Gray Divorce: Splitting Up in the Elder Years

Gray Divorce

Whatever the reason and whenever the season, divorce is a painful process. Over the last five or so decades, the divorce rate in our country has steadily climbed to between 40% and 50%, to where it rests now. What is shocking is that seniors are as accepting towards divorce as the younger generations. Divorce has become so common among the upper age groups that the term “gray divorce” has been given to couples over the age of 50 who end their marriages.

The Divorce Careerist

According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, from 1990 to 2010 the divorce rate of people over the age of 50 doubled, even though the overall divorce rate had generally stabilized. With such a shocking rise, researchers looked into the reasons why this trend was happening. What they found was something of a correlation with the rising divorce rate from years prior.

…secondary marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages.

When looking at the divorce rate, researchers found that only 41% of the gray divorced population was divorcing for the first time. 59% were divorcing again, having one divorce prior to age 50 and another after 50. This group became known as the divorce careerists. The concept is upheld by other researchers who cite secondary marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages. Given that the highest divorce rates for our nation were highest in the ’70s and ’80s, it may be that the divorce careerists are a product of that era, but more research is still needed.

Given Reasons for Divorce

AARP also conducted a study to better understand the reasons why divorce rates had increased so sharply. What they found was that among gray divorcers the reasons for divorce were much the same as those given by the younger generations:

  • Abuse (34%)
  • Value differences and lifestyle changes (29%)
  • Infidelity (27%)
  • Simply fell out of love (24%)

However, further reasons were given, such as money problems, one of the partners being a control “freak,” abandonment, substance abuse, and burn-out at being the only one who carried all the burdens in the marriage. Homosexuality, religious differences, and declining health were also reasons, but these reasons were only given for less than 5% of cases. Many of the given reasons were also combined (and accounts for why the percentages exceed 100%). In many cases it wasn’t just one single factor, that ended the marriage but a combination of two or three things.

Differences between Men and Women 

It was also documented in the AARP study that women filed for divorce more often than men, yet both ex-spouses held the other at fault for the dissolution of the marriage. When they were asked who held most of the responsibility, the majority of men stated that their wives were the ones at fault because they were too controlling. For their part, the majority of women faulted their husbands for being unfaithful to them. Yet it was women who pointed the finger more often and men who were more inclined to admit a shared role.

In the divorce careerist group, what they both agreed upon for the most part (77%) was that divorce the second time around was less difficult than when they were in their 20’s and 30’s.

After Effects of a Gray Divorce 

Aside from the emotionally devastating nature of divorce, often characterized as worse than losing a job, but slightly less challenging than experiencing the death of a spouse, economic hardship is cited as one of the more difficult effects of a gray divorce. Women were particularly more prone to economic disadvantage, far more than their younger cohorts. When it came to gray divorcees receiving Social Security benefits, women received lesser benefits ($10, 995) as opposed to men’s benefits ($13, 633). That is a notable distinction when you compare the poverty rate of gray divorced women (27%) to gray divorced men living in poverty (11%).

While it may make better financial sense to stay married later in life, some feel that divorce just can’t be helped. Despite the hardships associated with the complex nature of divorce, gray divorce rates remain high in our society today.



Hawkins, Alan J., and Fackrell, Tamara A. (2009). Should I Keep Trying to Work it Out? A guidebook for couples at the crossroads of divorce (and before). Utah Commission on Marriage. Available at Last Visited February 26, 2016.

Lin, I-Fen, Brown, Susan L., Hammersmith, Anna M. (November 2015). Marital Biography, Social Security, and Poverty. National Center for Family & Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University. Available at Last Visited February 26, 2016.

Montenegro, Xenia P. (2004) The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond. AARP. Available at Last Visited February 26, 2016.