Gray Divorce: The End of the Decades Long Marriage

by Nancy Travers,LCSW

Divorce is a common occurrence in American society. As many of us watch our friends get married, or even as we prepare to marry ourselves, we hear that nearly half of American marriages end in divorce. The statistics are slightly better than the coin-toss that popular statistics would have us believe. Time Magazine suggests that 57 percent of married Americans actually see their fifteenth wedding anniversary. After being married for so long, we assume that the relationship has hit smooth sailing, and that “’til death do us part” is inevitable. However, a recent trend in American marriages could shatter that image.

Gray divorce is on the rise in this country. Couples who have been married for 20, 30, or even 40 years are separating in later life. While not as prevalent as the divorces among unhappy newlyweds, the gray divorce phenomenon has become mainstream news as couple like Al and Tipper Gore call it quits. Professional counselors and academics both suggest that an increased lifespan and better medical care may be the culprits.

Increased vitality and lifespan may be helping us to live long, fulfilling lives, but how is this impacting the American marriage? Professor Pepper Schwartz of the University of Washington suggests, “Staying in exactly the same relationship to one another is a very hard thing to maintain every decade. People think you only get closer over time, but that’s not necessarily true.” Our personalities do not stop developing in our thirties, and our goals and desires do not expire then either. With more years of freedom and active living, many couples are looking for ways to fulfill their needs and reach their personal goals.

At earlier points in our history, divorce was not as well accepted in society. Even after dissolved marriages became more common, many couples felt that if they had been married for three decades or more, there was no point in dissolving the marriage; they didn’t want their golden years plagued with legal and emotional turmoil. Now, couples who end their marriage in their golden years are able to remain more active, achieve life goals that may have been put off in favor of married life, and even find new partners that are more suited to their personality and desires.

Many of these gray divorces begin and end rather mildly. With time, couples grow apart and part amicably. Many marriages seem to slowly wind down throughout the years. While the couple may have had great experiences together at one point, they may feel that they have been little more than roommates for a decade or more. Eventually, the urge to accomplish and experience may overwhelm their complacency. The husband may decide it’s time to move across country, while the wife determines that she wants to start a business in the empty space that she drives by every day. Children and friends may be shocked by the seemingly sudden separation, but the partners often feel that the only major difference is their living situation.

Another factor that doesn’t hurt the rising rates of gray divorce is the financial freedom of women. The days when women were completely dependent on their husbands is long gone. The women who are coming out of a gray divorce experience something that their mothers and grandmothers likely only dreamed of: financial independence. The generation that is now old enough to experience these late life divorces is the first in which women were truly expected to work and earn their own living. They have work experience, skills, and knowledge, and often still hold a job or have a means to support them that doesn’t truly require a husband or partner’s supplement. These women have a sense of independence and are comfortable in control. It’s hardly a surprise that women are initiating these divorces! According to a study by the AARP, 66% of participants reported that it was the wife that initiated their gray divorce.

But the question still remains: If the couple has been growing apart for so long, why wait? Do they stay for comfort? Familiarity? Stability? Many of the new gray divorce singles report that it was nothing so simple. The majority admit that they persevered through years of dissatisfaction for the sake of their children! Both men and women felt that waiting until their children had left home and settled in their own lives would make the divorce easier for everyone involved.

Of course, divorce is sometimes difficult. Even people who leave their partner’s amicably may find that adjusting to a new lifestyle or finding a new partner is more difficult than they once believed. During this adjustment period, gray divorce singles may find that they are soothed by talking to friends and throwing themselves into new passions. However, if this is not enough to cope with all aspects of the new lifestyle, a counselor can help new singles work through their fears and gain confidence.


Nancy Travers is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in all types of relationships; We all want them, We all need them; How to get em and Keep them. Nancy’s office is located at 2212 Dupont Dr., Suite I, Irvine, Ca. 92612.

For more information or to make an appointment, call 949-510- 9423 or contact us.
copyright a division of Counseling Corner, Inc.
As seen in The Blade magazine June 2005.

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