By Colin McCandless, Contributing Writer
REGION – The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, with nearly half of all marriages breaking up. Research indicates that even people married 20 years or longer are getting divorced more often in recent decades. There has been a significant uptick in “gray divorce,” a term used to describe a split involving married couples at least 50 years of age or older.
According to a study from The Journal of Gerontology, persons aged 50 and older account for one-fourth of divorces, and the divorce rate for this demographic has doubled since the 1990s. It also found that “over half of those divorces happened after 20 years of marriage.” A Pew Research report shows that higher gray divorce rates are linked to Baby Boomers, who comprise the “bulk of this age group,” but what factors are spurring the increase and why is it more prevalent now?
Jeff Stokes, assistant professor in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Department of Gerontology, cites three main contributing factors to the rise in gray divorce. The first entails “changes in gender equality among current primary cohorts of gray divorce and less defined gender roles in the labor force,” said Stokes. “There are much more equal proportions of men and women in the labor force.”
An increase in women’s financial independence has reduced the fear of financial repercussions stemming from divorce, he explained. “It’s not uncommon for women to earn more money than their husband.”
Secondly, there is greater cultural acceptance of divorce now that our society has developed a more equitable division of labor. Men engage in a more evenly divided share of household work and child-rearing responsibilities than was typical in previous generations.
A third contributing factor and something unique to gray divorce, stated Stokes, is increased life expectancy. “Decisions on relationships and planning are often based on people’s expectations for the future,” he elaborated.
Prior to the Baby Boomers, people in their fifties and sixties were not anticipating decades more of healthy living, which may have influenced their views on enduring a boring marriage. With longer average life expectancies, that social dynamic has changed. “Remaining in an okay marriage is different when you’re in physical decline,” mused Stokes. “A spouse can be a caregiver. In intimate relationships, decisions are often based on the alternatives.”
A spouse in a turbulent marriage might prefer being alone to staying in a toxic relationship, but most older couples seeking divorce are just in a marriage that has deteriorated over time, maintained Stokes. If you’re 65 and still expecting decades of active life ahead, the thought process becomes less about ‘Will I find someone else?’ and more ‘Why should I spend it with this person who doesn’t make me happy anymore?’
Eileen Frazier, a licensed independent clinical social worker and trauma specialist with Discernment Counseling in Falmouth, has worked in marital counseling for 24 years and in discernment counseling for six. Most of her clients fall within the 50-plus demographic and many have been married 20 to 30 years or more.
Discernment counseling is designed for couples who are considering divorce and at least one spouse is ambivalent about the benefits of intensive couples therapy. It was created to address the gap between marriage counseling and hiring a lawyer, according to Frazier. While discernment counseling doesn’t always save a marriage, it often results in a more amicable divorce when separation is seen as the only alternative, asserted Frazier. “You can get a divorce, but you don’t have to let it destroy you.”
Marriage counseling is traditionally geared toward fixing a marriage, but discernment counseling examines the idea of what Frazier described as a “quality of a marriage as opposed to the quantity of marriage” (marriage length).
Frazier meets with each spouse individually (over Zoom these days) and asks them about their relationship and how it’s defined. “Typically, there is a leaning-in person—who wants to save the marriage—and a leaning-out person who wants to leave it,” she explained.
The objectives are establishing confidence and clarity in assessing what happened, evaluating the marriage’s direction and determining each person’s contributions to the state of the marriage. “I help you in a safe, supportive setting and discuss what you’re seeing,” said Frazier.
Discernment counseling consists of up to five sessions, and usually one of three paths results: The couple decides not to fix the marriage nor actively seek divorce; they proceed with separation or divorce; or they choose marriage counseling. Should they pursue counseling, Frazier generally recommends a minimum of six months.
Navigating legal issues
When a couple 50 and older opts for divorce, the next step involves hiring a lawyer. A gray divorce can entail navigating the legal aspects of dividing up shared property, retirement accounts and other financial assets.
Jonathan Fields is a practicing family law attorney and divorce mediator of nearly 30 years with Fields and Dennis LLP in Wellesley. He has delivered talks on the subject of gray divorce at the MassBar Educates Panel and Utah Bar Association events and wrote a 2018 piece in the Massachusetts Lawyers’ Weekly entitled, “Tips for the practitioner handling gray divorce.”
Fields said there are specific legal issues unique to gray divorce that must be considered when assessing financial matters, including mental competency concerns such as dementia. “From a lawyer’s perspective, a big concern is whether and to what extent each party is competent to represent their own intentions,” he stated.
For couples of advanced years, more likely 80-plus or a similar age of “diminished capacity,” as Fields phrased it, another legal piece is ensuring that adult children aren’t the ones pushing the divorce for their own financial gain.
Additionally, lawyers overseeing a gray divorce can help make sure that each spouse’s “beneficiary designations are in place in terms of estate planning,” said Fields. This might include updating 401(k) or life insurance beneficiary designations so that they match each individual’s intent.
A further potential legal scenario within the gray divorce demographic is “Medicaid divorce” or “sham divorce,” This is a situation, Fields explained, in which “the parties may consider divorce so that the spouse on his/her way to a nursing home can qualify for Medicaid.”
While the 35- to 50-year-old cohort remains his practice’s largest divorce demographic, Fields suspects he has seen more gray divorce clients compared to 10 years ago, particularly between ages 60 and 65. “It’s a growing area for sure,” he affirmed.