Gray Divorce: Splitting Up in Later Life


Many years ago, my grandmother attended a 50th wedding anniversary party for her friends, Joan and Alan. The couple spared no expense. Champagne flowed, the band played late into the night, the finest food was served. Several hundred guests traveled from all over the country to celebrate the joyous occasion.

A few weeks later, Joan announced that she was getting divorced.

“But why now, after all these years?” my grandmother asked.

“I just couldn’t take him anymore,” Joan replied.

When my grandmother told me this story many years ago, splitting up after decades of marriage was considered shocking and almost unheard-of. Today, however, couples throughout the world age 50 and older are divorcing in increasingly greater numbers (Ortiz-Ospina & Roser, 2020). While the general divorce rate has leveled, or even lowered slightly, since the 1990s, it has more than doubled among this demographic, and continues to rise. Twenty years ago, approximately 1 in 10 couples divorced after age 50; today, the rate is almost 25% (Brown & Lin, 2012). Divorce among boomers and seniors has been given its own moniker, gray divorce.

Why couples are gray divorcing

Increased longevity. In most countries throughout the world, people are living longer (He, Goodkind, & Kowal, 2016). Improvements and advances in technology and medicine, the availability of prenatal and pediatric care, and better nutrition afford us lives that not only are longer, but often are of better quality in the later years than those of previous generations. Gone are the days of the old folk passing their days in rocking chairs on the porch. Modern seniors are more likely to be found on the tennis court, enrolling in adult education courses, and traveling the world. Gyms offer classes adapted to the needs and interests of the 50+ body. “Old age homes” have been rebranded as senior living centers.

In the past, people usually did not live for a long time post-retirement. Today, many stay alive for 20 or even 30 years after their working lives end, oftentimes remaining in good health for much or most of this time (Moore, 2018). Longer lifespans don’t always bode well for marriages. Couples may find they lack common interests once the nest has emptied, or their interests have developed in different directions. Some, like Joan, who tolerated unsatisfactory marriages, no longer wish to do so without the distractions of work and kids to buffer them from the reality of the relationship. Today’s older couples thoughtfully evaluate how they wish to spend their later years. Sometimes the existing marriage doesn’t fit their vision.

Women are more financially independent. More than 60% of gray divorces are initiated by women (Ellin, 2015). And they’re doing so because they finally can. In 1948, approximately one third of U.S. women age 55 and older worked outside the home. By 1996, that figure had climbed to nearly 75% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).

Prior to the 1970 passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in the US, banks required single, widowed or divorced women to bring a man along to cosign any credit application, regardless of their income. Banks discounted the value of women’s wages when considering how much credit to grant, by as much as 50%. Until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women legally could be dismissed from their jobs if they became pregnant (The Guardian, 2014).
Employment does not necessarily mean income parity or a living wage. However, for women who are able to support themselves, economic security allows self-determination and the ability to leave a bad or unsatisfying marriage.

High failure rate of second (and subsequent) marriages. “Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” —Oscar Wilde

As gray divorce in first marriages increases, the failure rate of subsequent marriages is even higher. In the U.S., approximately 67% of second marriages and 73% of third marriages end in divorce (Banschick, 2012). Yet, despite the high failure rate of second and third marriages, a majority of older people are doing it. According to a Pew Research Institute study, two-thirds (67%) of previously married adults ages 55 to 64 had remarried, while 50% of adults ages 65 and older tied the knot again (Livingston, 2014).

Often, people rush into a new relationship without having looked at their own responsibility for the unhealthy patterns in the marriage they’ve left, leaving them shocked and crushed when they realize they’ve replicated their previous dynamic. Second marriages also fail because, after people survive one divorce, they know they can do so again. People leave sooner with each successive marriage (Banschick, 2012).

Destigmatization of divorce

Pre-no fault divorce, many people didn’t know someone who had been divorced. If they did, they often speculated about and criticized the person’s character. After all, if you were divorced, you had to have done something wrong, or so the thinking went.

Prior to 1970, California was the first U.S. state to pass no-fault divorce legislation. Today, all 50 states have some form of no-fault divorce; 13 states and the District of Columbia only allow for divorce on no-fault grounds (World Population Review, 2020).

At-fault divorce requires the spouse who is filing to prove grounds for the dissolution of the marriage. The often leads to made-up charges, humiliation, and reputation damage to the accused spouse. Relationships with children often are damaged when one or both parents become vilified. The passage of no fault divorce has given spouses both the confidence and permission to extricate from an unhappy relationship.

The downsides of gray divorce

Loneliness. Men and women alike worry about being lonely after divorce. Even when they dislike or are not treated well by their spouse, having someone in the house can seem preferable to the sounds of silence. For those divorcing later in life, living longer and healthier lives may mean spending a lot of time alone, especially for women. While the odds of remarriage are high, especially for men, a lot of people will stay single.

Of the men who remarry, 20% will chose a second wife who is younger by at least 10 years (Livingston, 2014), substantiating the legend of the trophy wife and accounting, in part, for the much lower remarriage rate for women.

Men, too, fear loneliness, but their concerns relate to losing friends and relationships with their children. They are more likely to be alienated from their children after a gray divorce. Adult children of divorce (ACODs) are less likely to offer care and support for their fathers (Lin, 2008). Several factors account for this, one being that fathers of older generations were not as involved in raising their children. Another reason is the high rate of remarriage for men after divorce, leaving fathers in less need of emotional and social support than mothers. Women who held traditional roles while married may never have paid a bill nor obtained computer skills, and often need the help of their adult children. Add to this the frequently-experienced difficulty ACODs often encounter of getting along with a stepmother and her family, which indirectly hurts the relationship with the father.

Financial worries

Employment does not necessarily equate to financial independence. Many, especially women and people of color, work in low paying jobs with few or no benefits (Justice in Aging, 2018). On average, older women received about $4,500 less annually in Social Security benefits in 2014 than older men due to lower lifetime earnings, time taken off for caregiving, occupational segregation into lower wage work, and other issues. Older women of color fare even worse (National Council on Aging, 2015).

Older women experience age discrimination at earlier ages (at least age 50, whereas for men, age discrimination typically begins at age 65) and face much more age discrimination than older men (Cohen, 2019).

One-third of LGBT older adults live below 200% of the federal poverty level (Sage, 2018). The poverty rate for Blacks and Hispanics is more than double that of non-Hispanic Whites (Stern, 2020). Since the beginning of the pandemic, jobs in leisure and hospitality, education and health services, and the retail trade have caused more lost employment for women than for men, with Hispanic and Asian women disproportionally affected (Kochar & Rakesh, 2020). Societal privilege impacts who is able to divorce at any time, but later in life there is less opportunity to replace lost resources or save up for the future.

Potential therapeutic issues for divorce questioning and divorcing clients over age 50

Marriage and family therapists, mental health professionals, clergy and other divorce professionals are noticing a growing number of older clients who are requesting help with making the divorce decision, coping with fear and emotional pain, and learning how to rebuild lives in later years. Gray divorce presents challenges not typically experienced by younger couples. To be most effective when working with these clients, therapists should understand the difficulties faced by this demographic—boomers currently make up over 21% of the population (Statista, 2019).

For my upcoming book, Gray Divorce: Everything You Need to Know About Later-Life Breakups, I surveyed counselors in order to determine their needs when working with older divorcing or divorce questioning couples and individuals. Respondents expressed feeling most well-equipped to work with later-life divorce when they have been through their own gray divorces. Younger counselors acknowledged they do not fully grasp the particular issues faced because they are not yet personally familiar with the challenges. Additionally, they have not been given training in working with aging clients. Even therapists nearing and older than age 50 are unsure they are aware of challenges specific to gray divorce. Most who feel that they know how to work with older divorcing people added the caveat: But, I don’t know what I don’t know.

Some things for therapists to consider

Many boomers and seniors have never lived alone. The average age of marriage has been creeping up steadily, affording younger generations the experience of fending for themselves before settling down. Baby boomers frequently married right out of college, or even high school, or lived with their parents until marriage. The prospect of living as a single person can be terrifying.

The vast majority of those over age 55 have at least one, and sometimes several chronic health conditions (National Institute on Aging, 2017). Exacerbating the fear of living alone is the stress of getting to doctor appointments and medical procedures when there is no accompanying spouse. Many struggle with self-care when living with chronic or acute illnesses. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many older people to spend months in isolation, unable even to see their children and grandchildren, often unable to receive needed medical care.

It’s hard to form new support systems. Those systems already in place tend to be lost as contemporaries retire and move away, or become ill or die. The children of boomers are likely to move out-of-state, or even out of the country, whereas previous generations tended to stay close to where they were raised. Opportunities for forging new friendships are more limited, especially when mobility and transportation difficulties exist. During the child-raising and working years, supports often are formed by connecting with other parents, and with co-workers. Empty nesters and retirees lose this organic means of creating community.

Society holds the expectation that adult children whose parents divorce will not be traumatized. ACODs experience the trauma in different ways than younger children do. They may come to believe their childhood was a lie, particularly when their parents’ marriage was not overtly conflictual. ACODs easily become triangulated and struggle with loyalty issues. They suffer financially when their parents suddenly need to divide assets and renege on promises such as paying for school or providing a down payment on a house. They may lose childcare when a parent has to go back to work after divorce.

Therapists learn in grad school about developmental tasks associated with different life stages. This idea can be applied to divorce throughout the adult lifespan. Baby boomers and beyond going through divorce experience the divorce dissimilarly than do younger adults. They (and their families) require different resources, and oftentimes more of them. In order to work effectively with later-life breakups, therapists must understand the unique needs and fears, and be prepared to work systemically as their clients struggle with the realities of gray divorce.

The passage of no fault divorce has given spouses both the confidence and permission to extricate from an unhappy relationship.

Linda Hershman

Linda Hershman, MS, LMFT, is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor, and owner of the group practice, Couples and Family Wellness Center, with offices in the Philadelphia area. She presented on Gray Divorce at the 2019 AAMFT conference, and at the International Family Therapy Association World Congress in Aberdeen, Scotland. She currently is working on Gray Divorce: Everything You Need to Know About Later-Life Breakups.


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