Is There Life After Love? Examining The Rise Of Grey Divorce
We all know the statistic: 50% of marriages end in divorce nowadays. That’s what people quote while bitterly ranting about exes or stressing about their upcoming weddings or embracing singlehood — but it might not be true. Recent studies have shown a decline in the divorce rate in the United States. Why, that’s enough to make me believe in love after all! But before you pop in When Harry Met Sally, there’s another half to that new statistic. Divorces in people over age 50 have doubled in the last twenty years. That’s right, while general divorce statistics are dropping, divorces over 50 are on a sharp incline. Quick! Look at pictures of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.
Feel better? Okay, let’s get back on topic. Just what is going on here? Our moms and dads are getting divorced twice as often as they were twenty years ago? Why? And how has it affected dear old mom and dad? Is there, as Cher said truly, “life after love?” I wanted to find out.
I supposed we could chalk it up to the reason that everyone thinks marriages end—infidelity—but a number of researchers have not been content with that explanation. For a narcissistic twenty-something like myself, it’s a little hard to understand why after raising kids and spending 30 years together, someone would decide they want to call it quits on a relationship. In 1990, 1 in 10 people to get divorced were over 50; now, the number has jumped to 1 in 4. Our first inclination probably makes us think that it’s those men who are leaving their wives for younger women. However, the statistics give us a different picture. According to a survey conducted by AARP, 66% of these late life divorces are initiated by women, and only 27% of these marriages claim infidelity as a factor in the divorce. What is really happening to end these long marriages?
University of Pennsylvania researcher Betsey Stevenson points to longer life expectancy as being one of the major causes of these divorces, saying, “Some of those marriages that in previous generations would have ended in death now end in divorce.” As morbid as this thought is, it is true that baby boomers look forward to two or three more decades of healthy living and retirement. It appears that many of them wonder if they want to spend those last years with their current spouse. The irreconcilable differences that were previously hidden by children and busy work lives become much more blatant as adults near retirement age.
Other research points to personality, preference, and interest changes that happen throughout middle age as the determining factor for late-life divorces. Deidre Bair, in her book Calling it Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over, interviewed 300 hundred men and women who divorced after being married more than twenty years. She found that in these interviews, divorcees cited changes in lifestyle as being a trigger for their divorce. They do not seem to highlight the failure of their marriage, but rather the desire for a new opportunity to live out their remaining life they way they want. Bair also comments that many of the interviewees talk about their divorces in positive terms, rather than in the presumed terms of failure and shame.
Another contributing factor in late-life divorces is the increased financial equality in relationships. Now, with economic opportunities for women at an all-time high, older couples are in a better position to split and not face massive economic consequences. Now, both partners have the ability to live comfortably on their own and are finding that they enjoy that more. But if older divorcees want to find a new partner, studies show that they have no problem doing that. Both men and women, if interested in finding new partners to spend their “golden years” with, tend to find them quickly.
Perhaps the most important and interesting contributing factor for these “grey divorces” is the difference in the factors that contributed to the marriage in the first place. Most of the demographic in the grey divorce got married in the 1970s, a time when marriage and romantic ideals were changing. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, since baby boomer marriages were sought for self-fulfillment, it becomes easier to divorce for self-fulfillment as well. Marriage is no longer an economic or familial contract, and thus, modern couples are taking their own desires into consideration when they divorce.
There are many factors that could possibly contribute to the rise in “grey divorces,” and it’s hard to place any more weight on one than on the others. What is clear is that older people are increasingly seeking the opportunity to start over after age 50. Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot more to marriage than we originally thought, and it’s dramatically changing the lives of our parents’ generation. And ultimately, ours.
Written by Sarah Garner
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May 23, 2013
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