Marriage and Divorce in Later Life


"Matrimony—the high sea for which no compass has yet been invented."
Heinrich Heine

"Divorces, as well as marriages, can fail."
Maurice Merleau-Ponty

One of the special values of the field of aging is that it offers new windows through which to view the human condition. For so long in the mental health field, the typical view was that if you want to understand what has unfolded in the lives of individuals, you should go back and examine their early years to uncover the basis for what followed. But with the growth of the field of aging, a new appreciation has emerged that psychological growth and development continue throughout the life cycle—that one's beginning does not determine one's destiny. To be sure, the early years have a profound influence on how we develop—emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally—but throughout the aging process there are abundant opportunities for mid-course and late-course adjustments. Moreover, through a focus on aging, we have a chance to look back and examine an individual's life course over a period of decades. We have an opportunity to identify key factors and interactions that influence how he or she feels, thinks, and acts over time. By looking back with a longitudinal perspective, the likelihood is increased that we can discover what promotes and what interferes with functioning at different stages of life. In turn, such understanding increases our ability to plan more effective health promotion and disease prevention programs. Views from the vantage point of aging add to these insights. For example, what can we learn about marriage and divorce by examining them in later life to better understand both phenomena, independent of age? Too little research has been done here; it is waiting to be carried out.

The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. In 1992, in the United States, for every two marriages taking place, there was one divorce. The last census data were in 1990, when, among the population as a whole (essentially among those age 15 and older, totaling 195 million people), there were 1,182,000 divorces reported. The Census Bureau also reported that in 1990 there were estimated to be only 15,000 divorces among those age 65 and older (totaling 31 million people); most people age 65 and older who are divorced were divorced before entering later life. In 1993, among all elderly men and women (age 65 and older), about 5% were currently divorced and had not remarried. Meanwhile, most elderly men are married (76. 5%) whereas most elderly women are not (41. 5% married). The biggest factor influencing the number of elderly married persons is, of course, death of a spouse, as opposed to divorce. Elderly women in the 1990 census were more than three times as likely as men to be widowed. Also, during 1990, elderly widowed men were seven times more likely than elderly widowed women to remarry.

These data beg a wealth of questions, most of which are associated with little research to provide good answers. For starters, why do so few older adults get divorces, and what lessons can we learn from these adults that can increase the odds for marriages, in general, to do better? Several years ago, in a descriptive study, I interviewed 50 older individuals; one of the things I asked them was to describe their marriages and relationships in later life as compared with earlier adulthood. Here are some of the responses:

  • "Now that I'm older I find that in my interactions with people I have fewer conflicts, fewer tensions."
  • "When we first married, there were numerous arguments, but we worked it out."
  • "I find it easier to handle stress in my relationships now [in later life], especially since I don't have as many other distractions."
  • "I don't feel the same pressure to get even with someone now after a dispute that I did when I was young; I think more about working things out."
  • "In general, I feel more calm, less stressed than when I was younger, and this certainly helps me deal with relationships."
  • "I have found that I am more tolerant of the failures of other people."
  • "The things that bothered my husband in the past don't seem to bother him as much now."
  • "My wife has become more spontaneous in activities we do together."
  • "We've grown closer. The bonds have strengthened in our marriage over time."
  • "I am better adjusted now than 20 years ago; I can handle adversity better now; I get less irritated than in the past."
  • "Some of the sadness in life has brought us closer together."
  • "Grief is harder on the men, because they don't have as many best friends to help them handle the feelings."
  • "I find that I stand up for myself more now, and that applies to many other older women I know."
  • "I'm less cranky now than when I was younger; I'm more laissez-faire in relationships than in the past."
  • "In some ways, marriage gets better; you settle the things you fight about."
  • "My husband's doing ironing now; that's been good for our relationship."
  • "My husband's starting to join me in more of the group activities I've always enjoyed."
  • "I have more self-assurance now than when I was a young mother."
  • "I'm more tolerant now, less demanding, less pushy."
  • "My relationship with my husband is better in some ways now. He's more social now and more active in everyday things. He also has more energy; [he's] not worn out from the three hours of daily commuting when he worked."
  • "As a couple, we do more things together now; we're closer."
  • "We've been through some hard times, but we stayed the course. If it had been all smooth sailing in the past, it would be harder to deal with trouble now."
  • "Dealing with conflict with people is easier now because there's more time to deal with a misunderstanding immediately, before it builds up out of control."
  • "I find it easier to make friends now."
  • "Most widows wouldn't want to be married again, not wanting to cook."
  • "I'm not as shy now, and that certainly helps [in] meeting people."
  • "I don't want to exist in a relationship; I want to live."

Although she wasn't involved in any study I carried out, Agatha Christie once commented, "An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have; the older she gets, the more interested he is in her." — Agatha Christie married an archeologist.

It is remarkable how so many aspects of everyday life that influence mental health with aging continue to be so understudied. Prominent on this list are marriage and divorce in later life. We know too little about the feelings, thoughts, experiences, and insights of older persons in these two domains. More knowledge here will not only benefit aging persons, but everyone who wants to improve his or her marriage and reduce the number of reasons for divorce.



“Under the care of Leo J. Borrell, M.D. since December 2001, I have seen a remarkable improvement in my mother’s condition. She is responding dramatically to the new regiment Dr. Borrell has prescribed”

- Beth Rose