What are the Potential Consequences of Divorce after a Long-Term Marriage?

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“What are potential consequences of a divorce after a long-term marriage?” Divorce after a long-term marriage commonly causes emotional difficulty, financial hardship, lost friendships, lost contact with children and grandchildren, and strained holidays. We do know that divorce among older individuals has increased dramatically. Over the past two decades the divorce rate has doubled for individuals over the age of 35. This suggests that people who have been married for a long time are divorcing at higher rates. In 2000, 54% of women and 44% of men aged 45 years or older were divorced.

What are some possible reasons for the increase in later-life divorce?

  • Baby Boomers. Baby Boomers have influenced the increase in marital instability. In their earlier years Baby Boomers produced the highest divorce rates ever seen. Now the rates of divorce in later life are increasing too.
  • Economic opportunities. Today, women have more economic opportunities and are better able to support themselves financially. This makes divorce for those in a long-term, unhappy marriage more feasible.
  • Decreased social stigma. The cultural idea that marriage is forever has been waning. This is not only true for younger adults, but the older generations as well.
  • Longer life expectancy. Middle-age adults still see decades of productive life in front of them, so ending an unhappy marriage and finding new love seems realistic.
  • Empty nest. Some married people have invested so much in their children over the years that they have neglected their own relationship. When their children leave, they have no common ground.
  • Increased health problems. As individuals age health problems increase. Spouses who are unhappy and facing the prospects of being a long-term caregiver may want to exit that situation.

Summing it up, Susan Brown and Fen Lin, two prominent researchers in this area, say:

“Marriages change and evolve over the life course and thus may no longer meet one’s needs at later life stages. Qualitative research indicates that many older couples that divorce simply have grown apart. Lifelong marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies; older adults are more reluctant now to remain in empty shell marriages.”

How would this affect me (women)?

Few recent studies exist on the effects of divorce after a long-term marriage for men. For women, divorce can be a time to create new opportunities, develop autonomy, and increase self-esteem. However, research suggests potential challenges of divorce after a long-term marriage.

  • Emotional turmoil. The emotional side of divorce tends to be the hardest part for women. It may take three to five years to overcome the emotional aspects of divorce after a long-term marriage, and in some cases longer.
  • Financial hardship. Divorced women often face financial hardships, live closer to the poverty line, and have fewer financial assets. Financial challenges may be mitigated if you have been steadily employed at a decent level of pay. It is easier now for women to be more financially stable than a few generations ago.
  • Loss of friendships. When going through divorce, friendships you had when you were married are often lost. Older women tend to have more difficulty forming new friendships.
  • New identity. Individuals who have been in a long-term marriage often find it challenging to create a post-divorce identity because the longer a couple is together the more their lives are intertwined.
  • Depression. Divorce has the potential to increase your chances of having depression. Some research suggests the risk is higher for divorced men than women.
  • Dating. Divorced men tend to date more than divorced women later in life. Dating also tends to decrease the older an individual gets. Older adults are much more likely today than in the past to live together with a romantic partner rather than remarry.

How might the divorce affect my adult-children?

It may be tempting to think that divorce after a long-term marriage will not affect adult children because they are starting their own lives and leaving their parents in the rear-view mirror. However, research on adult child-parent relationships contradicts this idea.  Researchers have found:

  • Parent-child relationships sometimes are negatively affected. Father-child bonds are especially vulnerable. Some adult children of divorce can struggle for years with the effects of their parents’ later-life divorce.
  • Some research suggests that parents dating later in life may negatively affect parent-child relationships when adult children struggle to accept new romantic partners in their parents’ lives.
  • Men tend to have less contact with their adult children after the divorce than women, especially when they remarry.
  • Each sibling experiences divorce differently. Younger siblings and girls seem to struggle the most.
  • It may be harder to enjoy family gatherings and holidays.
  • Grandchildren tend to lose relationships with their grandparents, especially their grandfathers.

Divorce after a long-term marriage presents opportunities for growth and positive change, but it also has real challenges for their children, grandchildren, friendships, and society. Couples can choose to reinvest in their marriages and avoid divorce. Educational programs can help couples reinvigorate their relationships, resolve long-standing problems and misunderstandings, and help couples see a new, positive future together. This is possible even when there have been problems for many years.

Find the research support here.