How to Avoid a Gray Divorce

With the recent divorce announcements of several high profile couples, the term "gray divorce" has risen in popularity. Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt investigates what causes couples to divorce after decades of marriage, as well as how to prevent gray divorce from happening.

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #25
The Quick And Dirty

Empty-nest syndrome, retirement, and poor health all can contribute to the increased risk of gray divorce. But if you communicate openly before, during, and after major life transitions, you can help protect your relationship from a sudden break. 

Welcome to the new and improved Relationship Doctor podcast! I’m Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt and I’m excited to bring you advice backed by solid scientific research to help make your relationships healthier and happier. In today’s episode we will discuss the phenomenon known as Gray Divorce and how you can preemptively work to prevent the decline of your relationship.

With the recent divorce announcements of several high profile couples (most notably Bill and Melinda Gates and Blair Underwood and Desiree DaCosta), the phenomenon known as Gray Divorce has entered our vocabularies. It is hard for some to understand how such prominent couples, who were together for over 25 years, could seemingly out of the blue end up in divorce.

While divorce for younger couples is on the decline, divorce later in life is on the rise. In 2004, the divorce rate for people married longer than 20 years doubled for the time since 1985. In 2010, one quarter of divorces were filed by people older than 50.

What causes couples to divorce after decades of marriage?

Causes of Gray Divorce

1. Empty-Nest Syndrome

Children leaving the home can either be the happy start of the next phase of life for a couple, or a tumultuous time marked by intensely sad feelings. Households who put their children at the center of all activity are more prone to experiencing grief as they learn to restructure their lives. Centering most household activities around the children leaves less time for maintaining the relational health of a couple.

Being freshly alone with a partner can make us more aware of small irritations that we may not have paid attention to when the children were around to steal focus. Research has found that these frustrations are associated with an increase in uncertainty about the relationship, and avoiding conflict with our partner. When we avoid expressing concerns, over time that can erode our happiness and satisfaction. Poor marital quality is the biggest predictor of any divorce.

When we avoid expressing concerns, it can erode our happiness and satisfaction over time.

2. Retirement

Similar to transitioning to an empty nest, the retirement of one or both partners changes the balance of a relationship. When partners retire at the same time, it can be easy to get in each other's way. In addition, when one partner retires before the other, the non-retired partner may feel more stress about  the financial implications of the other’s retirement.

One study found that the transition to retirement had the highest levels of uncertainty and turbulence in relationships. This was particularly true for people who didn’t make extra efforts to manage their relationships during and before the transition.

3. Poor Health

Cognitive and physical decline occur most rapidly later in life, which can create a great deal of stress on a partnership. When a person is left to make decisions for a partner who is limited in their ability, it can be really difficult to navigate relationship difficulties. An estimated 45-70% of older adults are not able to make medical and care decisions for themselves at the end of their lives, leaving these decisions to their loved ones.

A lack of an advance directive can negatively impact satisfaction and happiness in the relationship, and increase the amount of uncertainty and stress experienced by the couple.

How to Prevent Gray Divorce

These three transitions can be tough to navigate. Not being able to traverse major transitions with a relational partner is associated with very poor relationship outcomes, such as dissatisfaction, increased stress, and increased risk of divorce. So, how can we prevent gray divorce from happening? The simple answer is communicating before, during, and after the transition.

It is really important to talk openly with your partner about how you are feeling. Communication isn’t something that only needs to happen once to “work”, it needs to happen often.

Couples with children need to start by making time for one another. Going on regular dates is an important part of a healthy relationship. When the children are out of the house, being able to enjoy time together is going to be the foundation for a successful transition. Communicating about your feelings regarding your children moving out is also an important element of this time.

Before your children leave, discussing the projects you want to undertake, the activities you want to engage in, and the exciting things you can do as a couple will be critical to positively framing this change. As the children start leaving, making concrete plans can help you avoid  stagnation. Finally, having ongoing conversations with your partner after the children leave about what you’d like to do together will create a platform for discussing goals and plans for your mutual future. This will help prevent feelings of resentment toward your partner down the line.

As one or both partners approach retirement age, a similar pattern needs to occur. A simple start to discussions about retirement would be to understand whether you are interested in jointly retiring, or staggering your retirement. Additional conversations that may need to happen include financial plans, plans to relocate and/or downsize, and shared activity plans. Immediately following retirement, discussing time frames for important decisions and making concrete plans are an invaluable way to prevent negative feelings from brewing.

Cognitive decline and major health concerns can come about at any age, but they are most likely to surface later in life. Although you can’t plan for when a health issue may present itself, you can prepare to more effectively cope during the emergence of a health issue. Early discussions about preferences for navigating poor or declining health are important at all ages, with the completion of an advance directive being the most important part of this process. At the onset of an illness, a refreshed conversation can allow for confidence in making decisions and the ill partner feeling like their concerns are being taken into consideration. As an illness progresses, ensuring the ill person is feeling heard and their concerns are being addressed is important to reducing the stress of both partners.

When going through difficult moments in our relationships, it is really important to talk openly with your partner about how you are feeling. Communication isn’t something that only needs to happen once. It needs to happen often. Major life transitions usually don’t appear out of nowhere -- for example, we know we will retire several years before it happens -- so we can start to talk about how we are feeling, what we are struggling with, and what we are looking forward to as a couple on the other side of that transition long before it actually starts to happen. Those discussions can help reduce your likelihood of divorce, or other unhappy outcomes for your relationship down the road.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.