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Who is driving the divorce rate? (What the researchers say)

Who is driving the divorce rate? (What the researchers say)

It was once thought that the most difficult time in a marriage is after the birth of the children. During this time, the focus of the spouses shifts from being on one another to the children. Each spouse feels less attention, appreciation and love as all their energy is directed at the children. This, coupled with the sleepless nights and the growing financial demands of the children, has typically caused acrimony and led to marital discord and, sometimes, divorce.

Now there is a new finding that confirms that seniors are the biggest driver of the divorce rate.  In The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990-2009*, a paper published in March 2012 by the National Center for Family & Marriage at Bowling Green State University, researchers Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin have revealed the newest trend.

The purpose of the research study was to document how the divorce rate among people aged 50 and older has changed between 1990 and 2009. The study also sought to identify the socio-demographic correlation of divorce among today’s middle-aged couples and older adults. The researchers used data from the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistics Report and the 2009 American Community Survey to examine the change in the divorce rate over time. 

The divorce rate among elderly couples doubled between 1990 and 2009

The researchers found that the divorce rate among adults aged 50 years and older doubled between 1990 and 2009. Roughly 1 in 4 divorces in 2009 occurred to persons aged 50 years and older. The study found that the prevalence of divorced older adults has increased in recent decades.  

At the same time, the prevalence of widowhood has declined. The share of older adults who were divorced doubled among men between 1980 and 2008, rising from 5% to 10%. Among women, the percentage of those divorced tripled during this time period, climbing from 4% to 12%.  In contrast, levels of widowhood among older men remained unchanged and actually fell among women between 1980 and 2008. 

The study reports that marriages change and evolve over the life course and may no longer meet one’s needs at later life stages. Their qualitative research indicated that many older couples that divorce simply have grown apart and that life-long marriages have become increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies. Older adults are more reluctant now to remain in empty shell marriages. 

The study admits that despite the theoretical suppositions for a sustained rise in divorce among older adults, there is a paucity of empirical research on this topic and most studies are dated.

Divorce rates vary across race and ethnic lines

The study also illustrated some racial and ethnic variations in the risk of divorce among those ages 50 and older, with whites experiencing the lowest rate of divorce, blacks the highest and hispanics in the middle. 

The divorce rate also differed by education. Those with a college degree experience a considerably smaller risk of divorce compared to those with lower levels of education. 

The researchers report that the most striking differentials are those for marital biography. The rate of divorce among those ages 50 and older is 2.5 times higher for individuals in remarriages than first marriages. During middle age, the divorce rate is about 2 times greater for remarrieds than first marrieds.  

In terms of marital duration, the divorce rate among individuals aged 50 and older is 10 times greater for those married 0-9 years. That shows the rate of divorce declines roughly linearly with rising marital duration. These stark differences in the rate of divorce in first versus higher-order marriages and by marital duration suggest that the marital biography is central to the risk of divorce during middle age and older adulthood. 

With the growth in the number of seniors experiencing separation and divorce, professional services such as legal, accounting, financial planning, counselling and eldercare must be able to properly service this segment of society in a manner that is unique and different from younger adults.   

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* The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990-2009, March 2012, National Center for Family & Marriage from Bowling Green State University, by Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, located at