Sailing past the 7-year-itch mark, use to be a promising sign your marriage was in the safe zone. That is until a new statistic came out making many wonder if the lifelong institution of marriage is still possible to achieve after all. Although divorce among the general population is lower than ever, a new group is getting divorced at an increasingly alarming rate. It’s a phenomenon known as “the gray divorce.” The divorce rate for people over 50 has doubled over the last 20 years, according to new research done by Bowling Green State University.
To outsiders, these long-term marriages seemed to work to. So what stops them from achieving till death dous part?
One explanation for this growing trend may be our cultural acceptance of divorce. The United States presently holds one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Divorce is more common now and doesn’t carry the same social stigma it once did. This societal attitude shift may weaken the idea that marriage is a lifelong institution. As they experience life transitions like retirement or the empty nest syndrome, older adults now have time to pause and think about whether they want to spend the next 20 or 30 years together. The baby boomer population is healthier, living longer and looking younger than ever before. They are less willing to remain in empty marriages that are not gratifying. These divorcing seniors often describe their thinking like this: “I only have a few years left, and I might as well make the most of it.”
Divorce is seen as a solution to a less than rewarding union. In the 1950s and 1960s, couples assessed the success of their union based on how well husbands and wives performed their roles. If the roles were performed well, it was considered a successful marriage. The 1970s ushered in the notion of self-fulfillment and personal happiness in marriage. If a marriage wasn’t emotionally satisfying, divorce was viewed as a possible solution to end this problem.
This may also explain why more women than men are initiating the gray divorce. The research shows more women are willing to leave a marriage for emotional well being. They are wealthier and more independent than ever before. They no longer need a man for financial stability. And some men being left are often blindsided by their wives’ decision.
When you scratch the surface of these relationships, some couples drifted apart over the years, because they no longer felt they had anything in common. Other couples were living parallel lives throughout their marriage and/or felt there was a lack of connection emotionally and/or physically.
So is this decision to divorce during the later years really offering a better life? The research is mixed. Later-life divorce certainly offers its share of challenges. There are the financial challenges and the potential to jeopardize one’s future economic well-being, along with the loneliness, devastated adult children, the loss of social circles, and support networks, plus the reality of facing medical ailments and illnesses alone. AARP conducted a study of divorcee’s in their 40s, 50s and 60s to find that later-life divorce did leave some feeling happier and emotionally healthier than they might have expected.
One trend is clear: sociologists expect the divorce numbers among this age group to rise. So for better or for worse, marriage during the golden years may be looking more gray.
Dr. Robi Ludwig is a National TV commentator and psychotherapist who practices in New York City. She is also the author of the book, “Till Death Do Us Part” as well as a contributor for both Care.com and TODAY.com.