The rise of “gray divorce”

Sociologist Susan L. Brown, in the L.A. Times, examines the reasons for the increasing number of older Americans (and Canadians, if my practice is representative) choosing to end their marriages:

Until recently, it would have been fair to say that older people simply did not get divorced. Fewer than 10% of those who got divorced in 1990 were ages 50 or older. Today, 1 in 4 people getting divorced is in this age group.

It turns out that those high-profile breakups of Tipper and Al Gore, and Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were part of a trend. Baby boomers, who drove the huge increase in divorce that began during the 1970s and persisted through the early 1980s, are at it again. Just as they have transformed other arenas of U.S. social life, boomers are now reshaping the contours of divorce.

The rise in “gray divorce” is a product of dramatic changes in the meaning of marriage in America over the last half-century. Today, we live in an era of individualized marriage, in which those who wed have high expectations for marital success. Americans expect marriage to provide them not simply with stability and security but also with self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. Roles are flexible; the traditional breadwinner-homemaker model is no longer the status quo. Good spouses engage in open communication and are best friends. This is a high bar for many to achieve, let alone maintain over decades while juggling work and child-rearing.

If a marriage is not achieving these goals, then divorce is an acceptable solution, according to most Americans. As Ann Landers famously advised those considering divorce, simply answer the question, “Are you better off with or without your spouse?”

[…]

The more complex marital biographies of many boomers thus have enduring consequences, potentially placing them at heightened risk of a later-life divorce. Another factor in the growing rate of late-life divorces includes an increased tendency of couples to reassess their unions at life turning points, such as an empty nest or retirement. Lengthening life expectancies can play a role too. Men and women who are 65 can expect to live 20 more years, a long time to spend with someone you may not like so much anymore.

The consequences of this gray divorce revolution are largely unknown. Because relatively few older adults divorced in the past, there is little research on the implications of later-life divorce for the well-being of individuals, their families and society at large.

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