Avoiding Gray Divorce: Marriage Risk After 50

Dr. Robert Ritzema

February 27, 2017

Your marriage lasted this long—through ups and downs, joys and sorrows, lean years and prosperous ones. You thought the two of you had built something lasting. Why is your marriage in crisis now when you are over 50?

More than ever before, those in middle adulthood or beyond are finding themselves asking this question. A sociologist's study at Bowling Green State University found that the divorce rate in adults 50 and up doubled between 1990 and 2010. About 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 involved persons aged 50 or older. So, if you are over 50 and your marriage is in crisis, you are not alone. There are reasons why marriages between middle-aged or elderly partners flounder, and understanding these reasons can be useful in knowing how to address a marital crisis. This article describes four factors that commonly contribute to "gray divorces," with implications for addressing marital problems after age 50.

The Emphasis on Happiness

Susan Brown, one of the researchers in the Bowling Green study and author of The Gray Divorce Revolution, suggests that marriage is less role-oriented than it used to be. In the 1950s and 60s, a marriage was considered successful as long as the partners fulfilled their roles. Now, there is more emphasis on personal happiness and satisfaction in marriage. Coincident increases in longevity often make marital unhappiness more salient. If a 50-year-old realizes the marriage isn't happy, she or he may be contemplating three-plus decades of future unhappiness.

Implications: Recognize that personal satisfaction, not just role performance, is important in a relationship. If you or your partner is unhappy with the marriage, discuss the reasons for the unhappiness and ways to address it. Don't assume that happiness can't change; it can, if its sources are dealt with.

The Changing Role of Women

Susan Brown also reports that approximately two-thirds of the time, the woman is unwilling to continue with the marriage. Why are more middle-aged or elderly women making that choice? One factor may be the increase in the number of women in the workplace. Working women are both more confident about making their way alone in the world and more able to support themselves financially.

Implications: Be aware that the dynamics of marriage in our current cultural climate are different than they were for our parents or grandparents. Think carefully about the structure of your marriage, recognizing that the Biblical model for marriage is not of wife-as-servant but of mutual submission and service.

Life Transitions

Many couples have focused primarily on nurturing their children.  When all the kids leave home, couples who haven't built a firm friendship foundation through the years are at risk for having a crisis. Another transition that can result in a crisis occurs a few years later when one or both partners retire. Partners who got along reasonably well when spending a relatively small portion of their days together can experience tension and conflict when they are with each other more.

Implications: People and their circumstances change, so their marriages also need to change if they are to be healthy. Talk about these changes as you notice them. Discuss not only the immediate conflict but how it fits in with the changing relationship. Just as individuals need to formulate new goals when the old ones are accomplished, couples need to do the same.

Prior Relationships

Another reason for the increase in divorce among those aged 50 and older is that many in that age group have been divorced before. One or more previous divorces increase the likelihood of divorcing again. The Bowling Green research team found that the rate of divorce after age 50 is 2.5 times higher for those who had remarried than for those on their first marriage. Many of these second or third marriages are of shorter duration, and the divorce rate among those 50 and older who have been married less than 10 years is 10 times higher than the divorce rate in that age group for those who have been married 40 or more years.

Implications: Previously divorced people may have unresolved issues from earlier relationships that can affect the current marriage. Such issues need to be attended to. Also, couples in a troubled second marriage may not have taken sufficient time to get to know each other and learn to work together; committing to such a process before considering divorce is useful.

Marriages between partners older than 50 are being strained like never before. Yet these strains can also be occasions for growth. Work to understand the reasons underlying your current marital difficulties and use that information to guide you and your partner's efforts to address the problems in your relationship. You'll be glad you did!

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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