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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Divorce Rate Rises for Middle-Aged, Older Americans

The divorce rate doubled between 1990 and 2009 among adults 50 and older in the U.S., according to a working paper released in March by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Divorces are becoming much more frequent for middle-aged and older adults at the same time society’s overall divorce rate either is declining somewhat or at least is stable, the center said. It predicts the number of divorces will remain high for these groups in the future.

The family and marriage center believes this development deserves greater attention; its far-reaching ramifications ought to be considered. “Although divorce has been studied extensively among younger adults, the research to date has essentially ignored divorce that occurs among older adults,” the paper said.

The working paper would appear to advise everyone concerned about the well-being of married couples (perhaps marriage educators and counselors) neither to take the marriages of middle-aged and older couples for granted nor to assume that these people simply do not divorce. I suspect those involved in church ministries to already-married couples will find the paper informative.

Some Ramifications

Titled “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” the working paper points out that the divorces of middle-aged and older adults are not only likely to shape “the health and well-being of those who experience it directly,” but “to have ramifications for the well-being of family members,” including children and grandchildren.

In addition, this development is likely to “intensify the demands placed on the broader institutional support systems available to middle-aged and older adults,” the paper said.

I-Fen Lin, an associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green and co-author of the working paper, thinks that researchers and policymakers no longer are going to be able to focus solely on widowhood in later life and will need to pay greater attention to the vulnerabilities of the divorced as well.

Susan Brown, the paper’s other co-author, recently discussed support systems for older adults who either divorced or never married. She said that “in the past, family members, particularly spouses, have provided care to infirm older adults. But a growing share of older adults aren’t going to have a spouse available to rely on for support.” Brown, a Bowling Green professor of sociology, is the center’s co-director.

Increase Likely to Continue

The working paper based its findings on the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistics Report and the 2009 American Community Survey. In 1990, the paper noted, “approximately 206,007 people over age 50 got divorced, whereas in 2009 about 604,643 got divorced.”

If one assumes this divorce rate will “remain constant over the next two decades — a conservative assumption based on the recent trend — the number of persons over age 50 that would experience divorce in 2030 would rise by one-third to over 807,229,” the paper predicted.

“Consider that fewer than one in 10 persons who divorced in 1990 was over age 50, compared to more than one in four today,” the paper suggested to its readers.

While a higher divorce rate is found today among those 50 to 64 years old (the middle-aged) and those 65 and older, the paper shows that the actual number of divorces is much higher among the middle-aged.

Why did the working paper predict that the number of divorces among Americans 50 and older will remain high in the future? One reason may be that “baby boomers, the first to divorce and remarry in large numbers during young adulthood, are moving into the older adult population, and this portends a growing number of older adults will experience divorce.”

Another reason involves the large number of middle-aged and older couples today who are not in a first marriage. The study observes that “most divorced people eventually remarry, and remarriages are at greater risk of divorce than first marriages.”

The paper cited other research arguing that a “weakening norm of marriage as a lifelong institution,” coupled with society’s heightened emphasis “on individual fulfillment and satisfaction through marriage” may be contributing factors in the increase of divorce among adults 50 or older. More people seem unwilling to remain in a marriage they consider unfulfilling.

Some research, the paper observed, holds that “life-long marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies.”

But it is important to note the paper’s conclusion that “little is known about the predictors” of divorces occurring “during middle and later life.” I assume, then, that we’ll be hearing much more about the underlying causes of this social development and how to address them as research continues in the years ahead.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.