There’s an old joke that goes: A bent old man and his wife, using canes, hobble into a lawyer’s office. They are each over ninety. They take their seats and the lawyer asks them why they have come. “We want a divorce!” shouts old Mr. Smith. “Well, all right, I can help you,” says the lawyer. “But do you mind if I ask, since you’ve been married 70 years, why now, after all this time?” Mr. Smith replies, “we wanted to wait until the children were dead!”
Conventions in marriage have changed a lot in the past few decades and they have changed in the realm of divorce as well. It used to be that if they made it past the first few years, unhappily married couples might hang on until the children were grown up but after that they were free to split up. But if they didn’t do it then, they rarely divorced later on.
Now more couples are splitting in middle life regardless of whether or not they have hit that “marker.” Twice as many people over the age of 50 are now likely to divorce as were apt to do so in 1990, for example, and “silver” or “gray” divorce, as this phenomenon is sometimes referred to, is more acceptable.
Sociologists point to several explanations, including the fact that older people are more likely to be in second marriages, which have a higher risk of failure due to the greater stressors second marriages are usually subject to: blended families, financial pressures, etc.
Another factor is that women no longer feel the same insecurities they once did. More and more women are working and financially independent. They are empowered in a way their mothers were not. Most do not feel helplessly dependent on their husbands for support.
People are living longer, and that makes a difference too. Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the love, sex and relationship ambassador for AARP says, “Now, let’s say you’re 50 or 60. You could go 30 more years. A lot of marriages are not horrible, but they’re no longer satisfying or loving. They may not be ugly, but you say, ‘Do I really want 30 more years of this?’”
There has been increasing acceptance of divorce as a choice over the years. More people who would have felt a “responsibility” to others in their social network to remain married now find that many people around them either don’t care or don’t object to divorce. In the case of adult children who may want their parents to stay married, some people reason that staying together for their sake may be modeling the wrong kind of behavior.
Research at Brigham Young University revealed that being in a bad marriage may be actually “bad” for you. While studies have supported the idea that overall, married people are healthier than their single counterparts, some researchers have failed to distinguish between the quality of the marriages studied. The new study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, revealed that people who are in “ambivalent” marriages, that is, relationships in which their partner cannot always be counted on for positive support or who may be unpredictable, do not show the robust health effects of people in positive marriages.
“A marital fight that lacked warmth or was controlling in tone could be just as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol,” according to a University of Utah study.
While some of this effect may come from the unpredictability of an ambivalent marriage—not knowing how your partner will behave from one day to the next, there’s no question that living in a war zone, even one where the hostilities are intermittent, is extremely stressful. The connection between stress and poor health is undeniable, and has been well documented in countless studies. Now that people are living longer and enjoying more years of relatively youthful vigor they are questioning the wisdom of staying in partnerships that are unhappy or even merely unsatisfying.