The Unique Landscape of Late Divorce

older-man-sitting-alone-on-benchDivorce is a long, drawn-out process. It is much more than the day the divorce decree officially absolves the relationship. Ending a marriage begins with random realizations that something feels amiss. Dissatisfaction can reside within a marriage for months or years through feelings of anger, resentment, and feeling unloved, disrespected, isolated, ignored, and more. Making a decision to act on those feelings is life-changing. And it is seldom a decision made on a straight pathway. The divorce decree may say you are no longer married, but that is when the real work of divorce begins. Divorcing emotionally, socially, culturally, economically, and possibly as a co-parent all add up to be a formidable challenge.

As Clarke-Stewart and Brentano (2006) write, there is no single factor that causes a divorce. Many factors spanning the length of marriage bring about dissolution. Wallerstein (1996) describes divorce as a chain of events strung complexly together and extending over time. And each individual in a family is changed in the new configuration of family relationships resulting from divorce. Every divorce is unique, no matter at what age or length of marriage. But some factors are unique specifically to divorce at age 50 and beyond, often referred to as gray divorce. Just as impact of late divorce is unique to adult children, it is unique to older divorcing couples as well.

To partners in a marriage that has been plagued for years by spousal hostility and resentment, the hope of a new life may be intoxicating. By contrast, they recognize that leaving a family with a long history of memories and shared events could be extremely turbulent; this is especially true when the partners have maintained outward appearances of a well-functioning relationship. Turbulence is compounded by a public declaration of marital incompatibility. “Divorce intensifies the already stressful process of aging, compounding feelings of loss and uncertainty” (Fintushel & Hillard, 1991).

Leaving a marriage requires redefining of self. This may feel exhilarating, empowering, and full of potential. Belief that change is possible is an important caveat. Change is promoted through understanding and information. So what are some unique experiences of gray divorce to know about and understand?

It is not uncommon in gray divorce for both wife and husband to experience an abrupt adjustment to traditional gender roles. For example, often the husband loses the partner who took care of physical needs, while the wife loses the partner who was largely responsible for the finances. All the while, the generation of adult children with more flexible role expectations may find themselves helping a parent with domestic responsibilities or managing finances (Fintushel & Hillard, 1991).

In a society that puts so much value on age and appearance, older divorced women often face fewer romantic options, whereas men may be more likely to form relationships with younger women, making new relationships more accessible. According to Clarke-Stewart and Brentano (2006), men are much more likely to develop new intimate relationships after divorce than are women. In addition to inherent challenges in re-partnering, older women typically experience financial adjustment. While this is the trend in most divorces no matter at what age, an older woman experiencing divorce for the first time has unique hurdles to overcome. Finding a new career after age 50 may be daunting and stressful.

Men in older life who are divorcing for the first time may struggle with the sting of being alone. Basic needs traditionally taken care of by women now require the attention of the older man. Again, traditional roles in the baby-boomer generation of divorces would mean the man has little experience in domestic skills such as shopping, maintaining a healthy diet, and general household management. The partner of so many years is no longer present when arriving home. There is no one to talk to, and that can quickly lead to a feeling of isolation.

In general, divorce adds many uncertainties, as each partner uncouples and begins emotional and economic adjustments. When divorce occurs later in life, major adjustments are inextricably linked to the ongoing aging process. The landscape of aging must find room for a new life to germinate and grow.

And that is often what ultimately happens. For many who divorce late in life, the sense of loss may never dissolve. But alongside the enduring feeling of loss, many women and men who divorce in late life eventually find a new sense of security and a confidence that they may have never known they had. As divorce is a unique experience for each person, so is how you eventually land on the other side.


  1. Clarke-Stewart, A., & Brentano, C. (2006). Divorce. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
  2. Fintushel, N., & Hillard, N. (1991). A grief out of season. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Company.
  3. Wallerstein, J.S., & Kelly, J. B. (1996). Surviving the breakup. New York, NY: Basic Books.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mary Murphy, EdD, LICSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Virginia

    August 29th, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    I was 65 when I decided that I had had enough and that I was leaving my ex husband. My friends and my children all thought that I had lost my mind when I told them what I was doing but I had just had enough of living with him and taking care of him and decided that it was finally time to take care of ME!

    This was the best decision that I ever made, ever. Was it difficult? Ocf course it was, most decision like this are. But this was something that I had been planning to do for a while, it wasn’t fly by night, so I was maybe a little better prepared than someone who was younger with young children that they would have to carry along too.

    I am not sure that I would have been able to do it as a younger woman but I have been divorced almost three years now and I feel liberated. If you are considering it, you are thinking about it for a reason and I encourage you to explore those reasons fully and not just disregard them as a passing thought.

  • george

    August 30th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    As a man who has experienced this and who has watched friends experience this too I can speak for all of us and say that while I think that our ex wives find a lot of security in the situation, most of us feel a lot more loss then they did, or at least that’s the way we see it.
    Most of it’s out fault, I’ll give you that. We let them take care of us and rarely sis things for ourselves and this is probably why they left us in the first place. So now here we are in the “prime” of our lives with no real clue what we are supposed to be doing and how to really take care of things.

  • lm

    September 1st, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    Ok so I have thought about it, but at this stage in my life I think that I have gone this long and we have developed this kind of relationship that I wouldn’t have with anyone else.
    Is it love anymore?
    Probably not in the traditional sense, and definitely not what you would think that younger couples would want from a marriage.
    But there is peace and stability and comfort in someone who has been with you for a very long time, and I just think why would I want to go through all of the pain to give that up now?
    Am I as happy as I once thought that I should be? Not from my marriage, no. But may be that just means that I have to stop looking for someone else to provide me with that happiness and come up with ways to provide myself with that happiness.

  • monica

    September 2nd, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    My parents’ divorce has caused a real rift between all of us- I feel like I have had to pick sides in a fight that I didn’t even want to be in!

  • Ruth

    December 4th, 2015 at 6:38 PM

    I’m in Ohio, not Kentucky, but we love you guys down there.

    I’ve been married to my wonderful husband for 36 years. Abruptly his behavior, his disposition, and his language changed and it was all against me. He turned to other women. I firmly believe that he is suffering from the early onset of dementia. I asked his doctor to do a screening. Nuerology scans showed nothing. My heart is breaking. He absolutely hates me right now, but I really think that something is working on him and destroying our great life together. I could move on and be okay, but I think my husband will have a very difficult time. This gives me non pleasure. Early onset dementia is affecting many boomers and I think it is really important to explore the factors the may precipitate a big change in a partner. I think my husband is willing to comply with the test, and at that point his recent poor decision making can be addressed. I have hope.

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