A recent article by the L.A. Times brought some much-needed attention to a growing and worrisome trend in the United States: the rise of gray divorces. Separation and divorce at any age are difficult at best, but when the divorce takes place in the case of people over 50, the repercussions of going through a so-called “gray divorce” are exceptionally hard-hitting. We put together this guide to help you understand gray divorce and how to minimize the financial and emotional impact. Let’s jump in.
What is a Gray Divorce (and a Few Statistics)
Gray divorce refers to the increasing divorce rate for older couples in long-term marriages.
According to the Times’ piece, while the overall divorce rate is dropping, the number of divorces for people over 50 is surging.
Researchers point to a generational divide as evidenced by a different value system among baby boomers versus millennials, Gen X, and Gen Y. In many cases, the younger generations are postponing marriages or skipping them altogether. Those who are getting married are much more likely to stay together.
Boomers, on the other hand, started a surge in the divorce rate in the 1970s. They’re continuing to end their long-term marriage at a higher rate as they head into their not-so-golden years together.
You need to know that the consequences of getting divorced after 50 can be incredibly impactful, both financially and emotionally, to older people and their families.
Staying married to your original spouse is important. Consider that although marriages of 40 years or more were the least likely to end, the gray divorce rate was still almost three times higher for remarried couples than for first-married couples.
As the Times article also pointed out, a 2009 paper noted that recently separated or divorced adults have higher resting blood pressure. Last year, a German study found “divorce led to considerable weight gain over time, especially in men.”
Those instances are not isolated, and other results are equally troubling. According to one study by Bowling Green State University sociology professor Susan Brown, who is also a co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, people who’ve gone through a gray divorce report higher levels of depression than those whose spouses died.
Also, consider that gray married, remarried, and cohabiting couples have poverty rates of four percent or less. But 11 percent of men who divorced after the age of 50 were in poverty, and 27 percent of the women were in poverty.
Wealthy couples also have a higher probability of staying together: The odds of divorce are roughly 38% lower for those with over $250,000 in assets compared to couples with assets of $50,000 or less. Financial security is often cited as a protective factor against a later-in-life divorce.
Reasons for Gray Divorce
It’s happening a lot more, and according to several experts, here’s why.
Money issues are problematic during any part of a marriage, but when dollars still don’t make sense later in life, the pressures are compounded.
When one partner has trouble keeping to a budget, especially if the other is a primary breadwinner, it’s like pouring gas on a fire. A corollary to this is when one spouse makes an investment decision that goes sideways or loses money from a couple’s nest egg. Hot stock tips or investing in emus may be a fast track to divorce court for some couples.
When couples are in their prime earning years, financial mistakes can be overlooked easier than when a couple is approaching retirement. There’s simply less time to make up for any blunders, and that can cause marital dissension.
Money issues are also a problem when only one spouse works and therefore feels entitled to make all of the decisions involving money and estate.
Job loss also contributes to financial pressures that can lead to bickering among married people. Conversely, research has shown a trend when marriages grow stronger when a husband’s income increases but a marriage fails more often when a wife’s earnings rise.
As long as there have been marriages, there has been cheating. People have sexual needs at all ages, and when you “can’t get no satisfaction” at home, regardless of the size of your estate, you’re going to either quash your wandering notions, or you’re going to act on them. Based on how often cheating is mentioned as a reason for a break-up, most people are definitely doing the latter.
Sexual desire also changes at differing rates for men and women. If one spouse has a strong desire that continues to drive him or her and the other does not, that spouse may look outside the marriage to satisfy a carnal urge. While infidelity is a problem in older couples, the reality is that infidelity is only a symptom of more significant and other problems in a marriage.
While cheating is still a big taboo in some circles, it’s easier than ever to justify it in other circles. It does not carry that same heavy social stigma as in years past.
Also, consider that we are a much more connected world than ever before. Many online dating sites actively seek to connect married “sugar daddies” with attractive young women. The same applies to “cougars” who are also on the prowl for younger and more virile men.
Lack of paired sexual desire can still be a problem without infidelity. If the urge of one partner far exceeds the other, then a lack of sex can become a barrier to happiness in marriage. There may be no cheating during the marriage, but it can be a reason why divorce takes place and why the divorce rate for younger and older couples is so high.
As you get older, your circle of friends may shrink. You’re not as physically active anymore. If life has dealt you a couple of tough hands, you may be worn out and want to retreat to places where you think you have more control.
That’s why people turn to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. These escapes become addictions. And they do so at the expense of your marriage, as well as the relationship with your younger or adult children. Addictions are another form of being unfaithful.
Dependencies can also put financial strains on marriages, especially as one partner attempts to hide their activities. A person can lose thousands of dollars gambling online. Drug or alcohol abuse can lead to job loss, DUI, or other criminal problems.
More autonomy for women.
As women continue to build successful careers and have a more significant say in their finances, they have exercised this newfound independence by shedding a lousy marriage in favor of being on their own, even without alimony.
Being financially independent also means more confidence for women in their ability to start over alone after a long-term marriage and find happiness, especially with the looming thoughts about retirement. As the number of successful, mature women grows, so does the number of gray divorces for people over 50.
Empty Nest Syndrome
When you’re in the prime of your life, you may have two or three kids that soak up all your extra time. Pets, family activities, charitable efforts and layers upon layers also keep you happy and active.
In many cases, as children grow up and leave home, interest in participating in community activities wanes, and you spend more and more time at home… a very quiet home at that. The person you once knew and loved has changed, and so have you. The buffers you had between you are gone. You’re faced with the stark reality that you don’t like or want to be with the person sitting across from you at the dinner table anymore.
An offshoot to the empty nest is when you retire and a big part of your identity retires as well. You change, and while you may think you’re looking forward to not working anymore, it can leave a huge void in your life. That void makes you uneasy, and you may lash out at your spouse because you’re lost.
Depression is common in retirees. And if you’re no fun to be around, why would your spouse want to stick around.
The other thing is that you may have entirely different ideas about what your retirement should look like. She may want to spend summers in Palm Springs, but you want to fish in the fresh and cool air of Oregon or Washington instead. When what you wanted to do “one day” is suddenly forced upon you, the reality versus what you thought you wanted for what retirement can be jarring.
Better health and longer life.
Baby boomers are healthier and living longer than any generation before them. According to the Social Security Administration:
- A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3.
- A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.
- About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90.
- One out of 10 will live past age 95.
The so-called second act has extended into your latter years, and you’ve got more energy and desires to pursue what makes you happy, instead of settling into your golden years. The problem is, your spouse may not share your vision, nor have the energy or passion for pursuing life like you still do.
Access to excellent healthcare and the availability of activities to keep an individual mentally, physically, and psychologically active have encouraged people to seek new partners who share those interests. This is especially true when their spouse has failed to stay healthy and active too.
Falling out of love.
No matter how passionate you may have been in your younger years, sometimes you fall out of love. It’s not any one thing. It could be a ton of smaller items that when combined, kill the romance you once knew, and lead to divorce.
People change in marriages. It is inevitable. The spark dies, and nobody really knows why. The difference is that with a lot more years ahead of them now, older people are more willing to pull the plug on a bad marriage before it’s too late and they wind up with a pocket full of regrets. That’s why divorce rates for people over 50 are rising.
Chances are one or both spouses haven’t been happy for quite a while. For whatever reason, all those years of being unhappily married are no longer acceptable. In cases like this, there may be a sense of relief when a separation, and then divorce finally happens.
Falling in love with someone else.
Just as you can fall out of love, you can also fall into love with someone else. You meet somebody interesting who fills all the holes and checks all the boxes that your current spouse does not.
At first, you may just be friends. But somewhere along the way, you wake up to stronger and more intense feelings, probably at the same time as your feelings for your spouse begin to die.
It can take years before you decide to act on those feelings, leading to “gray love” with someone you want to spend the rest of your time with.
Gray divorce will impact the lives of older Americans for many years to come. And while you can’t fully mitigate the consequences if you’re involved in one, there are some steps you can take to cope with the fallout and understand the process better.
Emotional Tips for Dealing with Divorce Over 50
In general, the spouse who initiated the gray divorce will have an easier time coping than the husband or wife who did not. More often than not, one spouse has been planning to leave for quite some time. As a result, they have already worked through many of the emotional issues needed to make their split official.
It’s one thing to grow apart and end a loveless marriage and quite another to end a marriage because one spouse has cheated, which can be especially painful. The resulting depression, feelings of betrayal, and destruction of self-esteem can take a long time from which to recover, even with support from friends and family.
Experts suggest that the best way to emotionally recover from divorce is to find a new spouse or a new partner. Charting a new course with someone you care about will have a significant impact on ending depression and other similar issues.
If the thought of entering into a new relationship terrifies you, that’s normal. Everyone heals differently, and you’ll be ready when you are ready. Rushing the process is a guaranteed way to heap more emotional pain on yourself. It’s not fair to you or the person you may be attempting to connect with.
Just as with the death of a loved one, there are also the same feelings associated with the end of a relationship. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first identified these more than 50 years ago, but they are still relevant today. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is worth your time to understand each of these stages so that you can better cope and respond to the challenges that each one may bring you.
You also need to be mindful of how depression and stress can impact your emotional IQ.
Look for changes in your activity levels. People who are depressed become more sedentary, and that can lead to diabetes and high blood pressure. Exercise is one of the keys to protecting against these serious health hazards.
You may also experience insomnia, which can lead to temporary memory loss, daytime sleepiness, and an overall lack of energy. This can veer into more serious territory if you forget to take medications, turn off stove burners, miss important appointments and other unsafe activities.
Also, be aware of engaging in compulsive or risky behaviors. For example, a person may be prone to overspending, overeating, promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and other related questionable practices.
One of the biggest of all concerns in gray divorce is isolation. If you don’t feel like socializing or getting out of your home regularly, you could be setting yourself up for some serious problems.
Men are more prone to isolation than women. This is especially true when it comes to contact with children. Men are typically not as involved in raising their children. So it’s more likely they will become more distant from their children after a gray divorce.
The other trend worth noticing is that women are often social planners in a marriage. Without the benefit of their efforts, men can find themselves cast adrift and all alone.
Even if children are older and have moved away, there is still the challenge of helping them cross an emotional bridge as well. Don’t be accusatory or argue in front of your children at any age. Their transition could be just as tough as yours, if not more so.
Whatever the reasons are, isolation is a serious health hazard that can put people at a higher risk for mental health decline, chronic disease, and even early death.
What can you do to minimize the emotional impact of a gray divorce?
Divorcing your spouse is not the end of the world. Here are some ideas that can help you cope with separation and gray divorce.
First, get professional help if you need to get “unstuck” from any of the emotions that are holding you back. Join a support group, a singles group, get private coaching, or psychotherapy to help you move forward. Many times, just talking about your problems can help you process them more efficiently.
Start living as a single person. It may feel awkward at first, but you need to start putting away your former life and notice the benefits of your current situation. Box up and put into storage or sell the reminders and unnecessary items you’ll need going forward. Keeping them around creates emotional baggage that gets in your way. For some people, moving to a new place is an excellent way to emotionally distance yourself from the pain they’re feeling.
Reconnect with old friends and family members that you have grown apart from over the years. Life gets in the way between being married and raising a family, focusing on your career and being involved in the community. It is time to reshuffle your priorities and place your needs first.
Now is also a time to live where you have always wanted to live. It is a time to pursue hobbies and interests you never had time for in the past.
If you want to move to the beach and take up yoga…do it! If you want to write that book that’s been stirring around inside of you for years…do it! Always wanted to take a European cruise? Do it!
The point is that by the time you’ve turned 50, chances are you have given a lot of your life (sometimes more than 20 years!) to other people and other obligations. Instead of being unhappy, it’s okay to be a little bit selfish and protective of your mental and emotional health.
As long as it’s reasonable and fits in your budget, now is the time to tick a bunch of items off of your bucket list.
You need to start filling up your life with good and positive things. Maintain your healthy routines. Start new healthy routines. Eat well. Exercise. Get plenty of sunshine. Dive into a good book. Binge-watch Game of Thrones. Give yourself permission to be nice to yourself.
When you do this, you’ll be less likely to engage in destructive behaviors. Wallowing in self-pity, abusing drugs and alcohol, spending recklessly, seeking revenge or obsessing about your ex-spouse, or diving headlong into a lousy rebound affair are not smart choices.
How to Minimize the Financial Impact of Gray Divorce
Even if you’re able to cope with the emotional fallout from a gray divorce, there is still the practical financial part that can cause you significant trauma.
As referenced in the Times’ article, according to a long-running longitudinal survey of 20,000 Americans born before 1960, if you get divorced after age 50, expect your wealth to drop by about 50%.
Income collapse after a gray divorce is especially hard on women. After adjusting for a new standard of living, that study also found that when women divorce after age 50, the standard of living plunges 45%, double the decline found in previous research on younger divorced women.
Another 2017 study found U.S. women 63 and older who went through a gray divorce have a poverty rate of 27%, more than any other group at that age. This includes widows, and is nine times the rate of couples who stay married. The poverty rate for gray-divorced men was 11.4%.
The financial impacts of grey divorce are not easy on men either. Older men see their standard of living drop 21% after a divorce. This contrasts with previous studies that found a small or negligible effect of divorce on younger men’s incomes.
It’s clear that in many cases, ending a marriage so close to retirement can have devastating financial impacts for both the husband and wife.
Some people may argue that people who divorce after 50 are in better financial shape than younger couples who have not had as much time to build a nest egg. But with less time to recover, divorce after 50 can be an exceptionally frightening and challenging time if you’re trying to financially right your ship.
Part of the problem with a gray divorce is that there can be more assets and larger assets to divide, increasing the likelihood of animosity between spouses. Unwinding assets and marital estates can be more complicated when trying to determine which assets are community/marital property and which ones are not.
Adding into this is that some spouses will attempt to hide assets or give false information about the nature of assets, making the waters murky for the courts to unravel.
It’s illegal for a spouse to attempt to hide any assets in a divorce. All of them must be disclosed so a fair and just division can take place. Failure to do so could result in civil and criminal penalties.
If you suspect a spouse is less than forthcoming, you can hire a forensic accountant to trace various assets, or a CPA to review personal and business records. In some cases, you may only require the services of an experienced family law attorney.
Part of what you’ll need to do is also plan for the future, after your split. Along those lines, you need to understand how a divorce will impact your finances, taxes and future budgeting, and what steps you should take to prepare. The best person to help you with this is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA).
Divorce can also have an impact on Social Security benefits if a couple was married for at least 10 years. If one spouse earned significantly more than the other, the lesser earning spouse (perhaps a stay-at-home spouse) might be entitled to claim benefits later in life, based upon the work record of the higher-earning spouse if they do not remarry before age 60.
Doing so does not reduce the benefit payment to the ex-spouse whose work record is used. It’s also important to note that as long as you’re 62 or older, you can collect benefits even if your ex delays filing for benefits.
Divorce over 50 also generally means couples have been married for a more extended period, possibly more than 20 years. This helps strengthen the case for alimony, which can either be temporary or permanent depending on your situation.
One of the options you may be able to pursue is going back to school to upgrade your education to make you more employable. This can be factored into a divorce settlement. If you want or need to pursue an enhanced career path through more education, make sure to explore your options in this part of your settlement.
Perhaps the most significant decision you’ll have to make regarding assets involves deciding on trying to keep the family home or selling it and splitting the proceeds. Many people try to hang on to the family property for sentimental reasons or to continue raising children who are not yet old enough to be out on their own.
Often times, a spouse will trade-off with one spouse agreeing to keep the estate in exchange for the other spouse keeping their retirement funds intact. Be careful about going this route. On the surface, it may look like a good deal. But between taxes, lack of monetary appreciation, upkeep and other factors, keeping the family home may instead turn out to be a trap.
Make sure you understand the value of all the assets to which you’re entitled. For example, you can figure out the value of the family estate, retirement accounts or vehicles, but how much importance should be attached to making sure your spouse covers your healthcare needs and those of your children if the situation warrants.
If you’re over 60, it’s not too early to also figure out how Medicare will factor into your health coverage. And if you’re on a meager income, you may also be able to qualify for Medicaid as an added safety net.
Once you get a handle on your income and your expenses, you can recalculate your retirement savings goals. Work with a financial planner or figure out how much you need and put a plan in place. You can get there using online calculators that make it reasonably easy to get an idea of what you’ll need to do.
A Few Final Thoughts
Healing after divorce doesn’t happen in a day, a week or even a year. It takes time. Be thoughtful and be patient. And even though you’re on the far side of 50 now, you can use the wisdom gained through all of those years to make them work to your advantage. It’s not easy. But it does get better if you just give it time.