Sex & Relationships

Gray Divorce: Splitting Up At 65-Plus


Golden wedding anniversaries get the press, but sometimes there’s a different chapter to the happily-ever-after story. Divorce among adults 65-plus – some in their original, long-term marriage – is on the rise.

“The perception is that older people don’t get divorced,” says researcher Susan L. Brown, PhD, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

She’s discovered that they do – and in growing numbers. From 1980 to 2008, she found, divorce among men 65 and older doubled from 5 to 10 percent. Among women 65 and and older, it tripled, from 4 to 12 percent.

In 2010, 1 of every 20 people in the US who got divorced was 65-plus, Brown has found, using Census Bureau data.

The trend for senior divorce isn’t nearly as strong as it is among Baby Boomers age 50 to 64, whose divorce rate is more than four times that of those 65-plus. Still, those seniors are a substantial part of the what’s being called the “gray divorce” trend. And these splits can take family and friends by surprise.

Why Split After 65?

What’s going on in the marriages of those 65 and older?

“For many of these couples it’s about drifting apart,” Brown says, rather than a deal-breaking event such as an affair. “We are not the same person we were at 25 or 45. Some of these turning points – such as empty nest – can be pauses that cause us to reflect on where we are in our lives and if this is where we expect to be in our lives,” she says.

These days, Brown says, a 65-year-old can expect to live 20 or more years. That’s a long time to feel dissatisfied.

Many others are in remarriages that didn’t work. “For the 65-plus in a remarriage, their divorce rate is more than three times higher than those in the first marriage,” Brown says.

According to Brown, those who remarried later had a smaller pool to choose from than the first time. They may have compromised – and now regret it. Blended families can also prove too stressful.

Those who have been divorced in the past know it’s difficult, but also know that life goes on, she says.

Their mindset is different than those who hang in for decades with their first marriage, even if it’s not great. Among those in a first marriage who do not divorce, “A good share are dissatisfied, but not willing to get a divorce for personal, financial or religious reasons,” Brown says.

Life at 65 and Solo

Once divorced, older men tend to have a more difficult time emotionally than do older women, especially if they don’t remarry, says Leslie Martin, Ph.D. professor and chair of psychology at La Sierra University in Riverside, Ca.

That’s due to women typically having a larger social support network, she says.

Divorced or not, social connections are vital to improving older adults’ health and well-being,  Martin found. With Howard Friedman, Ph.D., Martin has co-authored “The Longevity Project,” a book on the findings from an 80-year study of 1,500 Americans – what affects their life expectancy and health.

Those unmarried older people who reached out, taking time to make a phone call and talk with family and friends regularly, and who stayed involved in the community, did better, she says.

Is online as good? Martin says they didn’t study that. “My guess would be that if you are pretty isolated,  however you can reach out and connect is going to be beneficial,” she says. However, ”if you already have contacts in person, giving those up to go online is probably not such a good idea.”

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7 responses to “Gray Divorce: Splitting Up At 65-Plus

  1. Interesting that this photo is even a topic for discussion. As I am 43 and my husband 50 always keeps the bed if I am irritated, What’s wrong with our society! Does a gender matter if you sleep on a couch. Disgusting to me that the photo had such merit. If your mad at your spouse/ partner you belong on the couch to get away. If they truly care, then I suppose your absence in bed is punishment enough for both to get through it or over it.

  2. I wonder if focusing on the “man sleeping on the couch” is a distraction from the content of the piece, the real focus! I could make many older people uncomfortable even thinking about the issue, let alone reading about the realities, both good and bad. And there is both…just like all of the decisions we make in our lifetime.

  3. That could have been a picture of myself and I am a female. So many nights on the sofa….better than not sleeping at all,due to my husband’s snoring! And I wouldn’t have been bothered by the picture if it had been a female,instead of a male. It’s all a matter of personal perceptio .

    Please forgive the editor for choosing a picture of a man sleeping on the couch….

  4. I doubt that I will ever get a reply but it would be great if the author would respond to me. Though I liked the article, I am very unhappy about your photo choice of a man sleeping on a sofa. Divorce at any age is of course stressful but it is extremely difficult for both men and women over age 65. I searched for an article to help me rationally plan for my divorce but felt worse immediately after seeing the photo of the man sleeping on the sofa. Ms. Doheny, was it your intent to make the man feel fearful or to expect “punishment” as a result of the divorce? I do not think most people would choose to use a photo of a woman on a sofa. Readers would tend to feel pity or anger if this were case. I would greatly appreciate a response as I wonder if you see any merit to my assessment as to the photo choice. Thank you your article and taking the time to read my coment.

    1. Hi Vincent, the author is not responsible for the photo choice — it’s an editorial decision. As I’m sure you realize, this article is about a trend in “gray divorce” rather than being a guide targeted at people who are going through divorce. As such, we looked for a photo that is illustrative of the idea of gray divorce. No meaning is attributed to the fact that a man is shown — it could have been a woman — and we were not trying to inspire feelings of pity or anger, or any other feeling, in fact. We’re very sorry our choice upset you.

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