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Divorce Skyrocketing Among Aging Boomers

With the most splits of any generation, older adults spur ‘gray divorce’ revolution

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Jiri Studnicky/Getty

Jeannie Ralston, says her marriage was great, “until it wasn’t.” ​

Just about the time the 62-year-old New Yorker would have been celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary, she got divorced.​

The reasons for the split were myriad: Children were out of the house, her husband was semiretired and Ralston was starting a business. Then COVID-19 hit and set the stage for a breakup. ​

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“We’ve always been in sync in our careers, but he was pulling back and I was pushing forward in my business,” she says. “It was evident we were at different stages.”​

Ralston’s late-in-life divorce isn’t unusual. In fact, research has found that boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — are divorcing more than any other generation. 

A new analysis of divorce data from 1990 to 2021 released in July by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research found that divorce rates for those age 45 and over rose during that period, while rates dropped for those younger than 45. The most significant increase in divorce rates was among people 65 and older: The rate tripled from 1990 to 2021.

At these older ages, rates of divorce among women nearly quadrupled, according to the data brief coauthored by sociologist I-Fen Lin. She and the Ohio center’s codirector, Susan Brown, found that older adults “now face record high divorce rates,” ​according to their study published last year in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences. 

The most divorced generation

The phenomenon of older couples divorcing used to be rare. But from 1990 to 2010, the rate doubled, according to Brown and Lin’s analysis of U.S. Vital Statistics Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. ​ 

By 2010, 27 percent of divorces were among those age 50 and older; by 2019 it grew to 36 percent. Digging into that data, the most recent available, Bowling Green researchers found that 1 in 4 divorces were among those age 65 or older.​​

Some of those splits ended long-term marriages — first or second. Others were shorter-lived unions. The reasons aren’t that older adults have more contentious marriages than younger couples, Brown says. The changes have more to do with society’s evolving tolerance of divorce and women’s evolving status as financially and emotionally independent. ​

“All these factors set the stage and make it more acceptable than a generation ago,” Brown says. ​

As the youngest of the boomer generation approach 60, and older boomers are closing in on 80, researchers say this gray divorce trend doesn’t show signs of slowing. But younger generations are likely to avoid similarly high rates of late-life divorces, Brown says.​

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“I’m increasingly confident this gray divorce revolution is being driven by baby boomers and is likely to be a phenomenon largely unique to them,” she says. ​

The analysis from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research examined divorce rates of boomers during young adulthood and showed much higher divorce rates than later generations at those same ages. Boomers also had elevated divorce rates during middle age, compared to later generations. ​

Additionally, Brown says marriage is a rarer event altogether for these younger generations. For those who do marry, they have more financial resources, resulting in marriages with greater stability, which means younger people today face lower risks of divorce than did members of the previous generation. ​

Even with this overall increase in divorce among older adults, “it is typically unlikely for people to divorce in long marriages,” says Kenzie Mintus, an associate professor of sociology at IUPUI, a university partnership between Indiana University and Purdue University.​

While 10 or more years is considered a long marriage among researchers, and the longer you’re married the less likely you are to divorce, Mintus says boomers changed the traditional pattern. They were no longer willing to stay with a partner just to keep the marriage intact.​

Less divorce stigma

So what’s behind this divorce trend among older adults? A lot, it turns out. ​

Boomers married earlier than later generations, and marriage at a young age is a risk factor for divorce, Brown says. ​

Because succeeding generations didn’t marry as young as boomers, Gen Xers and millennials are “more likely to hit middle age in their first marriage,” Brown says. Divorce risk factors are higher at younger ages, and later marriage means there’s not as much time for second or third marriages if a divorce takes place. ​

With more opportunities to divorce more often than other groups with lower initial divorce rates, gray divorce has been growing as boomers age. Remarriages have a 2.5 times greater risk of divorce than first marriages, Brown says. ​

Disagreements over money, infidelity, verbal abuse, pornography, substance addiction, mental illness and differences over child-rearing are some of the factors both men and women say have a negative impact on marriage later in life, says Jocelyn Elise Crowley, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, who researched reasons behind breakups for her book Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits.​

“What I found is that all these marriages fell apart for the standard classic reasons, such as infidelity for both genders. Women complained a little bit more about issues of verbal abuse or their husband’s addiction,” Crowley says. “Men, on the other hand, talked about financial disagreements as well as differences regarding raising their children.” ​

For older couples, an additional factor may be that divorce doesn’t carry the same stigma it did when boomers were growing up and their marriages were younger, says Brent Cashatt, an attorney who often works with older couples dissolving long marriages at his Des Moines, Iowa, family law firm.​

“When I got divorced in 1997, it wasn’t in my family and society overall,” says Cashatt, who is also president of the nonprofit American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “It was sort of taboo. Now, it happens, and people work through it.” ​ ​

Life-altering changes have an impact too. That may include retirement of one spouse but not the other, or a serious health diagnosis.

​“If the marriage is already fragile for other reasons, this can be the thing that pushes them over to divorce,” Mintus says. ​ ​ ​​​ ​ ​

New beginnings​ ​

In fact, several studies, including one coauthored by Mintus and published in the journal Social Sciences in 2022, found that divorce risk was higher if the wife developed a disability or a chronic illness — though not when the husband did. ​ ​​​ ​

​Divorce also takes a toll on emotional health, which doesn’t improve instantly for older adults after a split, says sociologist Deborah Carr of Boston University, who has studied the mental health impact of gray divorce.​

But Carr says that after several months, these older adults tend to recover their equilibrium and “fare quite well.”​

“Whether you’re depressed or not depends upon what the relationship was like and the context in which it ended,” Carr says. “If it was a conflictual marriage and not emotionally satisfying, there are fewer symptoms of depression and loneliness.”​

Despite her divorce, Ralston doesn’t view her “29 years of a mostly good and solid marriage” as a “failed marriage.” And she feels fortunate a friend let her spend time healing in a secluded spot right after the split. It reinforced the knowledge that she had people who cared for her.​

“What I didn’t count on and that made everything better was that I had such a network of support — a big family and incredible generosity from friends,” Ralston says. “I had so much goodwill and help that it made the landing softer.”​​​​​

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