Till Death, or Midlife, Do Us Part: The Graying of Divorce

Back in the day, when your marriage made it past the 4-year, 7-year, 14-year and 21-year marks, you were likely home free. Data sets indicate there are peaks in divorce at these times (so there is actual evidence of a “7 year itch” and at multiples of seven years; but I digress). Married folks over 50 used to just keep their heads down, stay in, and slog it out till they shed this mortal coil. Today, older married adults are seeking divorce at a rapidly increasing rate. Here are four reasons why:

Increasing life span. We’re living longer now. At age 50, the option of just sticking with an unpleasant marriage isn’t appealing when it entails another 3 or 4 decades of devitalization and  soul sucking, and suffering. How have divorce trends changed in the past 30 years? In 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 persons who got divorced were over the age of 50. But today, it’s 1 in 4 (Brown). What about folks over 65? The divorce rate for this age group has tripled since 1990 (Pew Research Center, 2017). These are dramatic shifts, and as the trends gather strength, spouses in their 50s, 60s and beyond are seeing divorce as an option, despite the possibility of a contestation, expensive legal fees, disruption of one’s social support networks (i.e., the “community divorce”), and general heartache involved.

Weakening of marriage as an institution. Whereas the vast majority had a favorable view of the institution of marriage decades ago, an increasing number of folks today say to themselves “I’m not ready to be (or no longer wish to be) institutionalized.”  As individuals’ assessment of the value of marriage veers increasingly toward consideration of their own individual fulfillment and satisfaction (Brown, 2012), and adults encounter significant transitions and nodal points later in the life cycle (think empty nest, and further down the road, retirement), spouses seize opportunities to hit the “pause” button, and ask one very important question: “Do I want to spend another 20, 30 even 40 years with this person?”

Growing apart. This is the most common explanation for the graying of divorce. Often we’re not the same people we were when we first got married. As we change as individuals, it’s easy to head in different directions and have fewer things in common over time. Further, whom we wanted as our partner in our 20s may not be the person we want when we’re in our 50s or 60s. Priorities, values, and personal philosophies change, and some of those changes can be significant. Take religiosity, for example. If both partners considered themselves highly religious and practiced their faith together as a couple in 1988, but one spouse in 2018 is (1) no longer practicing, or (2) has changed religious affiliation (e.g., is now an atheist), one could see how one or both partners could see a central component of their original “marital contract” as now being null and void. Some changes in views and values might be seen as “deal breakers”, leading to irreconcilable differences.

Midlife crisis.  Midlife is a time where people take stock on where they’ve been and where they’re headed when life is more than half over. With our expiration date 3 or 4 decades away, we wonder if this is all life’s about, or is there something more? Much has been made of the double standard for aging men, whom many view as still “marketable” and “attractive”, versus the common sexist phrase applied to mature women: being “of a certain age.” One might think with this double standard in play, and patriarchy not quite dead, that it’s older men that are more likely to deliver a pink slip to their spouses. But a recent AARP study suggests otherwise: Approximately two-thirds of older-adult divorces are initiated by women. Sociologist Susan Brown points to the increasing economic independence of women who no longer must choose between poverty and staying in an unsatisfying marriage. And it’s possible that mature women, and men, in moments of clarity, simply realize that their personal needs, and the qualities they value in a companion, have changed. Some decide to do something about it.

My advice to spouses as a couples therapist? Make time for regular marriage tune-ups. We regularly visit the garage to increase the reliability and endurance of our cars; why not do the same for an even bigger investment?  My other suggestion is to check in regularly with your partner and ask how they are feeling about life, marriage and everything, and really listen to what he or she has to say. Your marriage might be worth saving, and might yet survive, if one is willing to do the work and is not afraid to ask the tough questions. I wish you a good night, and good luck.

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