What is Gray Divorce?

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Gray divorce is a term used to describe the phenomenon of couples aged 50 or older who decide to end their long-term marriages. Gray divorce has been happening for a long time, but it wasn’t until 2004 when the term “gray divorce” was coined by sociologists.

Angry gray-haired couple with their backs turned to each other.

Gray divorce is a growing trend in the United States. While the overall divorce rate has declined over the past 20 years, it has doubled for the segment of the population over age 50. Most couples have been married between 20 and 30 years at the time of their divorce.

According to an April 2021 report released by the U.S. Census Department, 34.9% of all Americans who got divorced in the previous calendar year, were aged 55 or older. That’s more than twice the rate of any other age group surveyed!

Reasons for gray divorce

Empty Nesters

In the early years of marriage you have children, pets, family activities, and school events that keep them busy and connected. Once the children are grown and living on their own, they find that their marriage is no longer strong enough to survive. They each have grown in different directions and realize that they no longer have anything in common.

Stay together for “the kids”

One or both spouses may not be happy in the marriage, but they choose not to divorce until after their children are grown.


When one or both spouses retire, the dramatic shift in lifestyle can negatively affect the marriage. Retiring from a lifelong career can leave a huge void in your life. That void may cause you to feel restless and uneasy, which may cause you to lash out at your spouse now that your sense of purpose is gone.

The increased amount of time that you find yourself spending together no longer brings joy, or your personal interests are just not compatible. One may want to travel the world, while the other wants to spend their time fishing.


Some people are tired of responsibilities and want to live on their own. They don’t want to be tied down with children or grandchildren anymore and they don’t want to take care of their elderly spouse if they’re sick. They want their freedom to live out the rest of their life on their own terms

Financial Reasons

Many people hold off on divorcing until they feel financially stable enough to do so. In previous generations this was more frequent with women, but women are are moving up in the workforce and starting to feel more financially independent. Women between the ages of 40 to 69 now initiate a divorce 66 percent of the time.

When couples are at the height of their careers, financial mistakes can be overlooked easier than when a couple is approaching retirement.  There is now less time to fix the mistakes or change spending habits which leads to marital conflict.

Multiple Divorces

First time marriages have a 50 percent divorce rate, and the divorce rate for people over 50 who have been married more than once is 2.5 times higher than those who have only been married once.

If you do not look into the causes of your divorce you are bound to repeat the same patterns, and have the same issues in future marriages.

Emotionally Unsatisfying Marriage

With many of their friends divorced or divorcing, delayed retirement ages and longer life spans, it could be that people over 50 who are unsatisfied in their marriage are finding it easier to make the decision to divorce. People are living longer and realizing that they do not want to spend their remaining time with someone that they are no longer interested in.

They have been together for a long time and generally one spouse wants out, but the other does not. People change, that’s a fact of life. Sometimes the spark that brought them together dies out and they want to find it again with someone new.

Picture of wedding cake topper ripped in half with title overlay.

Important things to consider

At this stage of your life, you are set in your ways and you may or may not be financially stable going into your later years. Make sure you prepare yourself and cover all of your bases before you finalize your divorce.

  • You may be working full-time, or may have been a stay-at-home mom with no outside income. How much alimony do you need and for how long?
  • Division of assets – is there a pension or retirement plan? How will it be divided? What happens to the family house?
  • College tuition bills that cost more than your house. Who is paying the loans? How is it being divided?
  • Aging parents who require more and more time and attention, possibly money to help them.
  • Boomerang children who have come back home, unable to find a decent paying job. Where will they live? Will they help with expenses?
  • Skyrocketing health insurance premiums and medical issues that require expensive treatments. If your spouse has the insurance, where will you get coverage? Can you afford coverage on your own?
  • Will you remain the beneficiary on the life insurance policy until all alimony payments have been paid?
  • Will you qualify to receive Social Security when it is time? How will you live if you do not?

Hire a reputable attorney to help you navigate your divorce and do your own research as well. You do not want any surprises after the final papers have been signed!

Life after gray divorce

In general, the spouse that initiates the divorce will have an easier time coping than the one who did not. They did not wake up one day and decide that the marriage is over, more than likely they have been planning to leave for quite some time. You find yourself blindsided by their decision, while they have already worked through many of the emotional issues needed to move on.

As with the death of a loved one, divorce brings up the same feelings associated with the end of a relationship. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Allow yourself to work through each stage, there is no need to rush through the process.

One of the big concerns in gray divorce is isolation.  If you don’t feel like socializing or getting out of your home regularly, you could be setting yourself up for some serious problems dealing with depression, insomnia, and chronic disease. Get out of your house and meet up with friends or family on a regular basis. Join a support group or take up a new hobby, keep yourself motivated to move forward!

My ex wanted the house and his 401k, I wanted alimony to start over somewhere else. I moved to the other side of the country. A fresh start in a new city and new home without any “ghosts” from the past reminding me of what was. This is your chance to reinvent yourself and start to live the life that you have always wanted to live.

By the time you turn 50, chances are you have devoted most of your adult life ( 20 to 30 years) to other people and other obligations. Now is the time to put yourself first, be a bit selfish and focus on your mental and emotional health.

Check out How to Recover After Divorce

For tips and a healing plan with steps to take to rebuild your life.

Final thoughts

The end of long-term marriages can come with feelings of loneliness, fear of the unknown, and possibly resentment. Recovering takes time and patience, but you have a lifetime of experience and knowledge to help you move forward and thrive after divorce.

While divorce after 50 will mark the end of one part of your life, it can be the start of a whole new adventure that leaves you feeling stronger and helps you find the inner-peace to live a happier, healthier, fearless life. You WILL survive this!!

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