A Look At The Rise Of Late-In-Life Divorce

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

Young people who are serious about their lives and future often set goals that they want to achieve, even if the goal may take years or even decades to achieve. Their goal may involve a level of education, a career, a family structure or a degree of community involvement. By the time that 20- or 30-year-old has hit 50, though, they’ve almost undoubtedly realized something: they’ve had to adjust their goals in line with the reality of their life as it’s unfolded.

That Ph.D. that was once so valued lost its shimmer in grad school, and a career in business ended up being a person’s calling. The middle manager with their eye on a C-Suite never made the cut. The husband and wife who dreamed of a big family found they could not have kids. The list of life’s challenges is endless, and people find they simply must adjust.

One recent trend that reflects the realization that it’s okay to adjust — to drastically change course in the middle of life — is the rise in the divorce rate among older Americans. A couple of statistics highlights the change in attitude. In 1980, a little under nine percent of all divorces in the United States involved people over 50. Fast forward to 2019. That rate hit 36 percent — four times the percentage from 1980!

The Impact of Later-In-Life Divorce

Divorce is almost always a traumatic event, but issues surrounding divorce are different at different stages of life. Writing about later-in-life divorce for the American Psychological Association, Charlotte Huff says, “The logistics and stakes involved can present unique challenges, according to researchers and psychologists. Adults who separate finances later in life may have more assets involved. If they married when they were young, their mutual social ties may stretch back decades to their religious community, volunteer organizations, and neighborhood friends. Their children — whether youths, teenagers, or adults themselves — will be emotionally impacted in differing ways.” In short, there’s probably a lot involved with divorce when you’re over 50.

Huff goes on to give some good advice which actually applies at any age: try to figure out what the true issue is prompting you to consider divorce. For those over 50, it’s wise to step back and look at any other challenges you’re facing. If you’ve recently retired, become an empty-nester or undergone any other major transition, is that the real problem? If you can’t find answers through self-reflection, a psychologist or counselor may be able to help you through the process.

Why Is Late-In Life Divorce Become More Common?

A natural question to ask about the rise in the divorce rate among Americans over 50 is — why? Huff offers some possible explanations: “To some extent, the trends in later-life divorce reflect more modern trends… Women are more likely now to have careers and related economic autonomy. Over time, society has placed greater expectations on marital quality, leaving partners more reluctant to settle for what some have described as “empty shell” marriages, particularly after the children leave home… Increased life expectancy may be a possibility, with potentially decades of relatively good health ahead.”

Another factor may involve generational characteristics. We’ve become accustomed to lumping people into generations — Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials etc. — but there are actually well researched characteristics for each generation that are surprisingly accurate. That may explain why the rise in divorce among those over 50 began in 1990 and leveled off in 2010. Baby Boomers in their 20’s and 30’s began to get divorced at an increasing rate, and it may be they simply continued that pattern late in life.

There are many other issues associated with late-in-life divorce — “ripple effects,” Huff calls them. How does fear of loneliness affect decisions? How do you cope with the loss of in-laws or friends? How do you create new social bonds? How do you cope with adult children who may not all feel the same about the situation? There’s a lot to unpack with “gray divorce.” For a full discussion of the topic, read Huff’s full article here.