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What’s behind the ‘gray divorce’ trend?

This is part one of a two-part series exploring the phenomenon of divorce among the older population. Additional reasons for ‘gray divorce’ will be addressed in part two of the series.

While the overall divorce rate has declined over the past 20 years, it has doubled for the segment of the population over age 50. This growing unmarried, middle-age population has even led Candice Bushnell to write a follow-up book asking “Is There Still Sex in the City?” to address the phenomenon her peers are facing.

Obviously, there are important financial considerations in any divorce, but so-called “gray divorces” may involve even greater pitfalls because the financial assets at stake typically are larger, and each party has less time to recover from the financial loss. Nevertheless, divorce has an apparent appeal to the over-50 population.

Why would a couple who may have been together for 20 to 30 years or more decide to divorce? The reasons are complex, but here are some of the top reasons that many long-term couples call it quits:


Regardless of age or marriage duration, money issues are among the main reasons most couples state for fighting and wanting to divorce. According to a new survey by Dave Ramsey, both high levels of debt and a lack of communication or agreement about the debt are major causes for the stress and anxiety surrounding household finances. The greater a couple’s consumer debt, the more likely that couple was to say money was one of the top issues causing arguments. According to the survey, those who said that they have a “great” marriage were almost twice as likely to talk about money daily or weekly compared to those who said their marriage was “in crisis.”

With older couples, once they retire and the income stream stops, the couple is forced to live on a fixed income — plus whatever they have saved for retirement. This new financial dynamic, which may include less disposable income, may exacerbate tensions over differences in spending habits. Whatever financial stressor that may have been previously overlooked becomes clear and may be quite sobering in retirement. Therefore, if you are not comfortable with, or can’t come to an agreement about, the level of debt and spending that you have as a couple, it can lead to fights and divorce in the long run.


According to a recent survey, men are — in general — more likely than women to cheat; 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women reported that they’d had sex with someone other than their spouse while married. Conventional wisdom may lead you to think that younger couples are more tempted to “step out” on their marital partner, but infidelity for both men and women actually increases during the middle ages. You may be surprised to learn that, based upon recent research by the Institute for Family Studies, of the individuals who have had an extra-marital affair, women in their 60s reported the highest rate of infidelity (16 percent). However, the share decreased sharply among women in their 70s and 80s. By comparison, the infidelity rate among men in their 70s is the highest (26 percent), and it remains high among men ages 80 and older (24 percent).

Apparently, however, this infidelity trend has not always been so common in the older end of the age spectrum. In the 1990s, the infidelity rate peaked among men ages 50 to 59 (31 percent) and women ages 40 to 49 (18 percent), diminishing as the population aged. In 1996, Viagra, an erectile dysfunction drug, received a patent. It received FDA approval and was first sold in the United States in 1998. Coincidentally, between 2000 and 2009, it appears that a sexual phenomenon occurred shifting infidelity to the middle-age population, with the highest rate of infidelity reported by men ages 60 to 69 (29 percent) and women ages 50 to 59 (17 percent). We are continuing to see the aging of this infidelity trend.

It’s realistic to state that infidelity is strongly correlated to divorce, as 40 percent of adults who have cheated on their spouse before are currently divorced or separated, while only 17 percent of adults who were faithful to their spouse are now divorced.

Kathy Brown van Zutphen is an attorney licensed to practice law in Alabama and Mississippi. She focuses on the “elder law” areas of trusts, estates and conservatorships. Additionally, she litigates lawsuits and represents small business owners as part of her legal practice. Visit her website to learn more: You can also reach her at her office: (228) 357-5227.

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