The Gray Divorcee's- Divorce Late in Life

Findings of a new study indicate that people in their fifties are divorcing in higher numbers than ever before. Women, especially, take a good look at their spouses and ask themselves, Do I really want to spend the next 20-30 years with this guy?

And the answer is a resounding, No. Having tolerated the relationship until the last launched from high school, these women stayed for the kids.

Sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin crunched the numbers and found that in 1990 only one in 10 people over fifty divorced. By 2009, the number multiplied to one in four. Strangely enough, the divorce rate fell in other age brackets.

And not as many people are marrying at all, lately, which makes some of us wonder about the fate of the institution. Is it is destined to survive? Other types of commitment are possible, and marriage appears to be a contract that is difficult and expensive to break.

It is quite socially acceptable, too, avoiding marriage altogether, moving in together, even having children sans contract. We couples therapists, however, always have a sprinkling of such couples who come to see us to resolve differences about that kinda-sorta marriage, the as what state. (Come with me, I have a great job in Seattle. . . As what?) One of the two partners in these cases wants to get married.

The investigators of the new study conceptualize marriage in the past century as having evolved, the endpoint of that evolution being its own demise. Prior to the 1940's, the arrangement was institutional, marriage an economic necessity. Then in the fifties and sixties, successful marriage meant successful role playing-- women were to shine as mothers and wives; men, as providers.

Children of the seventies ushered in an era of self-fulfillment and individualization. The Me Generation, according to Brown and Lin, leaned toward selfishness, which apparently undermined their relationships. Voila, reaching maturity in their fifties, they divorce and go their separate ways.

Now who would have ever thought that? Self-centeredness leads to divorce. But there's more. The plot thickens, according to Susan Gregory Thomas, the Wall Street Journal:
For many boomers, it is not their first marital split. Fifty-three percent of the people over 50 now getting divorced have done so at least once before. . . .Having been married previously doubles the risk of divorce for those ages 50 to 64. For those ages 65 and up, the risk factor quadruples.  For boomers who have had trouble maintaining commitments in the past, hitting the empty-nest phase seems to trigger thoughts of mortality—and of vanishing possibilities for self-fulfillment.
That finding alone gives us pause, me, anyway. Couples who weather the storm once, may not have to weather it a second or third time. This is not an argument against divorce, understand, but it is an argument that the selfishness, or need for self-fulfillment, isn't behind the rise in divorce statistics.

The theory about self-fulfillment a marriage buster leaves much to be desired. In a good marriage seeing to the happiness of the other is what partners do, have done for generations.  Other factors, and they are numerous, wear down relationships.  That much we know.

Defining a generation as self-absorbed, selfish, especially the gen that thumbed its nose to the materialism of its parents, is a very broad stroke. This is my generation we're talking about, and we spread evenly on that normal curve. Traits of a population always distribute evenly in every generation.

That means that any one of the Me Generation, on average, is selfish or generous, some of us more than others. I would like to see the group comparison study that indicates ours is somehow quantifiably different in selfishness than the generations before. Define this self-absorption, selfishness, and show me the t-scores, the f-scores.  One thing to theorize such things. Quite another to prove it.

So what is going on?

It is the elephant in the room, and it won't make me popular to say it, and no, I can't quote a study, it is only an opinion, and yes, there are countless exceptions. But what might hold couples together, values, also likely pulls them apart, differences in values. Couples who share what is important (and these often come from religion, seeking guidance from elders or God) are more likely to stick it out. Following the rules, respecting one another (that 51% positive communication factor we talk about here) tends to make people better partners.

As a social scientist, however, I would frame that, having shared values, as stacking the odds that problem solving in marriage will be successful. It is the very essence of marriage and family therapy, problem solving, and surely, successful conflict resolution renders marriage not only tolerable, but intimate.

Argue with one another, empathize, and resolve. If we do that, growing old with together doesn't feel scary at all.


Post Script:  Again, not every marriage can succeed, and certainly problem solving is dependent upon a certain emotional maturity, and a psychological-disorder-managed system, to say nothing of those in-laws.


Anonymous said…
Perhaps (and this is only my own observation of the same generation) - perhaps balancing the positive of shared values is the empty nest issue of a desire to return to young adulthood lifestyles. "I paid my dues and now it's time for full-on hedonism... to make up for the years of restraint I endured as a parent". That young adulthood memory often becomes concreted as "the best time in my life" for usually one partner or another.

"Before spouse, mortgage and children", can split couples who suddenly find themselves together 24/7 in retirement. Especially if those times were very different for each partner and especially if one partner has successfully left that part of his/her identity behind. Too much togetherness, itself, can be an issue. The flexibility of space and individuality of the "couple-identity" needs to grow at this stage, not shrink. How this occurs, I think is the make/break problem to solve.

At least, that's some of what I've noticed about my own relationship's transition, at this stage of life.
therapydoc said…
I love it, Anonymous, so true. People not only remember how it felt to be free, but the contenders, past loves, and the grass, even old grass, can look mighty green, and it was.

For many of us, the economic necessity of not retiring is a huge stress. And for others, that 24/7 time together tends to feel like encroachment. No matter, finding our way as older people, doing it well as a couple, is what makes some of us so fond of marriage. We almost thrive on the problem of marriage, like these challenges.

Masochists, I guess. Nobody said it would be easy, and we don't blame those for whom it is too hard, for abandoning the whole thing.
Syd said…
I find that my wife and I do best when we aren't together all the time. We each have things that we like to do apart. I like the boat more than she does, so often I go out without her. But then it is wonderful when she does go with me. I think that people can still have their individuality even when married and that for many, that is essential to happiness.
Mound Builder said…
One thing I think about is that all relationships end eventually, one way or another, either through divorce or through drifting apart or through death. There is no way, that I can see, to avoid the ending of a relationship, unless you are the one that dies, I suppose. I sometimes have heard people who were married for many years and then a spouse died, who will refer to the deceased spouse as having "left" them. I've sometimes been confused that the other person was speaking of a divorce late in life. For a couple that stay married all their lives, eventually one of them will be left behind to deal with the separation that death represents. All through our lives, relationships end. I'm not sure that any of them, whether friendship or marriage, are easy leave-takings, though some may be less complicated than others that end, if there are no legal entanglements. At this point in my life, I don't necessarily see that marriage is so much more significant in terms of the relatedness than other kinds of relationships, if they are genuine and deep. There are people who are business partners that no doubt form close alliances and who are intermingled interpersonally and legally, and for whom it would also be painful, though possibly in some cases necessary, to end such a relationship. I don't see it as selfish, necessarily, that people get divorced, whether it's when they are in their twenties or their fifties or whatever age. I think a relationship may be defined, in part, by the degree to which each person has a capacity for relatedness. I think it may be possible that the degree of closeness and intimacy may be determined by the person who has the least capacity, that is, that you can't really make a person who has a lesser need for intimacy become a person who has a greater need. It's also pretty difficult, when marrying young, to know all the twists and turns that life will throw your way, hard to know how another person will or won't grow. I don't think I fault anyone for giving up. I think there are also relationships that exist, and that's about all, for people who can't quite get out, in part because there is quite a bit of pressure culturally to stay married.
Anonymous said…
Hmm. I like that; "the challenges of this stage of marriage". It allows for all kinds of interesting possibilities! :)
therapydoc said…
MoundB, in couples therapy that's surely the goal, increasing the "capacity" for intimacy, working through whatever it is that obstructs communication that could, should happen between people who love each other. It isn't impossible, usually, to help people use this muscle. Not easy, but possible.
Mound Builder said…
How long is reasonable to spend in marriage counseling? Would weekly sessions for 20 years, with little change be more time than normal?
therapydoc said…
Mound B, I would shop around, but it doesn't mean that switching is throwing good money after bad. Remind me to blog about this.
Mound Builder said…
Thanks, TherapyDoc, I will remind you. I'd be interested in your thoughts.