The Gray Divorcee

Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin note that Americans over 50 are twice as likely to get divorced as they were in 1990 – and that, unlike for younger couples, education appears to offer no protection against a split. They explain:

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.