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What is Gray Divorce? What Does it Mean for You?

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October 2, 2023 •  Emily Hicks Law, PLLC
Why are baby boomers getting divorced now more than ever?

According to an article by AARP, the divorce rate among boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — are divorcing more than any other generation with the most significant increase among people 65 and older: The rate tripled from 1990 to 2021.

A recent analysis of divorce data spanning from 1990 to 2021 conducted by Bowling Green State University's National Center for Family and Marriage Research reveals a significant increase in divorce rates among older individuals, particularly those aged 45 and above. This trend, known as "gray divorce," has seen the divorce rate for people aged 65 and older triple over this period. Furthermore, the data shows that among older adults, the divorce rate for women has nearly quadrupled.

The rise in gray divorces marks a departure from the past when divorces among older couples were rare. From 1990 to 2010, the rate of divorce among this demographic doubled, and by 2019, 36 percent of divorces were among those aged 50 and older. One in four divorces involved individuals aged 65 or older.

Notably, the reasons for these divorces are not attributed to more contentious marriages among older adults but rather to evolving societal attitudes toward divorce and women's increased financial and emotional independence. Factors like changing norms, greater acceptance of divorce, and women's empowerment have contributed to making divorce more socially acceptable than in previous generations.

Researchers believe that the gray divorce trend is primarily driven by the baby boomer generation, and younger generations are less likely to experience similarly high rates of late-life divorces. Younger generations are marrying later, have more financial stability, and are, therefore, less prone to divorce.

The gray divorce phenomenon can be partly explained by the fact that boomers married at younger ages, which is a risk factor for divorce. In contrast, succeeding generations are marrying later in life, reducing the chances of experiencing second or third marriages if a divorce occurs.

Remarriages among older adults have a significantly higher risk of divorce compared to first marriages. Reasons cited for late-life divorces include disagreements over financial matters, infidelity, verbal abuse, substance addiction, mental health issues, and differences in child-rearing. These issues affect both men and women, albeit in slightly varying proportions.

Changing attitudes toward divorce also play a role in the gray divorce trend. Divorce is less stigmatized today compared to the past, making it a more accessible option for older couples facing difficulties in their marriages. Life-altering changes, such as retirement or a serious health diagnosis for one spouse, can also trigger divorce in already fragile marriages.

While divorce can have a negative impact on emotional health, studies show that older adults tend to recover their emotional equilibrium after a few months. The impact of divorce on mental health largely depends on the nature of the marriage and the context in which it ended. Conflictual and unsatisfying marriages tend to result in fewer symptoms of depression and loneliness following divorce.

In conclusion, the gray divorce trend, marked by rising divorce rates among older adults, is a complex phenomenon influenced by changing social norms, attitudes toward divorce, and individual circumstances. While divorce can be emotionally challenging, many older adults eventually recover and find support from their social networks.

Reference: Jamie Berger and Sarah Jacobs, September 19, 2023; Op-ed: Think you know gray divorce? You have no idea - CNBC - Life Changes

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