Over the past twenty years, the American divorce rate has actually declined. However, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, for people over 50 the divorce rate has doubled. The WSJ article cited research by Bowling Green State University psychologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin as well as a 2004 national survey conducted by the AARP. In 1990, only 1 in 10 people over 50 divorced. By 2009, the number was approximately 1 in 4. More than 600,000 people over 50 got divorced in 2009. Brown and Lin predict that, with current trends, the number of over-50 divorces could top 800,000 per year by 2030. Contrary to popular belief, women are initiating most of the breakups and it’s not always because of cheating. The AARP study found that women wanted to end the marriage 66% of the time, and only 27% of divorcés cited infidelity as one of their top three reasons for seeking divorce. Brown and Lin examined several factors that may be at play here.
One of the most important potential factors in the success or failure of a marriage is the history of the parties’ relationships, or what Brown and Lin call, the “marital biography.” Baby-boomers have much more complex marital biographies. Through the 1960s, divorce was taboo. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the coming of age for baby-boomers, widespread attitudes about divorce were shifting in society and the divorce rate accelerated. Many of the individuals who divorced then as young adults eventually remarried. Second and third marriages are at a higher risk of divorce than first marriages. In fact, 53% of people over 50 now getting divorced have done so at least once before. Having been married previously doubles the risk of divorce for those ages 50-64. For those ages 65 and up, the risk factor quadruples. The combination of multiple marriages and less societal stigma appears to be the main factor behind why today more people over 50 are seeking divorce.
Another potential factor contributing to the increased divorce rate for the over-50 generations Brown and Lin identified has to do with the roles of men and women in general. According to Brown, over the past century there have been three phases of American views of marriage. First, there was the “institutional” phase, during the decades before World War II, when marriage was seen largely as an economic union. This was followed in the 1950s and 1960s by the “companionate” phase. Society assessed the marriage’s quality or success in terms of how the partners performed their roles as a husband or wife. A husband was to be a good provider, and a wife was to be a good mother and homemaker. If they performed their roles well, couples should be satisfied with the marriage. In the 1970s, the boomers initiated what Brown calls the “individualized” phase, with an emphasis on self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. If the marriage was not making one of the partners happy, divorce was an acceptable solution.
At the same time, there is a weakening of marriage as a life-long institution. As older adults experience other life transitions, such as retirement or an empty nest, there is time to reflect on whether they want to spend the rest of their life with their spouse. Especially now with longer life spans, a person that was a good spouse 30 years ago is no longer the right match. Older adults today are also less willing to remain in “empty-shell” marriages – marriages that are OK, but not particularly satisfying for the individuals involved.
Furthermore, according to the AARP study, two-thirds of older-adult divorces are initiated by women. Brown and Lin believe this could be because expectations for women in society today are quite different than they were 40 years ago. Most wives today are in the labor force, and that provides them with the economic autonomy to be able to leave a marriage that they’re not happy in. Marriage is much less about an economic exchange or a financial bargain than it was in the past. Men and women don’t “need” to be married (typically thinking of this in terms of women’s dependence on men), so as women become more financially independent, there is not much reason to stay in an unhappy marriage.
Other financial considerations may include bearing the burden of the cost of health care. Some older couples may divorce in order to qualify for Medicaid long-term care. With a divorce, if one partner becomes ill, the other partner would not be as burdened financially by the health care expenses of the ill spouse.
Despite many older divorcés saying they’re happy, getting divorced comes with various challenges for people over 50 that aren’t necessarily there if the split had come earlier. From a financial point of view, later life divorces can be a real liability. Older people have fewer years ahead of them and less time to recover financially from what can happen as a result of divorce, and some assets, such as a well-established business or a house, cannot be sawed in half and easily divided. The financial burdens can be harder on women who want to keep the family home. If this is the only asset they get, they become “land rich and cash poor.”
Surprisingly to many folks, adult children are impacted by their parents’ divorce. It’s often assumed that adult offspring, because they’re mature and independent, are better equipped to take their parents’ divorce in stride, but that’s often not the case. A later-in-life breakup can take a devastating toll on adult children. In some cases education or career plans may be threatened by financial issues. The children may also become very angry toward the parent who is initiating the divorce and who may be jeopardizing both the children’s and the other parent’s economic well-being.
While divorce for the older generation is seen as an avenue for freedom, independence, and personal satisfaction, often the economic detriments make that choice difficult and far more burdensome than anticipated at the onset of the break up. Various studies have indicated that older divorced women in particular are at a substantial economic disadvantage due to divorce. Older couples thinking about divorce should consider consulting with a mediator before embarking on what can be a long and arduous process. This way the parties have an opportunity to invent more creative solutions to divide the marital property. With mediation, both parties are also more likely to collaborate and cooperate because it allows each family member to be heard, thereby mitigating hostility that might otherwise result because of the divorce.
This blog was researched and co-written by Sophia De Santis, JD.