The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Older Couples Divorcing More

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Countless studies have dealt with how divorce impacts younger adults and families, but how has the divorce revolution affected middle-aged and older adults?

This is the question that Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University have set out to answer. The authors speculate that because the Baby Boomers were the first generation to divorce and remarry in large numbers, and because remarriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce, the divorce rate among older generations should be on the rise.

The researchers cite Uhlenberg and Myers (1981) in listing four reasons that incidence of divorce among older couples should be increasing. First, higher-order marriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce. Second, divorce in the U.S. has become increasingly common, and more adults will have had time to become accepting of it and thus are more likely to experience it. Third, rising female participation in the labor force should give women the financial autonomy to leave unsatisfactory marriages. Lastly, increased life expectancies mean that couples have a greater risk of marriage ending in divorce than in death. In addition, the researchers examine a number of divorce-related factors—including demographic statistics, employment, and marital biography—to determine if divorce rates among middle-aged (aged 50-64) and older (aged 65 and up) adults have increased since 1990.

The researchers used data from the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS) “to estimate the current divorce rate for middle-aged and older adults” and compared it to U.S. Vital Statistics data from 1990. Also captured were “divorce correlates” such as cohort (age group), gender, and race/ethnicity; economic resources, including education, employment, and income; and the “marriage biography,” including marriage order and marital duration.

The data show that in these groups of adults, “the divorce rate has doubled since 1990, rising from 4.9 to 10.1 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons.” The researchers note that this rise is especially interesting because the overall U.S. divorce rate during this period was “essentially flat.” The study found some variation among the various sociodemographic factors. Those with a college degree, for example, experienced fewer divorces, and the middle aged divorce at a higher rate than older adults.

The most telling factor, however, is marital biography: “The risk of divorce varies dramatically by both marriage order and marital duration. The rate of divorce among those aged 50 and older is 2.5 times higher for individuals in remarriages (17.2 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons) than first marriages (6.9 per 1,000 married persons).” The rate of divorce declines with marital duration.

In conclusion, the researchers list some limitations to their study. “The design of the ACS,” they write, “does not allow us to establish the temporal order of divorce and its correlates.” Nonetheless, they highlight that their research brings attention to a startling phenomenon, that middle-aged and older couples are divorcing at a much higher rate than the rest of America. The researchers caution that more study is needed to understand how divorce affects this particular demographic, including its effect on such issues as elder care and family structure.

This valuable study points to a sad but notable trend in American society. Those divorced once are more likely to divorce again, no matter the age. But as adults grow older, their need for care rises, and the higher incidence of divorce among these age groups spells out a dangerous trend for men and women at a vulnerable time of their lives.

(Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, “The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990-2010,” Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 67.7 [October 2012]: 731-41.)