Author gleans causes of ‘gray divorces’

Due to the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, “gray divorces” (involving people over the age of 50) are spiraling. In 2010, there were over 643,000 such divorces. The number is expected to reach 828,000 by 2030.

Why should society worry about the tidal wave of gray divorces? That’s the question Jocelyn Elise Crowley, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, explores in her new book “Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits (January 2018, University of California Press). She spoke with 40 men and 40 women who had gone through a gray divorce, asking them why they got a divorce, how their finances were affected by the divorce, and how their social relationships changed. Crowley tells their personal stories about how their lives were completely transformed in the aftermath of their gray divorces.

Men and women in her study offered some of the same reasons for getting divorced in mid-life, such as growing apart, infidelity and mental-health issues. But Crowley also found were differences between the sexes when they explained the causes of their divorces as well, with men complaining about “how things were done in the household” such as managing finances and disciplining children, and women objecting more to men’s “bad behaviors,” such as addictions and many types of abuse.

The most important findings are that women face an “economic gray divorce penalty” while men face a “social gray divorce penalty” when they split up in mid-life. For women, finances become a challenge when they divorce in mid-life because they often spend more time taking care of children rather than working regularly outside the home when they are younger and lack a livable income in their older years. Men, on the other hand, lose many of their social relationships after a gray divorce because friends and adult children often tend to side with their ex-wives, who may have kept these relationships going when they were married. Yet, changes in public policies, such as an improved Social Security system and better retirement savings options for women, and funding for social support groups for men, can help both sexes recover from their gray divorces.

Stressing that mid-life couples don’t easily throw away their marriages, and it’s a crisis or a chronic relationship stressor that finally pushes them to the divorce decision, Crowley said she is optimistic about their future. Although public-policy action is needed to address the growing needs of the “gray divorced” population, these mid-life splits had hope about moving forward with their lives, and that gave Crowley hope in telling their stories, she said.