Why Baby Boomers Divorce: What the Research Says

Senior couple arguing in kitchen at homeOverall, the American divorce rate is declining – except for older adults. According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, between 1990 and 2014, the divorce rate among adults over age 50 doubled, while the rate among adults over 65 tripled. Another curiosity is that among younger Americans, those with college degrees are significantly less likely to divorce than those without higher education. But among older adults, the distinction is eliminated; those with and without degrees divorce at similar rates.

Researchers have taken an interest in the reasons baby boomers and other older Americans cite as the cause of their so-called “gray divorce” in hopes of unraveling some of the mystery. The results may be surprisingly traditional.

Researcher delves into causes of gray divorce

Rutgers University professor of public policy Jocelyn Elise Crowley published an essay discussing some of her research findings into gray divorce in the public interest digital magazine, Aeon. Crowley’s research included interviewing 40 men and 40 women, all unrelated individuals who have gone through a gray divorce. Surprisingly, though the institution of marriage has gone through changes that reflect societal attitudes, those age 50 and older are citing some arguably old-fashioned reasons for their divorce.

As Crowley explains in her essay, at the beginning of the 20th century, though marriage was seen as a bond of love, it was also based an agreement to meet certain responsibilities toward one’s spouse. When one spouse began engaging in actions that violated these responsibilities, divorce was understood to be acceptable. Marriage underwent a change during the 1960s, when the culture made a shift toward personal fulfillment. Under this new construct, if a spouse was not fulfilled and empowered by the relationship, it was deemed grounds for divorce.

As explained by Crowley, one could expect that the baby boomers who grew up during the 1960s may have been more likely to base their divorce on lack of personal fulfillment. However, quite the opposite was true. While a few participants did cite this as the reason their marriages ended, most described what would be better understood as a breach of marriage responsibilities toward their spouse. The reasons included adultery, drunkenness, rampant spending, and abusive behaviors.

Issues couples face with a gray divorce

Regardless of the underlying cause, those divorcing later in life tend to be in a different situation than younger couples. They are often empty-nesters near, at, or past retirement age. They may have fewer family expenses but may have most of their savings tied up in a home. They often retirement, life insurance policies, and other benefits naming the other spouse as a beneficiary. These complex factors can derail one’s retirement if they are not handled with expertise.

If you are contemplating a divorce, the NY & NJ divorce lawyers at Kantrowitz, Goldhamer & Graifman can help you navigate these and other issues. Our family lawyers in Rockland County, NY, and Bergen County, NJ, have offered a guiding hand to individuals going through divorce at all stages of life. Call (888) 624-4916 to schedule a confidential consultation.

Additional gray divorce resources:

  1. Aeon, Baby boomers are divorcing for surprisingly old-fashioned reasons, https://aeon.co/ideas/baby-boomers-are-divorcing-for-surprisingly-old-fashioned-reasons
  2. CNBC, Surviving divorce after 50, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/01/surviving-divorce-after-50.html
  3. BGSU, BGSU research highlights surge in older divorces and other unexpected trends, https://www.bgsu.edu/news/2014/10/bgsu-research-highlights-surge-in-older-divorces-and-other-unexp.html