Why Are Older Married People Now Divorcing Like the Gores?

Yeah, yeah, so another celebrity marriage has hit the dust – what’s so surprising about that?  Celebrity marriages seem to come with a revolving door already installed, ready to twirl the lovers back out of the relationship when they are done six months later.  But the latest break-up listed in the gossip column doesn’t involve two movie stars who nobody thought would last anyway.  It involves the Gores, that loving, supportive couple who have just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary.  And who can forget that passionate kiss on stage at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles?  Their recent dignified announcement that “This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together, following a process of long and careful consideration” stunned many, but for others it has just reinforced an apparent trend that is becoming more and more prevalent in modern society: The trend among the “gray-hairs” to file for divorce after spending three decades together.Â

The Wall Street Journal recently announced a “divorce boom among seniors” and the Associated Press reports that a “growing legion” of older Americans are suddenly separating and divorcing in larger numbers than before.  Even CBS News has jumped on the bandwagon, describing the “growing trend of 50, 60, and 70-something year olds who are divorcing after decades of marriage.”  Those boomers who wanted it all and were the first generation to be nicknamed the “me generation” are now seniors … and they still want it all.  And that doesn’t necessarily mean sticking with the person they said “I do” to all that time ago.

So what could be causing Grandma and Grandpa to suddenly rush to their divorce lawyers?  Well, apparently Viagra has a lot to answer for because it has helped create vastly new sexual experiences for older adults. Sixty may be the new 40!  Others point to women’s economic freedom, unheard-of back when our grandparents were young.  The longer average lifespan has also been brought up as a reason since many argue that marriage wasn’t designed as an institution to last so long.Â

A May 2004 survey conducted by AARP found that women initiated 66 percent of these gray divorces, often blindsiding their husbands. Saying “I do” meant maybe thirty years together, but for those approaching retirement now, their “I do” could mean fifty years and that is too long for some.

Robert Butler’s recently published book, The Longevity Prescription, looks at this phenomenon stating “If [they] don’t feel totally happy and have possibilities for new relationships, late-life divorce is not totally uncommon.”  Butler, 83, is founder of the non-profit International Longevity Center in New York City and is founding director of the National Institute on Aging. He says he’s become more aware of those in long marriages contemplating divorce. He says it’s usually the women who bring it up.Â

But is it really a trend? There is no credible evidence that there is a divorce boom among older Americans.  In fact, available statistics suggest that divorce rates among senior citizens have remained rather stable at low levels.   Rather, it has become a “hot topic” in the media and as a result, it gets talked up.  So don’t worry, maybe Grandma and Grandpa will get to celebrate their golden anniversary in their golden years after all!

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