'Gray Divorce': Over 50, And Splitting Up

Guests

Susan Brown, co-author, "The Gray Divorce Revolution"
Janice Green, divorce and family law attorney and author, Divorce After 50

The divorce rate among people 50 and older has doubled in the past 20 years, according to research by Bowling Green State University sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin. Their paper, "The Gray Divorce Revolution," examines the factors driving the trend.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Over the past two decades, the American rate of divorce has actually declined. But not for at least one group - not for the over-50s. For them, the divorce rate has actually doubled.

In fact, of all of those who went through divorce in the year 2009, one in four persons was 50 or older. This data comes to us from a paper by two sociologists at Bowling Green State University. They call the trend the gray divorce revolution, and they say there are several factors at play here: the economy, history of relationships, and the role of men and women in general.

It's also true that getting divorced comes with various challenges for people over 50 that aren't necessarily there if the split had come earlier - say, when a couple is in its 20s or its 30s. If this is your story, or even if it's your parents' story, tell us what we do not understand about making this decision to split later in life. What have you learned?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an image you are probably familiar with: Toby Lester, on Da Vinci's ghost. But first, Susan Brown is the co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, and co-author of the paper I just mentioned, "The Gray Divorce Revolution." She joins us now from her office in Bowling Green, Ohio. Welcome, Susan, to TALK OF THE NATION.

SUSAN BROWN: Thank you.

DONVAN: I need to mention that you're communicating to us via iPhone - which is very high-tech, but also comes with a little bit of a delay after you speak. So just for our listeners to bear with it; there will be this slight pause after I ask a question, and your ability to come through on an answer.

So Susan, your research compares divorce rates over the past 20 years. So it goes back two decades. So what do you see driving this spike in gray divorce now? What has changed about marriage?

BROWN: Well, we think that there are a number of potential factors, and perhaps one of the most important ones is what we term the marital biography. For people such as the baby-boomer generation, who were the first to come of age during the 1970s and early 1980s, when divorce really started to accelerate and become widespread, what that means now is that many of those individuals who got divorced as young adults then, of course, remarried. And remarriages are at higher risk of divorce than first marriages.

So today's older adults have much more complex marital biographies than previous cohorts had when they hit the over-50 demographic. So that's one of the key factors.

DONVAN: So is this gray divorce revolution, then, primarily a revolution of gray divorce among people who are divorcing for the second time, or divorcing from second marriages; as opposed to folks who have been together for 30 years?

BROWN: Well, I think it's a combination. We find in our study that slightly over half of all of those over age 50 who got divorced in 2009 were in remarriages, compared to about 30 percent of those who remained married. So certainly, those who are remarried are over-represented in that divorce experience.

But we can also point to other changes that have occurred, widespread attitudinal shifts in society such that we're much more accepting of divorce today than we were in the past. Divorce is a common occurrence, as we know. The United States has perhaps one of the highest divorce rates in the world, and as more older adults either experience divorce themselves or see people around them get divorced, that's going to make them more accepting of divorce.

And at the same time, we've observed a weakening norm of marriage as a lifelong institution. Now, marriage is much more about individual fulfillment and satisfaction through marriage. And I think that as older adults experience other life transitions - whether it be retirement or an empty nest - it's a chance to pause and reflect, and think about: Is this the person I want to spend another 20 or 30 years with?

And older adults today are perhaps less willing to remain in what we term empty-shell marriages - marriages that are OK, but not particularly satisfying for the individuals involved.

DONVAN: Well, you mentioned a little bit about expectations that people bring into marriage, and how they've evolved - and if you can do this little mind experiment - say we went back to a couple that's recently divorced; they got married in 1978. Say we went to a couple that stayed together through 50 years, and they got married back in 1962. What happened between 1962 - and I'm making these people up, so I know that I'm not giving you nearly enough information; but if you can help me, you know, play along in a broad, broad sense.

What happened between 1962, on the expectations of a new husband and wife; and 1978, of a husband and wife when they were getting married? What was going in the culture at the time that might affect what they did later on?

BROWN: Yeah, well, back in the 1950s and the 1960s, marriage was much more what we would term role-oriented. It was characterized as more of a companionate marriage, in which we assessed its quality or success in terms of how we performed our roles as a wife or a husband. A husband was to be a good provider; a wife was to be a good mother and homemaker. And if you perform those roles well, then you should be satisfied with your marriage. And personal happiness was much less central to the equation.

Fast-forward to the late 1960s and through the 1970s, when we see much greater focus on self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. What am I getting from this marriage? If this marriage isn't making me happy in life, then divorce is an acceptable solution.

DONVAN: All right, let's bring in some callers. We have Anna - Ana(ph); I'm sorry - in San Antonio, Texas. Hi Ana, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANA: Hi there.

DONVAN: Hi. What's your story? Ana, hi, you're on the air.

ANA: OK, I can hear you now, I think, yes?

DONVAN: OK, yeah, we must have had a glitch on our end. Yeah, we hear you clearly, and you're on the air. So we'd love to hear your story.

ANA: I'm sorry, I'm having technical problems.

DONVAN: OK, I'll let you go, and try calling back in and just tell them that you're Ana from San Antonio, and I'll try to get them to put you to the top of the list. Let's go to Duke(ph) in upstate New York. Hi, Duke, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DUKE: Hey, how are you guys?

DONVAN: Good.

DUKE: I wanted to comment that I am - I'm - at 45, I also went through a divorce just the last three years, and it was - my wife initiated the divorce, and I also happen to work in the field of divorce mediation. And there seems to be a question about do you think that older woman are, in fact, also - it's a gender role where they actually are starting to initiate divorces more.

The pattern that we had when I was working, you know, a decade ago - and even more than that - was we had a lot of men who were initiating divorce. And that seemed to be - people were comfortable with that stereotype. And I wonder if they have any statistics that are saying that they're seeing a change in that trend based in gender roles.

DONVAN: Fascinating question. What about that, Susan Brown?

BROWN: Yes, that is accurate. In fact, a recent study by the AARP suggests that roughly two-thirds of older-adult divorces are initiated by women. And I think that this could be indicative of the fact that our expectations for women in society today are quite different than they were 30 and 40 years ago.

Most wives are in the labor force, and that provides them with the economic autonomy to be able to leave a marriage that they're not happy in.

DONVAN: Thanks very much for the question, Duke. You really opened up an interesting area. We have an email from Catherine(ph) in Half Moon Bay, California. She writes: I'm 58 and divorced and know many, many women who, like me, got divorced after 25-plus years of marriage. We've decided the person we are compatible with in our early 20s, and who we want to be with in our 50s and beyond, are just different people.

I think the days of one mate for 60 or more years may be over as we live longer, and as women become more financially independent - straight to your point, actually, Susan - there's not much reason now to stay in an unhappy marriage.

And I guess, also, you're saying, Susan, that the taboo, which might have been a reason - the taboo against divorce, which has certainly faded, might have been a reason in the past for our grandparents' generation, but - or great-grandparents' generation - but that Catherine sounds very typical of what you're talking about in all ways - financial independence...

BROWN: Yes, she does, and she's saying there's not much of a reason to stay in an unhappy marriage. And I think that epitomizes the way in which we conceptualize marriage and divorce. As a society, we're very accepting of divorce today, and that's now permeated across the generations.

And as older people are living longer, and they're living healthier, I think that when they hit retirement age, for instance, they realize they've got a couple more decades to live, potentially. And maybe the person that was a good spouse for them 30 years ago doesn't fit the bill today.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Dante(ph) from Detroit, Michigan. Hi, Dante, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DANTE: Hi there, how are you doing today?

DONVAN: We're good. You're on TALK OF THE NATION, and we'd love to...

DANTE: All right. I divorced about two months ago, and the main reason I divorced my wife is because she was a Christian fundamentalist. I mean, she basically had me in irons. You know, it was church every Sunday, no drinking, no tobacco, no smoking, no going out with friends on a Friday and Saturday night. She basically, I guess, ruled my life, you could say, for me.

And this was going on for about 30 years. And the only thing I can say is that nothing - no big instance, no big fight happened when we divorced. The only thing that happened was that she tried to make me go to church with her, and I really don't believe in Jesus, and I think Jesus isn't real.

DONVAN: Dante, can I stop - I don't want to get into your religious beliefs, particularly. I just want to ask you this question relative to your marriage. You didn't know this going in?

DANTE: No, actually, I thought this was just something that everybody did in marriage; that the wife commanded the husband - that the wife would make the husband go to church, make him, you know, get as much overtime as possible. I thought the wife had the say in the household.

But I guess, you know, it doesn't really have to work that way anymore because I'm retired now. I've got enough money. I've got - my kids are in order. So I can do what I want now. I don't have to go to church. I can smoke, drink, have sex with any woman I want.

DONVAN: You can sin all you want. Thanks, Dante, very much, for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

But what I found interesting, also, in what Dante is talking about, Susan Brown, is he was alluding - a little bit, I think - to a shift in gender roles, which I think you're saying is very much a part of this.

BROWN: Yes, it is. And I also heard in his comment that he had retired, he had enough money to live on, and so again, this idea that a marriage is much less about an economic exchange or a financial bargain than it was in the past; that men and women don't need to be married, quote-unquote, like they did 30 and 40 years ago.

And we typically think of this in terms of women's economic dependence on men. But as women's labor force participation has risen so rapidly, increasingly we see that in some marriages, women out-earn their husbands.

DONVAN: And it's very interesting to know how life happens afterwards in terms of - for example, say, alimony after divorce. And we're going to talk about that in just a minute. We're talking about the surge in recent decades in gray divorce, those over 50 who are ending marriage now.

If this is your story or your parents' story, tell us what we don't understand about making this split later in life. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. We're talking about gray divorce. More and more Americans over the age of 50 are divorcing - nearly one in four by 2009. It's a trend that may be represented in online dating sites, where the number of users who are 50 and older has grown twice as fast as other age groups.

Our guest is Susan Brown. She co-directs the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. It's her paper that she co-wrote, actually, with a colleague that sparked our conversation. It is titled "The Gray Divorce Revolution." And you can find a link to it right now at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If this is your story or your parents' story, tell us what we don't understand about making this decision later on in life. Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we want to talk a little bit now about life for those over 50 who have divorced, after the divorce or in the process of divorce. And Janice Green is joining us as well. She's a family law attorney in Austin, Texas, and joins us from member station KUT. Her book is called "Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal and Financial Challenges." Janice, thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

JANICE GREEN: Thank you.

DONVAN: In the biggest, most bottom-line way, what is unique and legal for post-50-year-old divorcees?

GREEN: Well, they're different from their younger divorcees in that they're simply - and this is just a reality - that there are fewer years ahead of them than behind them, which means less time to recover financially from what can happen as a result of divorce; and fewer years to retire debt; and fewer years to experience recovery in their, you know, in their portfolios by riding markets up and down.

So that obvious thing of there are fewer years ahead than behind is - permeates all aspects of the divorce.

DONVAN: So that's interesting because Susan Brown has been guiding us through a conversation in which people are saying, I've only got a few years left; I want to make the best of it.

GREEN: Yes.

DONVAN: And you're actually saying the few years left, from a financial point of view, is a real liability.

GREEN: Yes, it can be.

DONVAN: Because you have to start all over again. Is that basically, you know, we're going to the notion that it's easier to live on two incomes than one?

GREEN: Well, or it's definitely tougher to live on - two incomes than one and especially when people have been eyeing their plans to retire and to, you know, reduce their expenses. And it's just more difficult to live on - two. And plus you have people who's - either retiring by choice or retiring because of illness or whatever, and they are not able to continue working and - on into their 70s, 80s or 90s.

DONVAN: And when clients come to you, have they thought these things through, or are they primarily - have they primarily foc- on the emotional side of the decision they're making, and they haven't given very much thought at all to the financial aspect?

GREEN: I find it probably 50-50; that about half of the folks who come into my office have thought through some of the financial implications. And when they do, they're confused, and they know that they need help trying to figure out a way to make life go on after a divorce.

And whether that means, you know, returning to the workforce, or whether that means negotiating for particular kinds of assets, they do know and they do sense that there's – that there are rough waters ahead as far as figuring out the finances for two households.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Bob from Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Bob, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BOB: Hello?

DONVAN: Hi, you're on the air, Bob.

BOB: Yes, thank you for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure.

BOB: My wife and I were married for 35 years, and I have a history of bipolar disorder and had some hospitalizations through our marriage. But that - toward the end of that, I mean, she was always extremely supportive of my situation, but it just got to be too much for her. And she was the one that initiated the divorce on that.

And I think the unique situation with us is that we are both still very, very much in love. We express that to each other. We kind of liken it to the situation with Jane Fonda and Ted Turner, where she once said that she still loves Ted very much, but she just can't live with him because of his bipolar situation.

I - all of this happened, in my situation, in St. Louis, Missouri. And as a result of that, at the end of my last hospitalization, I had to relocate to Columbus, Ohio.

DONVAN: And Bob, if this isn't too personal to share, what - if your wife still loves you, and you still love her, what did she want to do - what does she do with the time that she now has, not having to roll with your every up and down? What's her life become?

BOB: She seems to have been easily able to go on with her life, at this point. We communicate - mostly by email, but sometimes over the phone. We have two sons that we are - you know, obviously - greatly in love with, and we now have a grandson that we're greatly in love with. But she seems to have been able to more easily go on with her life where for me, it's been very difficult.

I've had so many losses. I lost my wife. I lost my home. I lost my job. I've been out of work now for almost two years, now, as a result of all of this. And luckily, I have a psychiatrist and a psychologist who have been helpful in this. But I relate to what the one speaker has been saying in terms of the financial aspect of it, too. Our divorce was amicable in the sense that we split everything 50-50 - it's been very difficult.

DONVAN: All right, Bob, listen, thank you for sharing that, and I apologize if I went to too personal a place. But thank you for sharing that to us.

BOB: OK, thank you so much.

DONVAN: All right, yeah, thanks for sharing. Janice, something that Bob just said about splitting 50-50 - is 50-50 ever really 50-50?

GREEN: It depends. First of all, there are some states that require a 50-50 division of what is in marital property. Some states allow an equitable division that can be something other than a 50-50 division. And sometimes - you know, 50 percent of zero is still zero, and there may be a need to kick in alimony on top of the property division.

DONVAN: Do men still pay alimony more than women, or is that changing?

GREEN: I think that it's changing. I think that men do still pay alimony more than women, but there are certainly more women who are paying alimony. That's what I'm seeing in my practice.

DONVAN: That's so against everything we ever see in the movies. Another question I have about the 50-50: If you get the house, is that necessarily such a prize? I'm just thinking in terms of, you get the house and you're 70 years old, and stuff starts breaking in the house and it has to be repaired; and the other partner got off in a rental somewhere. I mean, do people think those kinds of things through?

GREEN: Well, I try to help them think through that because certainly in an earlier – at an earlier age, it was very common - or a few years ago, it was certainly common for people to think in terms of all or nothing. They wanted all of the house. Let's say wife wanted all the house; hubby could have all of his retirement because she was very fond of the home, was very nested there and, you know, and maybe they would split some of the cash or liquid assets.

But now, people are sort of spreading the risk. I think that the current gyrations in our economy have made people realize the value of diversification, of putting - not putting all their eggs in one basket, in terms of property that they end up with, and doing more sharing and splitting assets - maybe 50-50, maybe some other way; but doing less of this, the house is always going to this one and the retirement only going to the other one - for obvious reasons.

And you raise a very good point about maintaining certain assets beyond, you know, age 70 or 80. They may not be appropriate. They may want to downsize. And you know, wanting to stay in a home that was appropriate during the earlier years of the marriage certainly may be a situation to be revisited in a late-life divorce.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Calista(ph) from Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CALISTA: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure.

CALISTA: I'm actually calling as a child of parents who divorced later on in life. I'm 30, and my parents were married for 32 years. And it was just a very interesting thing to me, to see my mom and dad become completely different people after their divorce. My dad sort of became this free spirit that I'd never seen before, and my mom dyed her hair platinum blonde and started listening to rock music.

And so for me, it was kind of traumatic and interesting all at the same time.

DONVAN: Susan Brown, let me - I'd like to have you answer that question. Do you often find that the children are surprised by who their parents become?

BROWN: Well, unfortunately, we haven't been able to study the children of divorce directly in our research. But from my reading of the literature, I think that many children, adult children, are quite distraught by their parents' divorce - and many use the term devastated. That's what Deirdre Bair says. So I think yes, it certainly provides a new window into what our parents are like, opening up pictures that we hadn't seen before.

DONVAN: Yeah. But to go more to what you are - actually do research, it sounds as though this opportunity to live a different life, that motivates some of the divorce that we're talking about, was totally played out in the case of Calista's parents. Both of them went - seem to have gone through some sort of re-invention.

BROWN: Right. And again, speaking to the notion that they're at a new stage of the life course, and this person that they've been married to for 32 years is no longer what they're looking for in life. They want something different, and each one has gone off in their own direction.

DONVAN: Let me share something from an emailer named Joe(ph) from Topeka, Kansas, who writes: My parents are over 50. And while they have not gotten a divorce, they have always had the deal that they would get one if one of them became ill and needed to have long-term care. This way, the other one would not be as burdened financially by the health-care expenses of the other.

Janice Green, that's - that is some prior planning.

GREEN: Yes, yes.

DONVAN: That's some real politic there. Yeah, go ahead.

GREEN: Some couples do that, do divorce for purposes of qualifying for Medicaid long-term care. They - that's definitely a player in the late-life divorce.

Another thing, though, that goes back to this issue of the older children is that I always believe that older children are a major factor in their parents' divorce, particularly now that we have more adult children residing in their parents' home long after they pass the age of majority.

We have a greater deal of dependency - financial dependency of this younger generation, still, on the older generation. You have promises kept, whether it be promises of a large wedding, promises of funding master degrees - many economic entanglements still, between adult children and their parents. And those come into play in the course of divorce.

DONVAN: To keep people together?

GREEN: Well, they come into play because they may be items to be negotiated. You don't have child support at this juncture, but the kids may have serious financial agendas, where they're - you know, they may act out, be very angry toward the parent who is initiating the divorce and who may be jeopardizing their future economic well-being.

You may have children whose education is going to have to be either put off or delayed or stopped because the parents - because when they split and they go their ways and you're splitting everything - let's say, in half - you're not going to have the income freedom to - or availability of finances to pay for those items that they promised their older children. That happens a lot. So they are very much a - what I call a shadow adviser in - the adult kids are - in the late-life divorce.

DONVAN: You're listening to...

GREEN: I've had them be very active. I've had them participate in mediations of their parents' divorce. They sometimes accompany their parents. And I don't mean that they pay - play only a negative role.

DONVAN: Right.

GREEN: Sometimes when I have - when a parent is cognitively impaired, that older child may step in as a guardian ad litem in the process of the divorce.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Here's Renee(ph) from Fenton, Michigan. Hi, Renee. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

RENEE: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

RENEE: Hi.

DONVAN: You're on the air.

RENEE: I was in a second 17-year marriage and didn't really want it to end. It ended because of rough circumstances. And I suggested counseling, and he ran. It has put me in a position having two children at home, and financially in both of my marriages, I was in mutual agreement with my spouse - wanted to be the stay-at-home mom; had part-time jobs, had a decent education in-between, when it was feasible for the kids.

Now, I'm at the age that I'm at and I'm having to really, really struggle in finances. So my choice would not have been to do it. However, I guess the lesser of two evils was looking at facing the job market and everything there is to face these days, being a single parent with, you know, the burden of finance - and I'm going back to school.

DONVAN: And so these tales you're hearing from other families - where they're saying oh, I got to live my life and I'm free and this is great, and I can be who I want - that's not how it's working for you because of the money question.

RENEE: No.

DONVAN: No.

RENEE: No. Not at all. And it just came into play. It was - I don't know, individuals in a relationship, I believe. It's tough. And even when there are things that are not agreeable, I do think you can work through those. And some people will, and some people won't. It's just two individual people's choices.

DONVAN: All right, Renee. Thanks very much for sharing your story. And Mike in St. Louis, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE: Hello?

DONVAN: Hi, Mike. You're on the air.

MIKE: Hi. Yeah. Thank you for taking my call. I think the math has changed a whole lot when your kids have graduated from high school, and you're 50 and realize you're in pretty good health, and you're probably going to live another 50 years, what have you, because the goalposts for middle age, of course - keeps moving upfield and so forth, though actually living to be healthy at 90 or 100, it's probably pretty realistic.

And one of the great things about living in America, you can always re-invent yourself. So it doesn't surprise me. The one young lady was talking about her mom changing her hair blonde and her father changing his attitude, so forth. Well, this is the greatest place on the planet where you can do that. So being healthier than we're used to, we really need to change our perception as to what we're going to be and what we're going to do, and not be so fixated on that age 65 retirement because chances are, you're going to be doing a lot of stuff well beyond 65 simply because of the health issue.

DONVAN: All right. Mike from St. Louis, thanks very much for sharing your point of view - and to all of our listeners who have given us an interesting portrait of this, an interesting spectrum. But I think what we've come away with, from listening to both our listeners and Janice Brown and - Susan Brown and Janice Green, is it's not the same thing as splitting when you're younger; that there are different motives, maybe different opportunities but also different consequences that should be thought through.

So Janice Green, a family attorney in Austin, Texas, joined us from member station KUT. Her book is "Divorce after 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal and Financial Challenges." Janice, thanks for joining us.

GREEN: Thank you.

DONVAN: And Susan Brown is co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, and co-author of the paper "The Gray Divorce Revolution." And you can find a link to that on our website. Susan Brown joined us from her office in Bowling Green, Ohio. Susan, thanks for your time today.

BROWN: Thank you very much.

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