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The Gray Divorce Revolution: Can/Should Your Marriage Be Saved?

The divorce rate for couples aged 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2009, when more than one in four divorces involved people over age 50, according to a study conducted at Bowling Green State University.

As the average lifespan increases, it is likely that the rate of "gray divorce" will continue to rise. To gain insight into reasons for divorce at midlife and beyond, researchers for a 2004 AARP study interviewed 581 men and 566 women aged 40 to 79 who divorced at least once in their 40s, 50s, or 60s.

Responses indicate that older people think long and hard about the potential consequences for themselves and their families. It comes as no surprise that staying married for the children is the main reason some people take so long to act. The top reasons for late-life divorce are:

  • Verbal, physical, or emotional abuse

  • Value and lifestyle differences

  • Infidelity

  • Substance abuse

Whether late-life divorce is good or bad depends entirely upon individual circumstances.

Marriage and Family Therapist Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, M.Ed., tells Natural Choice Directory that, "Greater support for abused women gives [them] more options today," and "in some situations it is a very good thing, as the people have a new chance to create the lives they desire." She also notes that, "Some people divorce for financial reasons, depending on their local laws."

Gray divorce has lost much of the stigma it once carried as we witness greater numbers of older people leading fulfilling lives after divorce.

"Breakups of long-term marriages do not usually happen overnight -- they've been brewing for a long time, and then some catalyst provides the energy to make the change," says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.

"In my counseling experience, relationships that end after many years have some external reason for continuing, although much of the bonding and the sex have died. Perhaps it's waiting for the children to grow up, or caring for aging parents, or a business, or maybe it's just lack of motivation to make change...If the marriage had long-standing problems that are intractable, it is probably not going to get any better. That said, I believe that any couple can fix their problems if they both have the commitment and will to do it. Many couples never try counseling, and they should."


  1. Don't hold a grudge. Talk about what's bothering you in a rational way. Ask clearly for what you want, and let your partner know why it's important to you. If you can't find a way to agree, go for a counseling session. Resentment will destroy your marriage -- for the price of one session, before the problem gets too large, you can save it.

  2. Show your appreciation. Let your partner know you appreciate what he or she does, personality traits, (his sense of humor, her generosity, his practicality, her hard work) and companionship. The more you praise what you like, the more you'll get of it. We all want to be appreciated. Celebration + appreciation = motivation.

  3. Make time for intimacy. Regard your face-to-face time as sacred. Take time to listen to each other. Touch as often as possible. (Put your hand on your spouse's leg while driving; give him or her a little squeeze now and then; hug and kiss each other.) Create a cuddling space in front of the television, on the porch swing, in your bedroom -- and use it.

"While these three things aren't all you need to do to create a working, loving partnership," cautions Dr. Tessina, "they'll set the tone and create an atmosphere where your relationship can thrive. They're like the water, sun, and fertilizer to a plant -- the natural necessities of married life."


  1. Pick the wrong partner for the wrong reasons. No matter how charming your partner is, if he or she's a player, an out-of-control spender, a con artist, an alcoholic/addict, or violent, no amount of love on your part will fix him or her one bit. Don't try. The minute you find out there's a Fatal Flaw, end it. Find a less charming, but more upstanding, healthy person to love.

  2. Nag/scold/bitch/yell when things don't meet your expectations. You have to take care of yourself and find a way to solve problems and motivate your partner to work with you. Partnership is the name of the game, not "I want you to take care of me, and I'll throw a temper tantrum if you don't." You'll get a lot more of what you want if you ask directly and simply, and motivate with affection, humor and fun.

  3. Do it all yourself. Lots of people try to fill in all the gaps by doing whatever their partner isn't doing -- all alone. If he can't keep a job, getting successful on your own could be a good thing for you, but it won't save the relationship. If he won't help around the house, or with the kids, doing it all yourself (plus your job) won't save the relationship either. If she won't be responsible about money or discipline, doing it all yourself will work for a while, but you'll wind up being seen as the bad guy. Very early in the relationship, give your partner the room to do his share. If nothing is forthcoming, ask directly (don't just whine or hint) for what you want. If your mate doesn't step up, and won't discuss what would help, then you're probably the only one in the relationship, and it's not going to work.


1. Your partner is struggling with compulsive behavior...if your spouse won't get proper treatment, or treatment hasn't worked, leaving the relationship may be your only choice.

2. Violence, verbal or sexual abuse. 3. You tried therapy -- it didn't work. If you and your spouse have been to couples' therapy, given it a good effort, and it didn't fix the problems or stop your fighting and teach you to communicate, perhaps one or both of you haven't enough motivation left to stay together.

When considering whether it's better to end the marriage or try to find other avenues of expression while remaining in the marriage, Dr. Tessina suggests "It's always worth a try to make yourself happy by yourself. (After all, it's what you'll have to do if you divorce.) Follow your dreams, seek productive activity, new groups to join, etc. You may find a happier you leads to a happier marriage."

References: "The Gray Divorce Revolution," Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, Bowling Green State University; The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond, AARP, May 2004; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, by Tina B. Tessina, PhD (Adams Media) 1-59869-325-6

Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis." She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites around the web.


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