Top 10 Reasons People Over 50 Get Divorced

Top 10 Reasons People Over 50 Get Divorced

Sometimes it can seem like Americans are never really happy with what they have, always looking for the next change, the one thing that will make their lives complete.  Of course when they get there they are still not happy and start to look for the next change and the next and so on.

This applies not just in the world of work but also to personal relationships.  Divorce rates in the USA are extremely high and are even approaching  50% of all marriages and, it seems, the younger the couple marry the more likely they are to want to separate.

While divorce rates are starting to stabilize, even decline a little there are some demographics amongst which the divorce rate is actually increasing.  One of these areas of increase is in the over 50’s dubbed ‘grey divorce’.  50 years ago less than 3% of Americans older than 50 were divorced.  Since then this number has increased exponentially, by 2000 the divorce rate for the over 50s stood at almost 12% and b 2012 this had risen to over 15% – more than the number of over 50s who had been widowed.  More than ¼ of all divorces are now in the over 50 category.

So just what has fuelled this trend for grey divorce and why are so many more people separating at a time of their lives when their kids are grown and they should be enjoying their golden years  together.  Here is our list of top 10 reasons why people over 50 are getting divorced.

10. People are living longer

'Til death do us part is taking forever!
‘Til death do us part is taking forever!

A happy marriage is good for your health with people who are living in a settled relationship adding to their life expectancy and, of course, having the certainty of support when they need it.  An unhappy marriage, however, only causes stress and can act to decrease life expectancy.

These days, however, people are living, and living healthily, much longer than they did in the past.  People can expect to be relatively healthy on retirement and to be physically healthy enough to enjoy at least the first few years of their golden years.  The busy nature of daily life, school runs, college applications, balancing the family budget and caring for elderly relatives can often serve to obscure unhappiness in a marriage.  Even if the couple are aware that they do not get much pleasure out of spending time together they may decide to provide a stable home for their children or not wish to rock the financial boat.

As the couple age and the children of the marriage leave home they end up looking at spending what should be some enjoyable years together they may decide that they do not wish to spend time with someone who makes them unhappy.  For these people the upheaval that divorce may bring to their lives for a short period is worth the long term returns in allowing them to enjoy the rewards of many years of hard work.

Research into this phenomenon has shown that people who expect to have a slightly shorter life expectancy will settle for a relationship that they would not be happy with if they expect a longer time on earth.

9. Women Have Increasing Financial Independence

She makes bank! She's an independent woman.
She makes bank! She’s an independent woman.

The current generation of over 50s represents the first generation of women who were able to work, if not all for an equal wage as their male colleagues, certainly enough to permit them to build their own savings and establish financial stability independent from their husband.  This means that when a woman, of whatever age, finds herself in an unhappy marriage she does not run the same risks in terms of losing stability and her safety net if she separates from her husband.

Because of the traditional split between work and childcare responsibilities women have been able to look forward to an average drop in living standards of about 27% whereas their former husbands can look forward to an increase of up to 10%.  A relationship has to be pretty dire for someone to actively choose to reduce their living standards by more than ¼.  Increasing financial independence, however, reduces the likelihood that a woman will see her standard of living reduce by such a large amount and therefore increase the likelihood that she will seek to exit from an unhappy relationship.

8. Social Expectations Have Changed

Divorce is the spirit of the times, a cultural norm
Divorce is the spirit of the times, a cultural norm

At the time that many of the over 50 divorcees were marrying for the first time marriage was seen as something of an ultimate goal, something to be desired and actively looked for.  Society expected people to settle down, raise a family and remain together.  The Church, of any and all denominations, had a large degree of control over the expectations of society and most banned or, at the very least, frowned on divorce.

If a couple did realize that they were incompatible a divorce could only be obtained on a ‘fault’ basis which created an unpleasant and divisive atmosphere between the couple and their family and friends who would have to ‘choose’ sides.  All of these factors combined to make divorce completely socially unacceptable.

As the over 50s have aged social attitudes have changed.  Divorce is now available on a ‘no fault’ basis in all states, the Church has much less say in what is and is not acceptable in society and divorce is seen as completely acceptable and normal.  Couples who may have realized that they made a mistake but thought that they were stuck in the marriage for life, are now able to divorce free of stigma and find happiness elsewhere.

7. Viagra

Miracle Grow for a man = divorce.  Whats the generic form of Viagra? Mycoxaflopin.
Miracle Grow for a man = divorce. Whats the generic form of Viagra? Mycoxaflopin.

Before the advent of the little blue pill many men found their ability to perform in bed (or elsewhere) reduced with age.  This might have been a cause for some regret and frustration but was accepted as a necessary part of ageing.  Many women typically experience a reduction in sexual desire around the time of the menopause and therefore in a long marriage the sexual desire of both parties would decline in tandem.

Since the development and easy availability of Viagra men are able to treat the problem of reduced performance.  While treatments are also available for women who want to continue to be intimate a problem will arise when the man gets treatment but the woman does not, leading to a disconnect in their sex drives  which can lead the man to start to look elsewhere.  They are able to move on to a younger, fresher model and, given that, over 50, the children of the original marriage are likely to have left home the amount of support he has to provide to his ex-wife and the disruption to his own life is significantly reduced.

6. Loss of Intimacy

No naked time is a bad sign
No naked time is a bad sign

Of course not all people who experience a sexual disconnect in their marriage end up treating the problem with Viagra or other therapies and some marriages just end up becoming sexless.  But intimacy is so much more than sex, it also encompasses general affection which is so important to a healthy marriage.

When a couple are first together they make a lot of effort to be intimate with and please each other.  For some marriages, however, the exigencies of everyday life start to interfere.  A woman might not wish to be intimate after a day chasing her babies and children round the house.  A husband might feel rejected by his wife and replaced in her affections by his own children.   All marriages go through hard patches but if the partners stop making an effort for a protracted period of time the marriage starts to drift towards disaster.    Surveys in the UK have shown that the main reason that men in this situation end their marriage is that their wife was no longer interested in sex.  Women, on the other hand typically claimed that their husband was emotionally cold and distant.

While in years gone by societal pressures (see above) meant that couples in these situations would remain, at least nominally together, they are now able to cut the ties of the formal relationship and pursue their own wants and desires without censure from others.

5. Incompatibility

Incompatability is a killer
Incompatability is a killer

There are many reasons people marry.  For the over 50s in particular they may have been nudged into a marriage that was not necessarily right for them because it met the expectations of their families.  Just look at Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales for an example of a marriage that should never have taken place.  Neither of them were fundamentally bad people but they were completely and totally incompatible with one another.  The Prince was always extremely unhappy in his first marriage, forbidden from marrying the woman he truly loved.  Now that he is, indeed, married to the person he wanted to share his life with he is much more at ease with himself and in his public role.

You don’t have to be a prince and princess to experience marital incompatibility.  Some couples realize that they are incompatible very early on.  Other couples, however, get so drawn in to the romance of the start of a relationship, planning the wedding and then raising their young family that there is enough in their lives to keep the lines of communication open.  The busy nature of daily life acts as somewhat of a crutch for the marriage.  When, however, the couple start to have more time to spend together they begin to realize that they actually have very little in common at all once their children and the family home are taken out of the discussion.  This can be particularly common if the couple married each other because they had found someone ‘just good enough’ as opposed to waiting for a ‘soul mate’.  The theory is that a couple is wiser to settle for someone who might not be quite right but who is available for marriage.  The trouble starts when the areas in which there is a mismatch start to come to the fore and this is often once a couple hit or become older than 50.

4. Addictions

Drug abuse spells marriage disaster
Drug abuse spells marriage disaster

A UK Survey showed that over 11% of marriages end because of substance abuse or other addictions.   While the divorce of a younger couple will often be fuelled by the non-addict trying to protect themselves and their children from the consequences of the substance abuse the drivers are subtly different with older divorcees.

Where a couple have been coping with addiction for a long time it is likely that, subconsciously or not, the non-addict has learned to enable the behavior of the addict.  Whether they do this by turning a blind eye, by failing to challenge the negative aspects of the addiction, failing to bar the addict from the family home when they cause a threat to the others inside or even purchasing the addictive substance, on one level or another a long term relationship will develop into a dependency.

Such dependency’s are not healthy and lead to a warped dynamic where one partner has a hold over the other.  Sometimes the substance abuser is violent and controlling towards their spouse, at other times the non-addict spouse has the upper hand.  In the latter situation the marriage will often last a long time but will be threatened if the addict starts to address his or her problems and attempt to deal with the addiction – it throws the power in the relationship out of balance.

Substance abuse or other addictions can cause the sufferer to experience a change in personality that makes them a very different person to the one who entered the marriage.  If the addiction began early on the change might have been attributed, by the spouse, to the difficulties of raising a family and stress at work.  As these excuses go away with age the problem remains and, as there is no longer a family at home, there is no impetus on the other spouse to continue to cope with the difficult behavior.

Alternatively for many people the early 50s can be a difficult time career wise.  At that age a worker has a large amount of experience and many years of work under their belt.  They therefore become very expensive to the employer at around the same time as they may no longer be completely au fait with the new developments in their field.  This can mean, for many, that their 50s is a time of considerable job and career stress and risk.  Some may choose to get support from alcohol, drugs or pornography instead of their spouse, quickly leading to personality changes and the subsequent break up of their marriage.

3. Loss of common interests

If you stop enjoying things together, you'll stop enjoying each other
If you stop enjoying things together, you’ll stop enjoying each other

If a couple break up because of basic incompatibility (see above), it is likely that the problems were there at the start of the marriage (ie one party likes to spend, the other save).  Sometimes, however, a couple can be very compatible in their 20s and 30s but slowly start to grow apart and into different people.

A couple may start their married life together from the same place; two people with similar goals and interests in life.  Of course, as they age they will experience different paths.  One of them might get a promotion and concentrate of their career while the other one (often but these days not always the woman) takes a break to raise the children.  It is inevitable, during these years that the day to day activities of each spouse will be very different and their interests will start to diverge.  If the couple fall into the trap of failing to make the time to talk about their interests and maintain a connection they will, at some point in the future, wake up one morning and realize that they no longer have anything in common with their life partner.

2. Relationships with stepchildren

Stepchildren are bad enough. Teenage stepchildren? Run!
Stepchildren are bad enough. Teenage stepchildren? Run!

With the incidence of divorce (at all ages) so high many of the people who divorce in their 50s and above are actually already on their second or later marriage.  This means that the couple not only have to forge relationships with each other and, of course, with the children of the marriage but they also have to build a relationship with their stepchildren.  Such relationships are notoriously difficult with the children often resenting the stepparent and the stepparent finding that the time they can spend with their spouse and their own children has, of necessity, to include their stepchildren.

Where both spouses are on their second marriage and bring children to the mix there is likely to be resentment between the stepchildren; particularly if one of the parents has custody of their children but the other does not.  Couples often fight about the right way to discipline their children and it can be calling to see stepchildren held to a different level of accountability than your own or be unable to discipline them when necessary.  Of course the existence of children almost always requires the spouse to continue to have contact with their ex leading to further friction.

For the over 50s issues of contact and custody are unlikely to be the main causes of conflict arising out of the existence of stepchildren.  What can, however, cause both resentment and problems in a marriage is if adult stepchildren refuse to accept a new person in their parent’s life.  It is not uncommon for a step parent to end up competing with their adult stepchildren for the affection of their spouse.  If the tensions get too much the parent might decide that a second (or third) marriage is not worth jeopardizing their relationship with their children.

1. Many couples are already on their second or third marriage

If you're on marriage number 3 give up
If you’re on marriage number 3 give up

While only between 40 and 50% of first marriages fail this figure rises dramatically for subsequent marriages.  Between 60 and 67% of all second marriages fail with that number rising to just under ¾ of all third marriages.  Only 52% of marriages make it to their 15 year anniversary.  The result of so many first marriages failing after such a short period of time is that by the time a married person is in their 50s they stand a good chance of being in a second or subsequent marriage which is even less likely of making it to a 15 year anniversary.


Of course these reasons are not confined to those over 50 and nor is it an exhaustive list but it does provide some of the main reasons.  But why should the rising tide of ‘grey’ divorce concern us?  If a divorce makes people happy surely that is a good thing?

The problem arises, however, when older divorcees who are left alone lose the support network that they expected to have to help them deal with health and dementia problems. They may also find that the divorce costs them the financial stability they have worked so hard to achieve.  With the absence of spousal support more and more divorcees end up relying on their adult children to help them when they need it.  This in turn gives rise to a ‘sandwich’ generation where the adult children are responsible for the care of both their own children and their parents and putting a strain on the relationship between the generations.

There will always be those who do not have children, whose children do not live nearby or whose relationship with their children has deteriorated beyond the desire of the children to put themselves out for their parents (this is particularly common with divorced men and their children).  This means that  there will be an increased demand (and a need to finance) adult care services for the elderly including not only nursing provision but also assistance with daily life such as house cleaning, bathing, toileting and feeding.  The problem is not going to go away – as the population ages and as the divorce rate for the over 50s increases it is, indeed only going to get worse.  It is essential for both society and the government at all levels to start to plan and budget now to ensure that this is a problem that can be managed sensitively and appropriately.