Overall, the rate of divorce in the U.S. is no longer increasing. There’s an important exception, though. People who are 50 and older are divorcing more often than they were in the past. So noteworthy is the phenomenon that it has gotten its own name: “gray divorce.”
Compared to younger adults, the 50+ group is accounting for proportionately more of all divorces in the U.S. Nearly three decades ago, in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 people who got divorced were 50 or older. By 2010, the rate was about two and a half times that – 1 in every 4 people.
What’s happening to all those older people after they divorce? That was the question addressed in a study by Bowling Green State University sociology professor Susan L. Brown and her colleagues, just released online (January 2019) in the journal Demography. By the title of the article, “Repartnering following gray divorce,” you might think that what these gray divorcees were doing was repartnering. In fact, though, within 10 years of their divorce, 69% of them had stayed single.
The authors analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study. A nationally representative sample of people over the age of 50 was first surveyed in 1998, and interviewed every other year through 2014, with refresher samples added in 2004 and 2010. In the study, 1,131 people who had experienced a divorce at age 50 or older were tracked for up to a decade. (Data from 6 people in same-sex unions were excluded.)
The women were even more likely to stay single after divorcing at age 50 and older than were the men. About 77 percent of the women had never partnered 10 years after their divorce. They neither remarried nor cohabited. For the men, 62 percent stayed single.
Percent of People Who Divorced at 50 or Older and Did Not Remarry or Cohabit
76.6% of women stayed single
62.0% of men stayed single
The women who did partner again were more likely to remarry (12.5 percent) than to cohabit (10.9 percent). For men, it was the reverse: 16.5 percent of them cohabited, compared to 14.6 percent who remarried. Clearly, though, what both the men and the women were most likely to do was to stay single.
12.5% of women remarried
10.9% of women cohabited
14.6% of men remarried
16.5% of men cohabited
The authors looked at lots of different factors to try to understand what was driving the rates of remarrying, cohabiting, or staying single among these 50+-year-old men and women. Many of the findings were underwhelming. For example, economic resources, typically of significance to younger people, were not much of a factor in the repartnering rates of these older Americans. The links between health and repartnering were not all that impressive either. The implications of the availability of social ties (having friends or family nearby, or living with a child) were also weak. Race/ethnicity hardly mattered at all. There were a few statistically significant findings here and there for these factors, but nothing you could point to and say, “Oh, now I understand what’s going on.”
In this article, the authors did something very important and very rare. They acknowledged another factor that may have mattered: whether the participants wanted to become partnered again. (Yeah, I know: duh. But it never seems to occur to most academics who publish articles about these matters.)
Kudos to the authors for recognizing that some people just don’t want to get married or cohabit. If you are not interested, it doesn’t matter how many available partners there are, or how much money you have, or whether you have other people in your life, or how healthy you are.
The next step is for researchers to ask people if they are interested in repartnering. In the Heath and Retirement Study (and just about every other study), that didn’t happen.