharp incline are varied, but many are related to economic factors such as later career changes, more women choosing to work, and retirement.
For many Americans, work is the focal point of life. Many Baby Boomers were raised in a traditional nuclear family model of a working father and stay-at-home mother, with the division of labor relegating women to non-financial sectors. Thus, most married, non-working women had no means of supporting themselves unless they had access to wealth uncontrolled by their husbands. Indeed, legislation allowing women to have credit separate from their spouses was not passed until 1974 with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. After 1945, the number of women in the workforce steadily increased, allowing women in younger generations more and more financial freedom.
As Baby Boomers were one of the first generations to begin closing the gap in labor opportunities between men and women, the implications of how this movement towards greater financial independence impacts marriages late in life is playing out in real time. The average age of retirement is rising as many Americans either choose to work or find it necessary, and tensions around the decision to retire can cause conflict among couples. Some dual-income couples may feel that their financial situation could become unstable if one partner retires, while others may feel that their careers are developing differently, thus placing them in different stages of life.
While economics are certainly a large factor in determining the fate of many late-life marriages, social circumstances are equally, if not more, important. Americans are beginning to live longer and lead thriving social lives in their later years, with many retirees choosing to relocate to communities full of active, engaged older people. An enriching social group and wide network of friends could lead some seniors to feel less dependent on their spouse for connection and support, leaving fewer reasons to remain in a marriage.
Furthermore, as medical care advances and people experience less illness in their later years, some older married couples may contemplate the possibility of spending several more decades with their partner into old age. Where once retirement marked the beginning of a person’s final stage of life, many Americans now feel that their elderly years are a rich part of life when one can continue to grow and evolve, sometimes in different ways than his or her spouse.
Although many Americans are living longer lives, disease and accidents among the elderly are still common. A study by Boston University found that remarriage among older widows or widowers is rare, with about 2% of widows and 20% of widowers choosing to remarry after a spousal death. Whether a result of the loss of a partner or an initial divorce, re-marriages have much higher rates of failure than do first marriages. One report found that second marriages result in a divorce rate of about 60%, while third marriages end in divorce about 70% of the time.
Finally, more older Americans may be divorcing simply because they feel less social pressure to remain in an unhappy marriage. As Baby Boomers and older Generation X parents finish raising their children or those within their custody, they experience a phenomenon known as the “empty nest.” Put simply, when one’s adult children move out to find their own careers and partners, many parents experience changes in their romantic and social dynamics. While some rejoice at their newfound freedom and ability to return to work, hobbies, or travel, others may feel no further need to maintain their relationships with their spouses. Without children in the home to provide stability and support for, some parents choose to end their marriages that were only held together “for the kids’ sake.”
Although many divorced couples feel that their lives are happier after ending their relationships, divorce is a stressful time for most involved. Several key issues impact older divorcees as opposed to younger couples. Firstly, as older couples have had more time to work, save up, and accumulate assets, dividing shared wealth can be tricky. The matter of spousal maintenance can also be difficult to navigate among senior couples. Many state courts award alimony payments based on the length of the marriage, the cause of divorce, and each party’s life circumstances at the time of divorce. In cases where one spouse is chronically ill or unable to work, for example, courts must consider how his or her livelihood could be impacted by the divorce.
Divorce is indubitably one of the most stressful events a person can experience. Although there are many reasons why divorce is shifting to affect older Americans, many of whom desire stability and relaxation in their later stages of life, changing cultural norms are among the most pervasive. As relationship patterns change within younger generations, the phenomenon is likely to skew away from older couples, but gray divorce is still a noteworthy topic of investigation within family law.