Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits

Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits

by Jocelyn Elise Crowley


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Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits by Jocelyn Elise Crowley

After 20, 30, or even 40 years of marriage, countless vacations, raising well-adjusted children, and sharing property and finances, what could go wrong? 
Gray Divorce is a provocative look at the rising rate of marital splits after the age of 50.  Renowned author and researcher Jocelyn Elise Crowley uncovers the reasons why men and women divorce—and the penalties and benefits that they receive for their choices. From the outside, many may ask why couples in mid-life and readying for retirement choose to make a drastic change in their marital status. Yet, nearly one out of every four divorces in the United States is “gray.” With a deft eye, Crowley analyzes the differing experiences of women and men in this mid-life transition—the seismic shift in individual priorities, the role of increased life expectancy, and how women are affected economically while men are affected socially. With a realistic yet passionate voice, Crowley shares the personal positive outlooks and the necessary supportive public policies that must be enacted to best help the newly divorced. Engaging and instructive, Gray Divorce is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary American culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520295322
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 1,199,643
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jocelyn Elise Crowley is Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She is the author of The Politics of Child Support in AmericaDefiant Dads: Fathers’ Rights Activists in America, and Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life.

Read an Excerpt


The Coming Tidal Wave of Gray Divorce


Melanie Griffith, 58 years old, divorced Antonio Banderas, 55 years old, after almost two decades of marriage. At the time of the divorce, the couple had one 18-year-old daughter named Stella. The official cause of the divorce as cited in their petition was irreconcilable differences, but there were also whispers of infidelity on Banderas's part. As per their divorce settlement, Banderas was able to retain the profits from some of his films, such as The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids, and Desperado. However, the couple had to split money made in many of his other films, among which were Shrek 2, Puss in Boots, Machete Kills, and Expendables 3. They agreed to sell and divide the proceedings from their Los Angeles home, and Griffith, perhaps best known for her Golden Globe–winning performance in Working Girl, as well as her notable roles in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Paradise, and Shining Through, was able to keep their Aspen home. The court also had to divide their other major assets, including Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera paintings. Finally, the court awarded Griffith with $65,000 per month in alimony. This was the second divorce for Banderas and the fourth for Griffith.


Blockbuster movie star Harrison Ford, 61 years old, divorced Melissa Mathison, 53 years old, after two decades of marriage. Harrison met Mathison while working on the movie Apocalypse Now in 1976. They had two children together, both of whom were teenagers when they decided to call it quits. The media reported that the cause of the divorce was Ford's promiscuous behavior. Gossip columnists noted that late in the marriage, Ford moved out of the couple's New York City apartment and started frequenting bars and strip clubs. Even though they tried to reconcile after a long period of tense relations, after a while both Ford and Mathison decided together that they had endured enough. Ford was best known for his featured roles in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, and The Fugitive. Mathison was also significantly accomplished, writing with Steven Spielberg the screenplay for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She also had screen writing credits for the films The Black Stallion, The Escape Artist, and Twilight Zone: The Movie, among others. Mathison reportedly received $90 million at the time of the divorce, as well as a percentage of future earnings from some of Ford's earlier movies. This was the second divorce for Ford and the first for Mathison.


Mel Gibson, 55 years old, divorced his wife, Robyn Moore, 55 years old. They had had seven children and had been married for over three decades. At the time of the divorce, only one of their children was a minor. They originally had met when she was a dental nurse and he was a struggling actor in Australia. Later, Moore dedicated her life to raising their children, and the couple acquired enormous wealth through his films, such as the Mad Max and the Lethal Weapon series, Braveheart, and The Passion of the Christ. Gibson reportedly cited a lack of religious compatibility as the reason for his highly visible split; he was a devout Catholic, while she was an Episcopalian. But others attributed the breakdown to Gibson's alcoholism and his other erratic behavior. As part of the divorce settlement, the couple had to split their $850 million fortune, consisting not only of cash but also of significant real estate holdings in Australia, Fiji, California, and Costa Rica. This was a first divorce for both Gibson and Moore.

For a long time before their divorces, these well-known, A-list couples seemed to have "made it work" with their soul mates by their sides. They were the standout exceptions to almost all Hollywood marriages, which tend to end almost immediately after they begin. True, they had amassed extraordinary wealth and lived lifestyles that most people could only dream about. But they were over the age of 50, and it seemed as though they had settled into their marriages for the long run as they moved into mid-life with their beloved partners. So even though they were Hollywood marriages, they were "one of us," dedicated and devoted aging partners.

Then, suddenly, the cracks seemed to appear out of nowhere, and their marriages folded. The immediate public thirst for the details of their breakups was deep as both men and women all over the country asked, how could this be? This is not the way divorce is supposed to work! Divorce is painful enough the way it "normally" comes about, when the dreams of a young, in-love couple somehow run off course. But divorce in mid-life? That does not make any sense. What could make couples in this age group — and at this stage in their lives — go off the rails?

This is the mystery called gray divorce — defined as a divorce occurring at or after the age of 50. Many of these divorces take place after 20, 30, and even 40 years of marriage. They tend to shock the consciences, both near and far, of those who witness the implosion. The questions simply go on and on. Why would couples in mid-life want to make such a drastic change in their marital status? Haven't they seemed to deftly maneuver through the ups and downs of typical married life so far? Don't they care about the time that they have already invested in each other? Haven't they already successfully raised children to adulthood — or close to it — together? What could possibly go wrong at this stage in their lives? Aren't they with their soul mates by now?

These are the questions that drive this book. More specifically, this book aims to explore the dynamics surrounding an important societal trend that has been emerging across the American landscape in recent years: married couples splitting up when, by social convention and expectation, they should be planning and enjoying their retirement years together. The statistical forecasts for this aging Baby Boomer generation are dire. Almost everyone is aware that American society is aging. In 1990, as table 1 details, there were approximately 63.7 million Americans ages 50 and older. By 2010, the size of this population reached 99 million Americans. Meanwhile, as table 2 indicates, during the years 1990–2010, the divorce rate for all those aged 15 and higher dropped slightly from 19 to 17.9 divorces per 1,000 married persons. But the divorce rate for adults aged 50 and over moved in the opposite direction, doubling from 4.87 to 10.05. Put in other terms, this means that approximately one in four divorces in the United States is now "gray."

Numerically, this translates into about 643,152 older individuals obtaining a divorce in 2010 alone, as table 2 also illustrates. More recent data show that the divorce rate for those aged 50 and over has remained stable into 2015, leading some to project that by 2030, 828,380 individuals will experience a gray divorce in that year alone. Given current population growth trends, which predict that 158.5 million individuals aged 50 and older will be residing in the United States by 2050, this splitting-up trend implies that a growing percentage of both men and women will be living as divorced individuals in their mid-life years. But will both sexes experience similar post–gray divorce lives? That is, will they have the same challenges and opportunities as they undergo these family transitions?

Simply put, the answer is an emphatic no. This book argues that there is a gray divorce penalty for both women and men divorcing at or after the age of 50, but the exact nature of the penalty is different for each sex. For women, we will see that it is an economic gray divorce penalty, and for men, a social divorce penalty.

Before exploring these penalties, we must first understand the emergence of gray divorce as a particularly recent phenomenon. More specifically, the explosion of gray divorce in contemporary America can be thought of as the combination of three macrolevel, societal trends, all interrelated. First and probably most important is the proliferation of a "divorce culture." A country with a divorce culture has citizens with certain expectations about the likely rewards of marriage, and when these expectations are not met, divorce becomes permissible. In the early part of the twentieth century, marriage involved a set of public obligations between couples. In particular, American marriages were partnerships that focused on pooling resources to provide children and other dependents with the tools deemed necessary to move them up the ladder of opportunity. The institution of marriage was also the bedrock of community life as families frequently looked to one another within their own neighborhoods for assistance in times of need.

Beginning in the second part of the twentieth century, Americans began seeing marriage through a different lens, the direct result of a seismic shift in individual priorities. Men and women had believed that living a satisfying life meant fulfilling the duties and obligations of the broader social world, a world where the values of mutual aid and cooperation were paramount. The personal revolution that took place mid-century, however, embodied a reorientation toward satisfaction with one's own life over communal duty. This did not mean that individuals no longer worried about the common good. It did mean, however, that both sexes started caring much more than ever before about their own individual well-being as they sought purposeful meaning in their lives.

This movement toward fulfilling personal goals had important consequences in the context of American marriage. As part of this revolution that emphasized self-satisfaction, men and women started to look at marriage as a site for their own inner growth. As a result, the formal commitment of marriage became a promise between both members of the couple to help each other meet individually based goals. In this new arrangement, the success of a marriage became measured by each person's level of contentment as part of a couple. If a certain baseline of happiness could not be obtained, either the husband or the wife now had the socially acceptable option of exiting the marriage through divorce. In other words, divorce became widely approved as a suitable termination of a contract between two people who were no longer happy together.

The second factor propelling gray divorce has been the dramatic growth in life expectancy among Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1950, the average life expectancy of all Americans was 68.2 years. Men lived until approximately 65.6 years, and women lived for about 71.1 years. By 2014, life expectancy had increased dramatically, to 78.8 years, on average, for all Americans. Men now live to 76.4 years, and women live approximately 81.2 years. As life expectancy continues to grow, the risk of losing a spouse to death decreases, while the risk of losing a spouse to divorce in later life increases. In addition, as the chance of divorce increases, a larger part of this older population has the potential to get remarried. Indeed, table 3 illustrates the significant prevalence of remarriage in the United States today, with a substantial percentage of couples divorcing then remarrying twice, three times, or even more frequently. Americans who divorce in later years are not necessarily giving up on the institution of marriage; instead, in many cases, they are forming new marital units with other partners as they age. Second, third, and even additional marriages are more likely to fail than first marriages; as the number of remarriages increases over time, we can potentially expect this trend to produce an increase in the number of older Americans experiencing a gray divorce as well.

The third contributing factor to the rise in gray divorce has been the spread of no-fault divorce laws in the United States. Throughout most of American history, one party seeking a divorce had to establish "cause" for it to even be considered by the judicial system. Commonly cited causes were cruelty, abandonment, or adultery. Establishing cause and assigning blame were particularly critical in divorce actions as they often dictated the terms of the settlement. For example, individuals who were proven as having committed adultery could receive a smaller percentage of the asset split as a penalty for their bad behavior. In addition, judges often determined the amount and duration of alimony awards based on who was at fault in causing the divorce. Because so much was at stake, each party to the divorce aimed to paint his or her spouse in the worst possible light, often fabricating charges along the way. These claims and counterclaims clogged up the judicial system with lies, delays, and character assassinations.

As a result, over time, observers of the court system started to advocate for cleaner and swifter procedures for divorce actions, whereby evidence of wrongdoing would not be important in establishing settlements. In this reformed system, the primary goal of the divorce process would be to separate the husband and wife as quickly and fairly as possible. Pursuant to these ends, in the 1970s and 1980s, reformers set into motion the no-fault divorce system, which does not mandate the assignment of blame for divorce actions. The no-fault model quickly proliferated throughout most of the United States, although most states still permitted "cause-based" actions. Nevertheless, as a result of this no-fault revolution, divorce proceedings overall have become less investigatory and more private as the two members of the couple do not necessarily have to publicly lay out the reasons for their split. Overall, then, a growing divorce culture, the rise in life expectancy, and the emergence of no-fault laws created a fertile environment for the gray divorce phenomenon not only to take root but also to feverishly spread across the fifty states into the twenty-first century.


While there is no doubt that gray divorce is becoming a force to be reckoned with all over the United States, is it experienced in different ways by women and men? One way to think about the consequences of such a mid-life divorce is that a marital split represents a breakdown of a very important protective institution. Within the context of marriage, two people pool economic and social resources together in their interactions with the world. If one half of the couple is struggling for whatever reason in one of these areas, the other half can keep them both afloat until their problems are resolved. A divorce destroys this partnership, and now each individual must go it alone. When we think about the potential for post–gray divorce hardships, then, we must consider the distinct challenges facing single, mid-life women and single, mid-life men as they begin to restructure their new lives on their own.

First, let us consider economics. What is the relative financial position at mid-life for women and men? Undoubtedly, women have seen their economic power increase over time. The women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s helped them to use a singular voice in calling for greater financial equality with their male counterparts. As a result of their political efforts, women began to be more significant players in the paid labor market. In fact, over the course of the period 1975–2014, all women's labor force participation — from women 16 years old through women ages 75 and older — grew from 46.3% to 57%. Of course, women below the typical retirement age have traditionally participated at much higher rates. In addition, it is important to note that it was not just women entering the labor force as single or married childless individuals. Women were also entering the labor force as mothers. In fact, mothers with children up to the age of 18 increased their labor force participation during this same time period from 47.4% to 70.8%. In addition, excluding mothers of infants and toddlers who were more likely to be at home, mothers of children from the ages of six to 17 were most likely to participate in paid work over this period. Their labor force participation rate grew from 54.9% to 75.8%.


Excerpted from "Gray Divorce"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jocelyn Elise Crowley.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. The Coming Tidal Wave of Gray Divorce,
2. Before the Gray Divorce,
3. Shortchanged: The Economic Gray Divorce Penalty,
4. People Who Need People: The Social Gray Divorce Penalty,
5. Moving Forward Personally,
6. Moving Forward Publicly,
Data Appendix by Marc D. Weiner, JD, PhD,

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