According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). 1.68 million people got married in 2020. In that same year, 630 000 filed for divorce and annulments. These figures are down from previous years due to the pandemic, but they reveal something interesting about the nature of long term marriages and gray divorce.
Divorce is a trying and turbulent time for every couple that goes through it. The effects can feel even sharper for couples that have been together for a long time. While no one gets married expecting a divorce, it’s worth looking at why it happens, especially between older spouses.
In this article, we want to shed some light on the common themes of gray divorce. We’ll break down what it looks like, why it happens, and what couples can do to save their marriages. Before we go through each reason and actionable step, we need to define long-term marriages and understand what sets them apart.
What are considered long-term marriages?
While the definition of gray divorce can vary, most institutions agree on what counts as a long-term marriage. The Social Security Administration defines a long-term marriage as a marriage of ten years or more. Many state courts use the 10-year rule in family law too.
Take California Family Code Section 4336, for example. This law uses the 10-year rule to give courts some jurisdiction for divorce cases that happen after a marriage of “long duration”. This gives a judge the legal authority to make decisions over things like spousal support and alimony.
Gray divorce, on the other hand, doesn’t only look at the length of the marriage. Generally, the term refers more to the age of couples in long-term marriages. It looks at “grey-haired” spouses as a demographic and tries to understand the trend of higher divorce rates after decades of marriage.
So what are these trends, and why do so many long-term marriages end in divorce?
5 Common reasons why long-term marriages end
This comes back to the NCHS stats, and what they say about the nature of divorce and time. 2020 represents the lowest year for both marriage and divorce since 2000. Respectively, both the rate of marriage and the rate of divorce fell by 17% and 16% from the previous year. This trend wasn’t equal for every demographic, though. These numbers are just the average across the board.
In truth, the divorce rate for younger couples has been going down steadily for decades. The sharpest decrease has been for 15-24-year-olds at 43% since 1990. But those aged 45+ have been trending in the opposite direction, showing an increase in that same time.
The younger group still has the highest divorce rate, but there are a few reasons why older couples are closing the gap. Here are 5 of the most common reasons for gray divorce.
1. Postponed divorces
Sometimes, a gray divorce just means a delayed divorce. Couples can have issues earlier in their marriage and still opt to stay together — even when both parties would prefer a separation. Social expectations, family, guilt, embarrassment, and finances are just a few reasons couples choose to postpone.
Young couples struggle most with this kind of pressure, especially in the first few years of married life. If they feel an obligation to stay together, then divorce may only feel like an option when those factors play less of a role.
For some spouses, that means outgrowing the influence of society and family Others may want to become more financially stable and independent before ending their marriage. Whatever the reason, there comes a point where long-term couples feel comfortable enough to make the decisions they avoided before.
2. Major changes later in life
Early adulthood is a time of constant change. From jobs and education to relationships and social status, our 20s and 30s are full of life-defining shifts, but other challenges only come later. Some of them can even change how spouses engage with issues.
Take empty nest syndrome, for example. Children are a big reason couples decide to stay together despite their issues. Many parents feel a responsibility to provide a stable home for their kids, and having young ones around can make it easier for estranged spouses to share a roof. Once a child moves out, though, that buffer goes away.
Empty nesting can bring old issues back to light. There’s just more time and space for problems to take over, especially if they’ve been left to fester. Retirement has a similar effect on long-term couples who use work as a distraction.
3. Financial difficulties
Retirement can trigger a gray divorce in another way too – financial pressure. A stable retirement plan is an asset for every married couple, but the issue isn’t about having money in the bank. It’s about the stress of not being able to earn more.
Young working couples have less money to budget on average, but they have their whole careers in front of them. Staying optimistic about finances is easier with a stable income and more opportunities down the line, but that goes away with retirement.
A spouse’s reckless spending carries more risk after they retire. Emergencies can deplete savings quickly and even push people back into the workforce. Most couples stress about money, but instability can split even a strong marriage over the long run.
4. Growing apart
The story of a loving couple growing apart isn’t limited to high school sweethearts. Growth is a natural part of being human, and it happens over a lifetime. Couples don’t have to outgrow their feelings to grow apart, either.
As we age, our values, priorities, and desires can change in unexpected ways. What you found appealing on your wedding day can be a source of frustration after a decade. Couples can also become distant if one partner invests in their development and the other remains stagnant.
5. More time in proximity
Growing apart can lead to gray divorce, but, surprisingly, so can too much time together. The most recent example of this is the lockdown during the pandemic.
Couples went from spending weekends and evenings together to being under the same roof 24/7. There was no way to breathe room between arguments, and fewer ways to enjoy quality time outside the house. In this kind of environment, small arguments have a habit of escalating.
Parents had to take on the burden of homeschooling, which only stretched their mental and emotional resources. Others struggled with cabin fever at the same time. This level of prolonged isolation brought on symptoms like irritability, depression, anxiety, boredom, and dissatisfaction.
What should long-term couples do if they want to save their marriage?
Avoid the harsh startup
There’s nothing wrong with having legitimate concerns. Working through issues together is a key part of building a healthy relationship, but how we start a conversation dictates how productive it ends up being.
A harsh startup invites a combative reaction when you need collaboration most. An example of this might be starting a discussion like:
“You never do your share of chores and I’m fed up with it.”
Even when anger or frustration is justified, a harsh startup shifts the focus away from the issue. Softening your approach doesn’t mean suppressing your feelings, though. Instead, it helps you express them in a way that encourages listening, vulnerability, and productive changes.
If you’re trying to soften your startup, some useful tips include:
- Creating a warm and appreciative space to talk things through
- Opening with “I” statements instead of “you” statements
- Describing the situation without judgment or blame
- Discussing issues sooner so they don’t get a chance to build up
Recognize the Four Horsemen
Dr. John Gottman developed the Four Horsemen concept to highlight the signs that most often lead to divorce. Named after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they’re some of the strongest predictors of divorce.
Long-term couples that want to protect their marriage need to be aware of how they manifest and interact. Gottman’s Four Horsemen are listed as:
Criticism can look like a harsh startup, and it’s often a precursor for contempt. Defensiveness is a common tactic to avoid accountability. It deflects responsibility and uses victimhood to reverse the blame.
Stonewalling — when a person shuts down and disengages — is an extreme reaction to physiological flooding. It’s also a response to contempt. While it’s understandable at times, stonewalling only creates more issues. If one spouse shows signs of being flooded, it’s best to de-escalate things so they don’t withdraw.
Keep building happy memories
When long-term couples look back, their fondest memories often come from the early years. They remember the honeymoon phase, getting to know each other, being infatuated, excited, and connected. Even the hard times have a positive tone because they represent struggles they overcame together.
As time goes on, that early bliss moves further away. Without forming new memories along the way, it becomes easier for the next issue to dominate. A happy marriage takes continuous work, but it’s meant to be fun too.
Building new memories is the best way to keep a long-term marriage full of admiration and fondness. This doesn’t mean reliving the start of the relationship. It simply means making time to laugh, bond, and appreciate each other.
A positive connection makes the good times more enriching. When hardships come, it becomes a source of strength. Knowing the causes of gray divorce can help older couples avoid it, but that’s only half the secret to a happy long-term marriage. Making the most of that time together is just as powerful.