Gray Divorce (AKA “Silver Splitting”) Is On The Rise

October 31, 2023
By Clifford Petroske

Along with the national debt, climate change, and other harbingers of doom, we have come to expect that the divorce rate in the United States will simply continue to rise. Many of society’s ills will, no doubt, continue to increase unabated, but divorce may not be one of them. At least not for those under age 35, for whom the divorce rate has actually decreased significantly between 1990 and 2021, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Community Survey.

Although at first this might seem encouraging, the downward trend in divorce for the young is associated with a reduced marriage rate among the same age group. Economics seems to be the culprit. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey (“Record Share of Americans Have Never Married,”), compared with their older counterparts, young adults who have never been married are more likely to cite financial security as the main reason for not being currently married (34% of those ages 25 to 34 compared with 20% of those 35 and older).

Among the rest of the population (those lucky enough to have avoided coming of age during the Great Recession of 2007-2009), the divorce rate continues to rise. For all age groups age 35 and older, the divorce rate has increased, but it is most pronounced among older Americans. Among those aged 55 to 64, the risk of divorce has more than doubled since 1990 (from 5.1 people per 1,000 adults in 1990, to 12 people per 1,000 adults in 2017). For those 65 and older, the divorce rate has more than tripled over the same period, rising from 1.8 per 1,000 adults to 5.0. The trend is even more pronounced for women over age 65, who are now divorcing at more than four times the rate than they were in 1990.

What is behind this trend for older Americans – often termed “Gray Divorce” or alternately, “Silver Splitting?” Once again, economics is partly the cause, but not in the same way. The rise in the number of women in the workforce over the past several decades means that older women are now more likely to be financially independent. As a 2019 report from the National Institute of Health noted, “for prior generations, wives were typically economically dependent on their husbands which may have precluded many divorces. Together, these explanations for the rise in gray divorce suggest more supportive attitudes toward divorce among older adults in recent years, especially among those who have previously divorced.”

As noted in a report from the Council on Contemporary Families, although women today are not more likely to be unhappy than they were twenty years ago, they now have the financial resources to leave a marriage if they are unhappy. At all ages, women are more likely to express dissatisfaction with their marriages and more likely to initiate divorce.

A significant factor in the higher divorce rate among older Americans is the shifting meaning of marriage in America. Where once being a good provider or a good homemaker was enough, now spouses are expected to be good friends, loving companions, and chore-sharers. Another important factor driving “gray divorce” is the fact that a larger proportion of married older adults are in remarriages, which are statistically more prone to divorces than first marriages.

The fact that Americans are living longer and often healthier lives, means that people can look forward to living many years past retirement, and makes the need for happiness in a marriage even more acute. The high divorce rate over the past several decades means that there are now larger numbers of divorced people in the population and this has reduced the social stigma formerly associated with divorce. Add to this the opportunities afforded by social media and online dating, which allow people in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s to meet someone and begin developing a satisfying relationship before ever stepping outside.

A combination of factors has caused an explosion in the divorce rate for older Americans. Should we be worried about the stability of family life, and compromised values? Perhaps not. The trend is largely confined to people who have already raised their children. Naturally, for this group the most important question is personal happiness. Left with an empty nest, or one soon to be, can the idea of marriage until “death do us part” ever be enough when living in misery?

If you are contemplating a divorce, contact us to consult with an experienced gray divorce attorney who is well-versed in the nuances of New York State law to achieve your best outcome.