Gray divorce: What to do when your marriage ends later in life
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Last updated: 12/01/2023
When author Stephanie Han, PhD, realized her marriage wasn’t working after two decades, she filed for divorce and began the process of rebuilding her life with her young child. At 53, she was scared, depressed, and unsure how to move forward.
Ending a marriage later in life is known as a “gray divorce,” and Han wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed by the process. “There’s an initial fear of divorce, especially for women, around not finding anyone again or occupying an abject state,” she says.
Despite these challenges, though, gray divorce is on the rise. What does becoming single later in life look like, and how can you take care of your mental health during and after the process of ending a marriage?
What is gray divorce?
Clinical psychologist Regina Koepp, PsyD, ABPP, founder of the Center for Mental Health and Aging, isn’t a fan of the term “gray divorce.” “I think it has less to do with age and more to do with stage of life,” she says.
The era you’re raised in also shapes how you perceive the world, adds Koepp: “The issue with classifying people in a large cohort is that we have different generations who are currently 65 and older. We have the Silent Generation and we have Baby Boomers.”
“Gray divorce” was coined by sociologist Susan Brown, PhD, in 2012. In her research, Brown found that divorce among people 50 and older had doubled between 1990 and 2010, and one in four divorces in 2010 took place in that age group.1 While exploring the particular challenges faced by people who divorce later in life, she proposed that their situation be studied alongside widowhood because of how similar the impact can be.
My own family history reflects this point. When my parents split up in their 24th year of marriage, they were only in their mid-40s. But my sister and I had grown up and moved away, and my mother, who’d stayed home to raise us, found herself facing financial stress and a loss of identity as a result of her “gray” divorce. Becoming a widow can come with parallel challenges, as well as a higher likelihood of depression.2
Why older Americans are divorcing
According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, divorce rates are generally on the decline—but for people age 65 and older, the rate of divorce tripled between 1990 and 2021.3 The same research shows an increase in divorce for people age 45 and older. Several factors may be behind these spikes.
We’re living longer
This makes us think differently about aging, says Koepp. “When people hit 50 or 60, suddenly they’re not thinking about dying—they’re focused on living. So they’re reevaluating how they want to live out that time and what quality of life and relationships they want.”
Divorce is more acceptable
Koepp credits the Baby Boomers with shifting America’s social view on divorce. Han has seen this play out in positive ways for women in particular. “Marriage is an important institution, but so is divorce,” she says. “For me and many other women, it has been a path to freedom, understanding, confidence, and power.”
Remarriages are more vulnerable
The Pew Research Center reports that 67% of divorced American adults ages 55 to 64 remarried in 2013, but research also suggests that second marriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce.4, 5
Marriage has changed, especially financially
“Marriage has become deinstitutionalized,” says Koepp. “So women, if they’re in a heteronormative relationship, are less and less likely to be reliant on their partner for financial resources.” In part because the social norms associated with marriage have evolved, women have gained more financial equity and freedom.6 Even so, they’re still more likely to suffer financially from a divorce.7
Common pain points
Koepp says that the challenges of divorcing as an older person depend on your family structure and stage of life.
Kids in the mix
For parents, the age of your children makes a difference, says Koepp. “For example, I’m 47 and I have young kids. My situation would be very different than someone whose kids are grown at this age. The impact on our children would be different, as would navigating coparenting.”
Han says her divorce was contentious, and she and her ex-husband had to work out their coparenting arrangement through the courts. Staying connected in some way to her marriage has been complicated, she adds.
For couples without children, the process of divorcing may feel less complex in some respects. However, both parents and nonparents can experience a range of mental health effects related to divorce, including depression and anxiety.
Depression and fear
In a study of people born before 1960, those facing divorce were more likely to be depressed than those who’d been widowed.8 However, the same study found that people who experience gray divorce are able to heal and return to pre-divorce levels of depressive symptoms within about four years.
Koepp notes that divorcing later in life can also cause a great deal of fear, especially for medically vulnerable people. “If your spouse was your caretaker and they’re gone, that’s terrifying,” she says. “You may have to move in with adult children or even to a medical facility, so you also risk losing your community.”
The divorce tax and the isolation tax
“Some sociologists call the penalties we face when splitting up a ‘divorce tax,’” says Koepp. “For women in heteronormative marriages, or for a partner who stayed home to raise children, the tax is financial.” Studies show that women experience a 45% decline in their standard of living after divorce, compared to 21% for men.9
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to face an “isolation tax,” especially when it comes to their kids. “Fathers tend to move away from their adult children, while mothers move closer,” Koepp says.
Moving forward from divorce
Divorce can be devastating at any time, but it may get even harder as we age. However, Koepp is optimistic about the road ahead for divorced couples. She suggests the following steps to help with healing.
Reevaluate your roles
Koepp often asks her clients to make a pie graph of their roles before their divorce. For example, you might be a parent, a business owner, a community leader, a spouse—assign each role a slice of the pie in your chart and designate how much space it takes up.
“If ‘spouse’ takes up a significant amount of that pie and you’re going to be divorcing, then you’re going to have a vacancy,” Koepp says. “There’s going to be a tremendous loss, and you need to grieve that loss. But then you get to consider: What other parts of your identity would you like to cultivate more? Or what new slices can you make to fill that space?”
Write your story
Han has guided hundreds of divorced people through writing and reclaiming their own stories. “Writing is used for therapy, and it is a tool for healing,” she says. “Remember that if you don’t write your story, the story that stands is the one of the status quo—and if you’re a woman, that means it rarely centers your body, needs, or experiences.”
Get professional support
Koepp recommends seeing a couples therapist with the person you’re divorcing, if possible, because learning to separate in a healthy way will benefit you both. “I help clients navigate long-term entanglements, such as deeply intertwined lives with shared social networks, finances, and family ties,” she says. “I’ve worked with some older couples who have divorced who continue to serve as each other’s medical proxy.”
Even if your partner won’t go to therapy with you, it’s essential to seek out mental health support for yourself. Han says that therapy helped her on both sides of her divorce, but she needed different kinds of help for each context.
“I highly recommend interviewing your therapist,” she says. “Recognize that you may need a therapist during the divorce, then another kind of therapist post-divorce. Divorce changes you.”
To find a licensed mental health professional near you, browse our directory.
Do the emotional work
Koepp, who practices emotionally focused therapy (EFT), recommends it for couples whose marriage is dissolving. With a foundation of empathy, EFT helps people restructure their emotional responses to help strengthen their relationships.
“When you’re really understanding the deeper emotions, then helping each partner to empathize with the other,” Koepp says, “you can see where some of the unhealthier exterior or surface-level emotions like anger or passive-aggressive behavior originate. You can then reframe and try to do better.”
EFT can also be adapted for one-to-one treatment as emotionally focused individual therapy.
Koepp says that no matter what your road through divorce might look like, being gentle with yourself and your spouse can make it easier. “What you’re doing is challenging. Changing a family system is incredibly hard and painful, and when it happens, all parts of the system will protest,” she adds. It’s easier to maintain the status quo, and it’s our instinct to do so.
Endings are hard, but they can also create the chance for something new. Han’s divorce felt like a fresh start. “Make no mistake, divorce is trauma,” she says. “But I’ll tell anyone now that divorce can also be a way to empowerment and freedom. It was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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