According to recent statistics from the U.S. Census American Community Survey divorce rates are skyrocketing in the 50 and older population within the U.S. Divorce is never a stress-free experience, but there's reason to think that the 50-plussers are at particular risk.
We know that those 50 and older are more likely than ever to divorce, but we don't know why. Statistics can't ever tell the full story of what's going on inside people's relationships. Without following people over time, as studies have done on younger couples, we can't say for sure whether the marital woes multiplied over time, or whether the problems were present even as the couple tied the knot.
Though not perfect, large-scale demographic studies can provide valuable clues to the causes of midlife divorce. Bowling Green sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin comprehensively analyzed U.S. Census divorce data to untangle the complex predictors of who is most at risk for divorcing. From 1990 to 2010, the proportion of divorced individuals 50 and older has in fact grown, as have the odds of divorce. This is partly due to the fact that the older the population, the more likely it will have people 50 and who got divorced at some point in their lives, whether at 25 or 45. However, this wasn't the only factor accounting for higher divorce rates among the older individuals in the study. Approximately 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 occurred among the 50 and older; in 1990 the ratio was 1 out of every 10. Oddly enough, although the divorce rate in the general population has decreased since about 1980, the divorce rate among people in their 50s and 60s continues to climb showing a two-fold increase in the divorce rate since 1990.
We might attribute this trend toward higher divorce in the 50 and older population to a sort of delayed midlife crisis. Apart from the fact that the midlife crisis is a myth, the argument doesn't hold for a different reason. People 65 and older divorced at a greater rate than their "crisis"-prone counterparts. However, as the number of divorced people 50-64 accumulate in the population, there will be more divorced older adults in the coming decades.
Obviously, not everyone 50 and older is at equal risk of divorce. The least likely to divorce have a college education. Higher education brings with it (on average) greater economic resources which, in turn, buffers a couple from some of the strains that contribute to marital breakups. People who graduate from college also tend to marry later, another plus when it comes to a relationship's longevity. Race plays a role as well, as Blacks have higher divorce rates, even in later life, than Whites or Hispanics.
Other factors related to an individual's "marital biography" also come into play. The remarried divorce more throughout life, and longer-term marriages become more divorce-proof the longer they endure.
Whatever the cause, there are risks to divorce among the 50 and older population, particularly for women. Their financial stability erodes which, in turn, can affect their health. Families of divorced women may be called on to provide more caregiving and financial support. There are other ramifications that can affect the family as a whole. The children and younger relatives may have to choose sides when it comes to holidays, family gatherings, and spending time with grandchildren.
Because so much of this is new, there are fewer guideposts for you to follow in navigating your way through late-life divorce. Brown and Lin also note that there will be broader social effects of the rise in divorces among older adults. They may very well place strains on an already strained economy, including the healthcare and retirement systems. Their mental health may suffer, also requiring greater investment in mental health services.
Fortunately, the picture is not entirely a bleak one. There are ways to prevent, if not cope with, the strains of midlife divorce, as you can read about in my related Psychology Today blog post (be sure to check the pointers at the end). Though stressful while it's occurring, divorce can prove liberating for men and women who felt stuck in a conflicted and unhappy relationship. Their years together and joint family ties may allow them to continue to remain friends, but each may benefit from their new-found singlehood and the opportunities it can provide for long-term fulfillment.
Brown, S. L., & Lin, I. F. (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990-2010. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67B, 731-741. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs089