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Divorce: Trends and Consequences - Divorcing In Middle And Late Life

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Although most divorces occur in early adulthood to couples whose marriages have lasted less than a decade, divorcing is not unheard of in the second half of life. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 12 percent of divorces granted in 1988 in the United States involved persons in marriages of over twenty years duration. About one-third of the half-million divorces granted that year were to men age forty and over, and 25 percent involved women in midlife or beyond. After age sixty-five, only two out of one thousand married men are likely to divorce in a given year, and fewer than two of every one thousand women age sixty-five and over divorce.

Yet, many more middle-aged and older adults divorce in early adulthood and reach later life in that status. Between 12 and 18 percent of individuals between forty-five and sixty-four years old reported their marital status as divorced in 1998 (depending on sex and age). In addition, 6.1 percent of men and 7.1 percent of women age sixty-five and older were divorced. This compares to 3.6 percent of older men and 3.4 percent of older women were divorced in 1980. The rapid growth in the rate of divorce for older adults has led demographers to project that the likelihood of divorce may be as high as 11 to 18 percent for baby boomers who reach midlife (age 40) in an intact first marriage.

What leads couples to divorce in later life, after many years of marriage? A 1970s Canadian study of over two hundred individuals divorcing after twenty or more years of marriage found that adultery, alcoholism, and incompatibility were frequently given as causes. In this sample, 75 percent of the middle-aged and older adults noted long-term marital unhappiness, and about half claimed to have postponed divorce until their children were adults. Research done in the 1990s comparing predictors of divorce for persons of different marital durations indicated that personality factors (e.g., neuroticism, disagreeableness) were not linked to a heightened risk of later-life divorce, although they predicted divorce earlier in marriage. Thus, situational factors and incompatibility appear more predictive of divorce in later life than individual personality factors.

The impact of a recent midlife or later-life divorce on individual well-being varies by gender. One study of individuals age fifty and over who had ended long-term marriages found that women reported more feelings of guilt, confusion, anger, avoidance, and helplessness, postdivorce, than did men. Compared to widows, however, neither sex appeared markedly disadvantaged emotionally or psychologically. Similarly, Walter Gove and Hee-Cheen Shin (1989) found that the only significant difference in adjustment between divorced and widowed women was that the former felt more "trapped" after marital disruption; while divorced men actually reported better adjustment than widowed men. Studies also indicate that the effects of divorce on emotional adjustment are no worse for persons divorcing in middle or late life than those ending marriages voluntarily in younger adulthood. In fact, a longitudinal study conducted in the 1990s revealed positive outcomes for women divorcing in midlife. Paul Costa and Ilene Siegler (1999) found that women who divorced between ages forty and forty-nine became more active and outgoing, whereas men in this age range who divorced exhibited reductions in their sociability and achievement strivings. According to the life-course perspective, role experiences in marriage may shed some light on these outcomes. A positive adjustment to divorce could be explained by considering the distress experienced by persons in their in marital role prior to divorce. For example, women who are able to escape an abusive marriage after years of violence may have fewer physical and psychological symptoms after divorce.

Personal well-being following divorce also depends on social support, with some types of support being more helpful than others. Having a confidant who provides emotional and social support has been linked to reduced depression following divorce, while receiving material support can have a negative psychological effect. In addition, specific sources of support may vary based on age and gender. Middle-aged and older adults who divorce may not consider their parents as useful sources of help, while offspring may be more significant sources of support for this age group. In Carol Wright and Joseph Maxwell's 1991 study of persons divorcing after an average of twenty-eight years of marriage, women were more likely than men to rank grown children as the most helpful source of support. They received more advice, services, and financial, social, and emotional support from offspring than did men. In contrast, friends and parents reportedly provided more support than offspring to men.

The fact that adult offspring are more available to and supportive of their mothers than their fathers following later-life divorce is consistent with findings regarding relations between adult children and parents who have divorced years earlier. Both Teresa Cooney (1994) and William Aquilino (1994) reported that when the parents of young adults divorced after long-term marriages, rates of intergenerational visitation and contact were significantly reduced, especially with fathers, compared to rates for still-married parents and their adult children. Divorce also seems to result in a more voluntary relationship between adult children and parents. In divorced families, contact between young adults and their parents was associated with the younger generation's feelings of closeness to parents, whereas contact appeared to be motivated by something other than, or in addition to, affection, perhaps obligation, in families with married parents. Aquilino also found that older, recently divorced parents provide less emotional, practical, and financial support to their sons (but not their daughters) than parents who are still married.

Divorce: Trends and Consequences - The Career Divorced [next]

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