This weekend the Wall Street Journal headlined a story about the increasing rate of divorces among couples 50+: “Though overall national divorce rates have declined since spiking in the 1980s, ‘gray divorce’ has risen to its highest level on record….In 1990, only one in 10 people who got divorced was 50 or older; by 2009, the number was roughly one in four. More than 600,000 people ages 50 and older got divorced in 2009,” the paper reported.
Women, it appears, are the driving force in these breakups. Among divorces in couples between the ages of 40-69, women seek the split in 66% of the cases. And the reasons for the divorce reflect the boomer generation’s desire for self-fulfillment. With the children out of the house and the realization one may have twenty five or more years of life, women often decide they want to strike out on their own and find greater personal satisfaction.
According to Professor Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University, the author of a research paper entitled “The Gary Divorce Revolution,” there have been three "phases" of American views of marriage. First, there was the "institutional" phase, in the decades before World War II, when marriage was seen largely as an economic union. In the 1950s and '60s there was the "companionate" phase, in which a successful marriage was defined by the degree to which each spouse could fulfill his or her role. In the 1970s, the boomers initiated what Prof. Brown calls the "individualized" phase, with an emphasis on the satisfaction of personal needs. "Individualized marriage is more egocentric... Before the 1970s, no one would have thought to separate out the self as being distinct from the roles of good wife and mother."
There is also another factor among gray divorcing boomers. They are often divorcing for the second time. In fact, having been divorced previously doubles the risk of divorce in one’s 50’s and 60s.
But does later in life divorce bring the happiness women, especially, seek? That depends. Divroced women often cope with greater financial burdens while divorced men are likely to see a decline in contact with at least one child. Mothers can grow closer to their children. Still many divorcees say they are happy. And, according to Prof Brown the trend is continuing. In her paper she predicts that by 2030 the number of gray divorces could top 800,000 a year.