In contrast to the seeming stabilization of divorce rates for the general population over the past two decades, the gray divorce rate has doubled: Married individuals aged 50 and older, including the college-educated, are twice as likely to experience a divorce today as they were in 1990. For married individuals aged 65 and older, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990. Researchers explain why.
Wedding ring, Byzantium, 7th c. AD, nielloed gold, Louvre; Wikimedia Commons
Contrary to the popular notion that divorce is increasing in the United States, the divorce rate has changed relatively little in recent decades. Marriages are not much more likely to end through divorce these days than they were 30 years ago. Yet this overall pattern of stability obscures important variations by class and age.
Generally, education tends to be protective against divorce. In fact, the marriages of college-educated couples seem to be lasting longer than they were 30 years ago. Among couples aged 40-49, the divorce rate for those with a college degree is about 50 percent lower than the rate for those with a high school diploma. This differential holds for younger adults ages 25-39, too.
But in contrast to the seeming stabilization of divorce rates for the general population over the past two decades, the gray divorce rate has doubled: Married individuals aged 50 and older,including the college-educated, are twice as likely to experience a divorce today as they were in 1990. For married individuals aged 65 and older, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990.
One reason for this is what we might call the divorce echo effect. Older individuals are more often in remarriages, not first marriages, and remarriages have long been more likely than first marriages to end through divorce. People who have been divorced in the past are more willing to divorce again in the event a marriage becomes unsatisfying. In contrast, some proportion of those in first marriages are unwilling to divorce even if they have an unsatisfying marriage.
But we are also seeing an increase in the breakup rate of older people in their first marriages. More than half of gray divorces are to couples in first marriages. Long-term marriages are not immune to divorce — more than 55 percent of gray divorces involved a split for couples who had been married more than 20 years. Many of these marriages have not been marked by severe discord. Rather, the partners have simply grown apart. There is no evidence that there are more such "empty shell" marriages than in the past, but fewer older adults seem willing to remain in them.
In part, this reflects the shifting meaning of marriage in contemporary America. Today, most people hold marriage to a higher standard than in the past. Being a good provider or a good homemaker is not enough. Spouses are supposed to be best friends and confidantes. Marriage should be a source of personal happiness and fulfillment. If spouses no longer derive satisfaction from their marriage, divorce is seen as a viable solution and carries far less social stigma then the past.
It may also be that the barriers to divorce at an older age have fallen markedly because Americans are living longer and healthier lives. For one thing, couples in their 60s can expect to live another 20 or more years, which is a long time to spend with someone you don't have much in common with anymore. For another, disability rates have been declining. Additionally, because of longer life spans and larger numbers of divorced people in the population, the opportunities for people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s to meet new partners are much greater than in earlier eras. Online dating is surging among this demographic.