Divorce in Later Life


Divorce as a social phenomenon is as old as the institution of marriage. Scientific interest in this problem has increased in the second half of the twentieth century. It was associated with the rapid increase in the divorce rate around the world. The scientific literature focuses mainly on young families who are considered as a social priority in modern society. There are not many works that explore the complex coupling of value orientations, attitudes, social, and psychological peculiarities of the older age group in the context of family interactions. However, for some time, there is an increased rate of divorce among the older population. The authors Mary Lamanna, Agnes Riedmann, and Susan Stewart state that “The proportion of divorces among older couples and those in long-term marriages has recently shown an increase” (Lamanna, Riedmann & Stewart, 2014, p. 359). In such a way, this issue requires more attention from sociologists and psychologists. The phenomenon of divorce in old age is an interesting topic for the research, the relevance of which is connected not only with the demographics of divorce but also with the changes in the demographic profile of the population in the direction of increasing the proportion of older people. It is predicted that by 2050, in some developed countries, the number of older people will exceed the number of children by more than twice. The change of the demographic profile means the transformation of the entire system of social interactions including the structure of divorces in the age perspective. The starting point of the research interest was a contradiction, the essence of which lies in the fact that, on the one hand, a long joint life often leads to increased symbiotic of the couple. Nevertheless, on the other hand, there is a tendency of the increase in the number of older couples who have decided to dissolve the marriage. Every day, the problem of divorces among elderly couples is becoming acuter. The purpose of the paper is to clarify the main reasons for divorce in the old age, assess the social perception of situations that lead to divorce, and monitor the influence of divorce in this age.

The Notion of Divorce 

Any family as a dynamic system goes through a series of stages of the development. During the passage of the stages, the family goes through a series of difficulties – the so-called normative crises. However, apart from the normative crises, the family can also survive deviant crises. The deviant family crisis is a crisis, the occurrence of which is possible at any stage of the family life cycle and is associated with the experience of negative life events defined as the crisis. Divorce is one of these events. Today, as indicated by a number of authors, divorce is the termination of marriage in its legal, economic, and psychological aspects, which entails the reorganization of the family system. Thus, the content of divorce is the state of disharmony caused by a violation of homeostasis of the family system, which requires the reorganization of the family as a system. In a young age, it is easy to reorganize and create a new family. However, nowadays, the number of the divorce of elderly people has increased significantly. For people of the advanced age, it is difficult to start a new life or create a new family. In such a way, people of this age experience many difficulties after divorce. 

The Causes of Divorce 

The divorce rate among spouses over 65 increases every year. According to the authors of the book Marriages, Families, and Relationships: Making Choices in a Diverse Society, “This came as a surprise to many academics and social commentators, who refer to this phenomenon as a silver divorce” (Lamanna, Riedmann & Stewart, 2014, p. 359). Many researchers believe that the tendency of recent years may lead to the fact that in the future, there will be a greater number of divorces among older couples than among young people (Lamanna, Riedmann & Stewart, 2014). It is associated with various reasons. In the elderly family, there can be quarrels, disagreements, and misunderstandings in couple’s relations. The conflicts can be associated with unrealized intentions or development projects, adultery, or the personal features of behavior. Nevertheless, despite the conflicts and difficulties, elderly spouses usually continue to live together. It can be associated with different stereotypes – divorce in this age is indecent and inappropriate. The only accepted way of social positioning of older people is to maintain their marital status. However, despite the apparent indissolubility of marriage in the elderly age, in recent years, there are more couples who have decided to divorce. According to the authors Nancy Hooyman and Asuman Kiyak “Even though the majority of older marriages are reasonably happy, an increasing proportion of older couples are choosing to divorce” (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2008, p. 344). There are many reasons for divorce in the advanced age – alcoholism of one of the spouses, marital infidelity, economic benefits – fictitious divorce, serious illness of a spouse, and consequence of the crisis of retirement. The author Emery claims that “Some studies suggest that 66 percent of women initiating divorce give abuse (including emotional abuse and infidelity) as the major reason for the divorce” (Emery, 2013, p. 655). Many sociologists affirm that the main reason for divorce is alcoholism. It constitutes 45% of all divorces (Emery, 2013). In the older age, alcoholism has its characteristics. It provokes such phenomena as isolation, frustration, dissatisfaction with past and present, anger, physical, and mental discomfort. Statistics shows that for only 7% of Americans who have divorced after 65 years old, the reason is the close relationship with another person (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2008). Murray Amos, a California professor, asserts that one of the main causes of frequent divorces among the elderly lies in the poor health of the spouse. According to the statistics, a sick person becomes an initiator of divorce in two out of five cases. Professor claims that arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease are the main enemies of family happiness (Olds & Schwartz, 2010). Sick people do not want to be a burden for a husband or wife.


Retirement is another reason for divorce in the elderly. It is a situation where personal choice is implemented in respect of the profession and the family based on health status, the desire or unwillingness to continue the work, and personal priorities. During the period of transition to retirement, there are some structural changes that include normative changes, changes of social networks and communications, emotional changes, as well as changes in value priorities and life strategies. A person gets into a situation where he/she should comprehend new roles, norms, and values, and realize the interests in the changed context. Quite frequently, a person cannot cope with the difficulties. The level of stress increases. It leads to the conflicts with other people including a spouse. 

Not infrequently, there is dissension among spouses by reasons of an intimate nature. Extinction of sexual function occurs in the spouses not simultaneously. It causes many difficulties. Many scientists affirm that disagreements over the frequency of intimacy occur primarily not between the young spouses but between people of the advanced age. In adulthood, spiritual intimacy and sexual satisfaction are extremely interconnected (Strong, DeVault & Cohen, 2010). If, in the relationship between spouses, there is no understanding and acceptance, the intimate life will not satisfy. In such cases, even if the sexual needs coincide, spouses unlikely may reach an agreement. Sexual desire is a strong impetus for a harmonious family life, but only when there are feelings (Strong, DeVault & Cohen, 2010). However, for intervening years, there are many omissions and disagreements that coldness in the relationship arises. It does not contribute to the sexual activity. At the same time, sexual frustration is often caused quarrels and disagreements. In such a way, there is a vicious circle and many elderly spouses decide to divorce. 

In elderly people, requirements and wishes change as well as in younger and middle-aged members of society. Until recently it was believed that married elderly couples are extremely conservative. They are tied to their housing, daily routine, food, and, as a consequence, to each other. However, as it is stated in the sociological study, nine out of ten pensioners are tired of their life partner (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2008).  

The impact of difficult situations in the family affects different areas of its activity and leads to a violation of its functions. These violations inevitably affect the well-being of family members. They do not allow them to meet their needs causing a state of inner tension and discomfort. They are a source of somatic, neuropsychological, and behavioral disorders (Blass, 2013).

A man appears an initiator of divorce in pairs from 40 to 50 years old. In spouses over fifty, a picture changes dramatically. In adulthood, women more often than men become initiators of divorce (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2008). Women are more satisfied with their freedom. Men often want to keep the family. A woman makes a decision to divorce carefully and rationally, without any scandals but inexorably. A sociological survey conducted among women has showed that they divorce because of financial and housing problems, constant stress, depression of a life partner, and the lack of prospects (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2008). A survey among men has denied the myth that a second marriage with a new companion is happier for men. About 30 percent of men yearn for the first marriage. Sociologists have noticed that if a man is more than 75 years old, he re-marries only with a woman of the same age. The maximum difference in age is around 5 years. However, when men are 45-50 years old, they are more likely to marry younger women (Connidis, 2010). Employees of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy estimated that divorce between the elderly is partially approved and even encouraged by their older children (Connidis, 2010). 

Phases of Divorce 

There are several phases of the collapse of the emotional relationships – awareness of dissatisfaction, expression of dissatisfaction, negotiations, making decisions, and transformation of relations. The process of divorce is divided into three periods – a period before the divorce, a period of the divorce, and a period after the divorce. In the first period, an abandoned partner has four stages of the reaction to the situation. The first stage is the protest. A spouse makes ineffective attempts to avoid divorce. The second stage is despair. It is associated with depression and self-blame. The next stage is the negation. It is connected with the devaluation of a partner and marriage. The last stage is reconciliation with the situation. A partner escapes from the sense of injustice and receives a realistic vision of the situation. At the stage before the divorce, one of the spouses undertakes any attempts to keep the family. There is a search of any options to normalize relations. In the period of divorce spouses may experience a variety of emotions and severe stress, which may include anger, sadness, fear, guilt, and a desire to take revenge on the former spouse. If a decision about divorce was made unilaterally, the partner blames the initiator of divorce and feels helplessness. In the period after divorce, there is the fixation of neurotic and depressive reactions (Connidis, 2010). It especially relates to middle-aged women with children. 

Consequences of Divorce 

The end the marital relationship is not only a change in the family status of an elderly person. It also entails a change in the whole way of life – economic and social. It is reflected even on the daily habits such as sleeping and eating. A legal casuistry accompanying the division of property and other procedures related to divorce such as wills and entering the right of inheritance further complicates the situation. Divorce, forced or voluntary, is always a source of great upheaval in the life of elderly people. It identifies all the traits of personality that could only implicitly be manifested in an everyday life. The separation of spouses always causes stress. For elderly people, it is impossible to deal with it in a short period of time. Psychologists affirm that usually former spouses need five years to survive divorce (Markides, 2007).  However, for elderly people, this process can last even longer. According to psychologists, divorcing spouses have a sense of despair, melancholy, loneliness, and the bitterness of disappointed hopes. Moreover, in older couples, there is the increased risk of heart and mental diseases after divorce (Markides, 2007).  The author Kyriakos Markides claims that “The results indicate that divorced persons, as compared with those who were never married or were living with partners or married, were more likely to be in fair or poor health, have activity limitations, or have limitations in physical or social functioning” (Markides, 2007, p. 347). Within a year after the divorce, the risk of disease among elderly people is increased by 30% (Markides, 2007).  There are mainly mental and skin disorders, genitourinary disorders, and headaches. People suffer painful divorce than women. Statistics of suicide among men after divorce is much higher than women’s. Many people after divorce suffer physical illness. Chronic diseases are usually exacerbated. Chances to get into the clinic increase by one-third of both men and women. People who get divorced in the elderly age have an extremely high risk of heart attack or stroke. In addition, during this period, mental illnesses are aggravated in a great number of elderly people. For many elderly people, depression after divorce may be even more severe and longer than after the spouse’s death. Earlier, it was believed that divorce is more traumatic for women than for men. However, more recent studies conducted by psychologists show another data. For a man, divorce becomes a more painful experience (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2008).

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After the divorce, elderly people have many additional problems. Firstly, it is rehabilitation after divorce. When a person is relatively young, he/she still has a chance to create a new family. However, people of the advanced age do not have this chance in most of the cases. In such a way, most of divorced elderly people live alone the rest of their life. The next point is the need to earn a living. The task is not easy for the reason that when entering the labor market after a long break, a person can lose the qualification. It is necessary to understand that the problem is enormously complicated. The third point is medical maintenance. As a rule, there is a preferential tariff for the purchase of insurance for married people. The moment of the presence of the family is also quite often taken into account for the appointment to high and responsible positions. A family man is predictable to a large extent. Naturally, if the insurance was purchased per family, with the divorce it ceases to exist. In such a way, there is a nontrivial task for elderly people- to get the health insurance at the age when health problems of the majority of citizens are inevitable. The fourth point is the division of property including pension funds. It is one of the most important issues in a process of divorce. Many lawyers affirm that for elderly people, it is not difficult to divide property. Difficulties arise when it comes to a dog or cat – a common pet (Touhy & Jett, 2013).  In such a way, after divorce, there can be many problems for elderly people. 

Loneliness as the Main Consequence of Divorce 

One of the main problems of elderly people as a social group is loneliness. After divorce, people of the advanced age experience significant changes in the living conditions and environment, social and family roles, and the nature of social and friendly contacts. Eventually, it leads to the loss of life goals and meaning of life. Loneliness becomes a stable characteristic of the elderly people after the divorce. Almost all divorced elderly spouses suffer from frequent feelings of loneliness (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2008). In addition to the psychological discomfort, life in solitude complicates the solution of various vital problems that are already complicated due to lower mental and physical capabilities of people and the deterioration of their material well-being. Because of this, lonely people of the advanced age often feel depressed, insecure, passive, and unhappy (Touhy & Jett, 2013).  

In elderly people, there is a dual tendency after divorce. On the one hand, the gap with society, friends, and a former spouse is accompanied with painful experiences. However, on the other, they tend to isolate themselves from other people to protect their peace and stability. The desire of an older person to have a closed space is associated with the desire to save his/her world and personality. It was revealed that in elderly people, feelings of loneliness after divorce are closely related to the personality type. 32.4% of people of the harmonious type experience loneliness. 40.8% of people with sensitive features have the feeling of loneliness after divorce. 9.9% of people with hyperactivity and only 1.4% of elderly people with hyperthymesia suffer from loneliness (Touhy & Jett, 2013). The state of loneliness that often comes after divorce can strengthen the depressive and neurotic tendencies, as well as have a negative impact on the individual. Therefore, a period after the divorce is an area of the risk for loneliness. Compared with married, single people have higher risks of death in the middle age. Chronic loneliness can become one of the key elements that lead to death. People who are married have better social support and can rely on their partners. 

Positive Consequences of Divorce 

Despite all the negative consequences, divorce can bring also a positive experience for elderly people. Termination of family relationships can bring welcome relief and a feeling of complete freedom from various limitations, obligations, and internal conflicts. “The older divorce’s expectations might be to have time and freedom to participate in activities and friendships that were limited during the marriage” (Emery, 2013, p. 656). Quite often, elderly people find new life partners after divorce. They are linked by common interests and hobbies, common views, and the desire to be equal partners for each other. According to the authors Theris Touhy and Kathleen Jett “Older people who remarry usually choose someone they have previously known and with whom they share similar backgrounds and interests” (Touhy & Jett, 2013, p. 431). “Rates of remarriage are higher for men of all ages than for women” (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2008, p, 344). 


The problem of divorce among elderly people is quite acute in modern society. Statistics shows that over the past few years, the number of divorces among elderly people has significantly increased. The reason for this lies in the fact that the demographic profile of the modern society has changed. It is predicted that in the near future, the number of older people will exceed the number of children in some developed countries. Changing of the demographic profile means the transformation of all social interactions. In such a way, the number of divorces of elderly people will only increase. Divorce is a process of reorganization of the family system during the life of the spouses occurring for different reasons. At the same time, the main task after divorce is to cope with its negative consequences and realize the positive aspects of the situation. An important task for the former spouses is the search for personal meaning and a new role in the system of social relations. Failure to resolve this problem gives rise to another problem – the problem of loneliness.

Jul 10, 2019 in Socioligy
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