According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the overall divorce rate has decreased slightly. However, the divorce rate among people over 50 has increased substantially. In 1990, the rate was one in ten. In 2009, the rate was one in four. In other words, nowadays 40% of all divorces involve spouses over 50 years old. We’ll call them senior divorces. For me 40% is a surprising statistic. Although I haven’t kept track, it seems that most of the divorces I’ve handled were between spouses with small children, which would make Mom and Dad roughly 25 to 40.
We’ve all heard about couples staying together ‘for the sake of the children’ and parting company only after the kids were grown up and gone. Those may have been senior divorces, but years ago they were only noteworthy because they didn’t seem to happen very often, and friends and neighbors were shocked when they did. You’d think surviving twenty or so years of marriage would be a pretty good indicator that ‘til death do us part’ would turn out to be true. However, something must have been going on to increase the rate of senior divorces fourfold in 19 years.
One thing that’s obvious is the increased number of households with working women. When I was a child, none of my friends had working Moms. They were all home in their house dresses, doing laundry and baking cookies. Without jobs and their own incomes they were financially dependent on their husbands, and after their children left home they turned to garden clubs and charity balls. By the time women were 50, divorce for most of them was virtually unthinkable economically, so they just didn’t think of it. Period.
It was also unthinkable socially. It’s easy to forget that no fault divorce is a relatively recent invention. Before no fault, a spouse who wanted a divorce had an affirmative burden to prove he or she was entitled to one, because the other spouse had done something morally reprehensible, like beating or cheating. People hired private detectives. It was a big deal. Now if you want a divorce, you just check the “irreconcilable differences” box on the form. If your spouse doesn’t want a divorce, too bad for him or her. For better or worse, divorce is now normal. A senior divorce is no longer embarrassing.
We also live in an age that demands and celebrates happiness and self-fulfillment. Unhappiness and self-sacrifice and are decidedly out of fashion. A joyless and confining marriage should not be endured, especially after the children are out of the way. Instead it should be ended, and ending the second is probably easier than ending the third, and so on. In this climate, an increasing rate of senior divorce was probably inevitable. Fiftieth wedding anniversaries may become highly unusual. Even passing that milestone is no guarantee of staying together - we recently divorced a couple in their 80’s!
The contrast between yesterday and today is easy to see and goes a long way towards explaining the rising rate of senior divorce. Working women are educated and financially independent, which makes emotional independence attainable once it feels necessary. A wife’s financial independence also reduces a husband’s guilt if he instigates the breakup. Whether you’re female or male, or 60 or 70, waking up in the morning and feeling you have to go out on your own again and “find yourself” is now Ok instead of alarmingly weird.
Carlsbad Divorce Attorney Stanley D. Prowse is a California Certified Family Law Specialist. We welcome your legal inquiries.