During middle and older adulthood, many couples confront their children growing up and moving out, retirement, or declining health. It’s experiences such as this that can prompt spouses to reassess their marriages, and ultimately consider divorce.

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The U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the world, with about 45% of marriages expected to end in divorce. Roughly 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 occurred to individuals aged 50 and older. Between 1990 and 2010, divorce rates for people over the age of 50 have doubled. And, a staggering 600,000+ people ages 50 and older got divorced in 2010. There are various factors that can contribute to the risk of divorce, such as demographic characteristics, economic resources, and the marital biography.

Demographic characteristics include cohort, gender, and race. For example, middle-aged adults face a higher risk of divorce than older adults since divorce declines with age. And, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to divorce than Caucasians. Comparing adults ages 65 and older in 1980 and 2008, divorce has doubled among men, rising from 5% to 10%. Among women, the percentage of currently divorced tripled during this time period, increasing from 4% to 12%. In contrast, levels of widowhood among older men remained unchanged and actually fell among women between 1980 and 2008. Thus, the prevalence of divorce has increased, and the prevalence of widowhood has declined, among older adults.

Economic resources tend to reduce the risk of divorce. The college-educated are much less likely to divorce than those with lower levels of education. Employment and earnings are also protective against divorce, but how these operate for older adults who are typically retired and relying on fixed incomes is unclear.

The marital biography, or marriage order and marital duration, also influence the likelihood of divorce. Dissatisfied couples are weeded out over time, leaving a disproportionate share of the most stable, well-adjusted couples. Marital biographies may have differential associations with women’s and men’s risks of divorce as women are less likely than men to remarry after divorce and women are more likely to marry older men.

Many older adults who are currently divorced actually experienced divorce much earlier in the life course. For this reason, it is not clear why the prevalence of divorce has increased. It is possible that today’s older adults are simply less likely to remarry following divorce and thus their prevalence in the population is greater now.

Key Reasons Why Divorce Rates Have Likely Increased

  • A growing share of older adults is in a higher order marriage, reflecting divorce experienced at earlier stages of the life course. Remarriages are more likely to end in divorce than are first marriages.
  • Divorce in the U.S. is a common occurrence, which means older adults will continue to be more accepting of divorce in the future as either they or people around them experience divorce.
  • Rising female labor force participation is also conducive to divorce in that women have the economic autonomy (e.g., employment, retirement benefits) to support themselves outside of marriage.
  • Lengthening life expectancies decrease the likelihood that marriages will end through death and increase the length of exposure to the risk of divorce.

Marriages change and evolve over the life course and may no longer meet one’s needs at later life stages. As the U.S. population ages, the number of 50+ people that experience divorce will continue to climb by one-third, even if the divorce rate remains unchanged. The rise in divorce among middle-aged and older adults is not only likely to shape the health and well-being of those who experience it directly, but also to have ramifications for the well-being of family members (e.g., children and grandchildren). It is also likely to intensify the demands placed on the broader institutional support systems available to middle-aged and older adults.