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Why Do Couples Divorce Later in Life?

By Brian Joslyn December 02, 2023 Family

Divorce procedures initiated later in life have surged in recent years, marking a stark shift in marital dynamics. Younger couples find it relatively easier to part ways due to their upbringing in a society where dual-career households are the norm. They’ve been conditioned to view marriage as a partnership of equals.

Contrastingly, those from the “boomer” era, having tied the knot and navigated life’s journey when traditional gender roles prevailed, now face intricate challenges in separation during later stages of life. For these couples, the norms of their time often confined women to homemaking while men shouldered the financial responsibilities. Consequently, untangling intertwined lives, finances, and roles becomes notably complex in their pursuit of divorcing after decades together.

The statistics reflect this evolution; divorces among individuals aged 50 and older surged from 8.7% in 1990 to a staggering 36% by 2019 in the United States. When news of a gray divorce surfaces, it tends to evoke immediate speculation of the worst-case scenarios. Thoughts often veer towards infidelity, deceit, or other dramatic reasons, especially from the perspective of the spouse blindsided by the decision to divorce.

However, while each divorce is deeply personal and unique to the dynamics of each individual relationship, there exist common threads that lead individuals to opt for a gray divorce.

What Is Considered a Gray Divorce?

When the term ‘gray divorce’ was first used, it described couples splitting after being married for over 40 years. It was a nod to the idea that if you’ve been married that long, you’re getting older and might have some gray hair.

But now, it’s more about the growing number of baby boomers getting divorced, no matter how long they’ve been married or whether they have gray hair or not. However, most of the folks falling into this group have been married for about 20 to 30 years, showing that the term now covers divorces among older couples, even if they weren’t together for as long as the original idea suggested.

Why Do Couples Get Divorce Later in Life?

Every marriage has its own story, which means the reasons behind a divorce are just as unique. But in many states, when filing for divorce, spouses are required to give a reason. While these reasons vary widely, some crop up more frequently than others in divorce filings.

Empty Nester Syndrome

Empty nest syndrome often emerges as a significant segway into gray divorces. While some couples may have been deeply invested in raising their children, especially women who stayed home to raise and take care of their children. However, when they leave home, it can unexpectedly reveal the distance that has developed between spouses.

Years of focusing solely on parenting can create a void in a marriage once the kids leave, leaving couples at a loss when they’re faced with a quieter home and each other’s company. This abrupt change can illuminate the extent to which spouses have grown distant, fostering frustration and a sense of disconnect.

The absence of a clear-cut cause like infidelity or a dramatic event often characterizes gray divorces, where couples simply find themselves drifting apart. Suddenly confronted with an unfamiliar partner across the dinner table, individuals may grapple with a sense of discomfort or even unfamiliarity, leading to the decision to pursue gray divorce as they struggle to navigate life without the constant focus on their children.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, but would like to give your marriage a chance, you can look for activities to do together with your spouse. Look for ideas in these three articles:




Financial Stressors

Financial stressors often play a pivotal role in gray divorces, serving as a significant source of strain within marriages. The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey highlighted that 64 percent of adults consider money a primary stressor in their lives.

In the prime earning years, couples might overlook financial discrepancies as ample income can mask underlying issues. But as retirement approaches and income streams dwindle to fixed pensions or retirement benefits, the stark reality of divergent spending habits becomes undeniable. This shift frequently amplifies differences in financial management styles, becoming a catalyst for one spouse seeking a divorce.

Mediation, especially when facilitated by a mediator versed in financial matters, proves invaluable. Activities such as budgeting exercises reveal the true financial landscape, aiding spouses in understanding their current and anticipated post-divorce expenses.


Another common area of conflict arises when one spouse, usually the primary earner, expects the stay-at-home spouse to reenter the workforce after the children have grown. However, this desire can clash with the other partner’s readiness or capacity to pursue external employment. This disagreement over post-parenting career choices often contributes to marital discord, adding to the strain caused by financial concerns.

Breach of Trust

Breach of trust, often stemming from infidelity, can be a poignant reason for individuals to seek a divorce later in life. Initially, it might manifest as subtle shifts – a partner working late more frequently or unexplained expenses surfacing in financial records.

Even the most resilient relationships can falter under the weight of infidelity. Recovering a relationship in the aftermath of cheating hinges on the willingness of the unfaithful partner to earnestly engage in repairing the marriage and restoring trust. Yet, if the straying spouse isn’t committed to addressing the underlying issues that led to the breach of trust, the relationship may reach an irreparable impasse. For many couples spending decades together, infidelity stands as one of the chief causes of divorce, demonstrating the devastation wrought by cheating, deceit, and betrayal.


The transition into retirement can serve as a profound catalyst for a divorce later in life. As couples navigate this new phase of life, the substantial shift in routine and lifestyle can significantly impact their relationship.

Suddenly spending increased amounts of time together may not always equate to happiness; in fact, it can underscore differences in interests and values that were previously overshadowed by work commitments. Retirement represents a significant life shift, where the once familiar routine of work transforms into a landscape of open, unstructured time. While retirement promises opportunities for self-reflection and pursuing hobbies, it can also unveil stark realizations for some couples.

They might find themselves confronting fundamental incompatibilities in this new chapter – disparities in values, infidelity, or a waning sense of intimacy. Realizing these can lead to irreconcilable differences often becomes a pivotal point prompting couples to consider divorce as they grapple with the profound changes retirement brings to their lives and relationships.

No More Stigma Surrounding Divorce

In modern times, the diminished stigma surrounding divorce stands as a significant factor contributing to the rise of divorces later in life. Unlike the past, where religious doctrines often held considerable influence over marriages in the United States, today’s landscape is marked by reduced societal condemnation of divorce.

Earlier, people felt trapped in relationships due to the strong grip of religious beliefs and familial traditions, perceiving divorce as a moral sin that could incur social disdain and significant repercussions. However, the shifting cultural norms, evolving definitions of marriage and family, increased visibility of diverse relationship models, and greater financial autonomy for women have collectively eroded the once-firm societal judgment.

As a result, individuals contemplating gray divorces now feel more empowered to seek a dissolution of their marriages without shouldering the same burden of guilt, fear of social ostracization, or the weight of historical stigmas that once haunted those who sought to better their lives through divorce.

Women Want More Independence

The shifting landscape of gender dynamics in today’s society has become a significant catalyst for gray divorces, notably regarding women seeking greater independence. In past decades, societal norms constrained women’s opportunities, often leading to marriages that were more transactional in nature. In fact, women weren’t allowed to open their own checking or savings accounts until 1974, demonstrating the need for women to marry in order to function in society.

Various factors often contributed to marriages that lacked individual autonomy like:

  • Financial reliance on men
  • Societal and familial expectations
  • Limited access to education and employment
  • Predominant role of women in domestic and childcare responsibilities

However, in contemporary times, substantial changes have unfolded. More women are pursuing higher education, closing the gender gap, and securing prominent roles in the workforce. With economic strides, increased financial independence, and improved access to healthcare and contraception, women have gained substantial agency within relationships, no longer tethered to dependence on a husband for sustenance.

This shift toward independence has become a prominent factor driving gray divorces as women seek to assert their autonomy and navigate relationships with a newfound sense of self-reliance.

Reasons Why Individuals Second Guess Getting a Divorce Later in Life

Navigating a gray divorce involves a myriad of considerations, each crucial in its own right. While prioritizing personal happiness is essential, there are multiple reasons why individuals might hesitate or second-guess pursuing a gray divorce, considering the intricate financial, familial, and long-term implications involved:

  • Retirement – The division of assets and financial planning post-divorce significantly impacts long-term financial security during retirement.
  • Social Security – Understanding the implications of divorce on Social Security benefits and potential eligibility for spousal support is vital.
  • Income and Spousal Support – Determining fair financial support and alimony after divorce requires careful evaluation of each partner’s financial standing.
  • Division of Assets – The complex process of dividing assets, including properties, investments, and shared financial resources, demands meticulous attention.
  • Insurance – Assessing and securing adequate health and life insurance coverage post-divorce is essential for both partners’ well-being.
  • Competency – Evaluating each partner’s competency in managing finances and legal matters can influence decision-making, particularly if one spouse relies heavily on the other.
  • Long-Term Considerations – Anticipating the impact on adult children, and their emotional response, and planning for potential long-term care for both partners are crucial.
  • Long-Term Care – Planning for future care needs, especially as individuals age, becomes a critical consideration.
  • Estate Planning – Reassessing and revising estate plans to align with post-divorce intentions for asset distribution is paramount for ensuring wishes are fulfilled.

All these things together make a complicated situation, making people who are thinking about getting a gray divorce carefully think about how each one could affect their lives before they decide what to do.

If you have decided om pursuing divorce, consult with a mediator and a divorce lawyer who can help guide you through the complexities of gray divorce.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

If you are considering divorce or have divorced in your later years, what are/were your reasons? How has your life changed since? What did you gain and what did you lose?

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Catherine Vance

URRGH. Divorce lawyer here, age 69. I am seeing MORE senior women happily free at last, realizing this is their third third of life and they are going to grab happiness. And I disagree that we boomer women were “traditional” — we launched careers before marriages and babies, often waiting until our 30s. I get frustrated by the young women, stay-at-home mothers totally dependent on husbands (and often domestic violence victims) or no-career experience but four kids and zero income women. I ask them, “What happened? My generation paved the way for you and here you are, totally dependent on a lousy husband!” Rant over, but we Boomer Women changed expectations and many of us are saddened and frustrated the next generation didn’t take advantage of it. Okay, NOW rant over.


It is so refreshing to hear another boomer woman, and an attorney at that, echo sentiments that I believed in since a teenager. I could see then that independence from bondage to a man was the only way to a better life. Don’t get me wrong, I love men. But as I always said, men are good for only one thing, and it’s not to take the garbage out! Have a ball with that one ladies. And, yes, it is discouraging to see that the younger generations of women are going backwards.


Wow, some Neanderthal opinions here!

Stephanie Bryant

Yep! Retired teacher here and now I’m back subbing part time in the schools and loving it. I work 30 years and raise three children. Wouldn’t have had it any other way even though it was exhausting at times.

Ann Mary

When I married in the early 70s, although more people had started living together, marriage felt preferable. Hence, I was 19 (husband was 21) when we got married. So young! But it felt right. And it suited us as a way to be free of our parents.

So we essentially grew up together as adults but we realized that over time we saw we missed out on some things while we raised our family, got a mortgage and all that’s required to be responsible adults. We had our family at 23 and benefit now as being young(er) grandparents in our late 60s.

That said, we divorced in our 50s after 34 years of marriage. Difficult? Yes. Husband meeting someone else? Yes. Pursuing independence after successful careers and child rearing (child was married at this point – and definitely NOT at age 19😏)? Yes. And honestly- Life is good. It took a few years to adjust, emotionally and financially, but now I absolutely know it was worth it for us to go our separate ways.


I have read a lot of stories about people getting divorced in their 60s because the husband retired and the wife simply doesn’t want him under her feet all day.

Perhaps the solution to this would be men having hobbies that take them out of the house. My father in law is nearly 90 and has never had a hobby in his entire life, I don’t think this has been healthy for him.


Good thinking, Linda. Those pesky men, untermensche really, how dare they get under female feet!


I would hardly say my husband of 37 years falls into the category of untermensche (and I find that term a bit insulting as I live in a German speaking country).

My own marriage of 37 years is thankfully an equal partnership. I worked from the ages of 16 – 58 with no maternity breaks, but took 3 years out to read for a degree in my 30s. Until 4 years ago I was my husband’s business partner and only became a housewife at the age of 58 because we moved to another country. I now have other interests away from work.

All I was merely observing is that some men have nothing outside of work and this can create problems beyond retirement, with some going on to develop issues with depression. Britain has a loose network of “Men’s Shed” projects to counteract this and it has now emerged in Europe. Men go there to talk, offload personal problems and work on hobbies that show their skills off. It is proving to be very successful.

Susan Kolb

Add to that – men become boring as hell as they age – “more and more brain power devoted to smaller and smaller details.”


I second that!


Thank god for women, inventors of everything in this world with their huge brains. Oh, wait ….


The solution is quite simple…don’t marry in the first place! It is one of society’s biggest scams for both men and women.

The Author

Brian Joslyn is a family law and divorce attorney practicing in the state of Ohio. Brian handles cases involving divorce, separation, spousal support, child support and more. Brian has devoted his life to principles of fairness and justice in the treatment of his clients and the outcomes he seeks on their behalf.

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