The Sad Phenomenon of “Gray Divorce”

Well over a third of couples getting divorced are over the age of 50. What is causing this rise in "gray divorce"?

Mother Teresa was once asked what causes the most pain and suffering in the world. Her response: “A want of prayer. A want of union…The family that prays together stays together. And if they stay together, they will love each other as God loves each one of them.”

The health of any society is dependent upon the health of the family. Families are healthy, in large part, depending on the strength of the marriage that began that family. 

Americans are getting married later in life. This has been the trend for years now. Whether it is a fear of lifelong commitment or a desire to live one’s life responsibility-free as long as one can, it is true that people are entering marriage older and older. Research has also recently shown that more and more people are living alone than ever before in human history. This occurs for many reasons, one being that older people are deciding to get divorced and live alone. 

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Gray divorce is a term describing separation of couples that are at least 50 years old. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, from 1990-2010 the divorce rate among this age group doubled. Well over a third of couples getting divorced are over the age of 50. 

Reasons for divorce among members of this age group vary. Some simply despise their spouse and desire to leave them. Many mention that they have simply drifted apart from each other and are no longer in love. However, Dr. John Duffy, a psychologist and the author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, has said that many couples are not simply drifting apart anymore. They are making a calculated decision that they want a life change and desire to write their own path for the next chapter of their lives. 

The golden years in marriage, which normally involved having more time together (due to their kids being older) and enjoying retirement together, is now evaporating from the experience of many married Americans. Rising numbers of couples are splitting and deciding to spend the rest of their lives living on their own. They are running from union even though it is relationships that fulfill us.  The golden years in marriage, which normally involved having more time together (due to their kids being older) and enjoying retirement together, is now evaporating from the experience of many married Americans. Tweet This

Whether we are speaking of teens who are attached to their phones, middle-aged people being afraid of committing to marriage, or older couples making the split, we are viewing a culture that is deciding to be alone rather than live in deep communion with others. Why is that? And how can we fight against it?

No doubt you have been out to eat recently and seen couples and entire families on their phones, or even attached to their headphones, while they are eating their meals. Families are failing in communicating for many reasons, but clearly one cause is that it is difficult to fight for each other’s attention. It is not that we are busier than our parents or grandparents were. It is simply that we would rather be in our own mind frame or virtual reality rather than in conversation with the people we live with or those whom we vowed our lives to.

And yet, we know that turning inward only leads to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Being alone kills. Although working on relationships and marriages is tough work, it is the most fulfilling of tasks. The “success” of marriages, to stay together as well as to thrive, is the most critical piece of the puzzle to healing our broken society. If rising numbers of older Americans are deciding that fighting for their marriage is simply not worth their time and effort, that will inevitably have an impact on the way that their children and grandchildren view marriage. 

The challenging part of this mess is that the answer to fixing divorce in our country resides in a turn back toward God and the Christian faith that champions marriage as a sacrificial, unbreakable, lifelong commitment of fruitful love. This turn must be accomplished through a radical commitment and firm awareness by married couples to feed their marriage rather than simply “live as married.” 

Current married couples: Do we fight for our marriage to be the best that it can be, or do we skate by, possibly taking the other person for granted? A spouse is the person that is meant to bring you to holiness and the heavenly gates. Are we working for that with a burning fire that is bigger and stronger than all our other worldly cravings? If not, gray divorce could be down the road. But it does not have to be. There are steps that couples can take to have marriages that are lasting but also flourishing. 

These steps are taken not out of fear of divorce but out of a desire to have the most beautiful relationship possible. Couples and families can do this, as Mother Teresa once noted, by praying together frequently as well as dropping one’s ego and serving the other. Consistently return to the pictures and events of your wedding as a reminder of your promise and of your love. 

Do not keep score. Do not count the number of times you cook and clean and change diapers. Give of yourself without counting the cost. Marriages are not 50-50 splits. Both husband and wife must give 100 percent.

Always be the one to end the fight, and never go to bed angry with one another. Turn the tide of tension in a disagreement—rather than choosing to soak yourself in the bitterness that can arise in marital feuds—by remembering that this is the person you committed to loving more than anything or anyone else.

At the heart of the issue, we need heroic marriages that not only remain intact but that personify true Christian charity. Gray divorce must be investigated, and the rates need to be tipped in the opposite direction. The health of our culture depends on marriages not just lasting but flourishing. Choosing to love the other despite the mess and challenges of life will reveal to our children that true love is everlasting, it remains—no matter the circumstances or the gray hairs.


  • Thomas Griffin

    Thomas Griffin is the chair of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island where he lives with his wife and two sons. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Empty Tomb Project: The Magazine.

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