Divorce: Trends and Consequences

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Divorce is the voluntary, legal termination of a marriage. To understand how divorce influences the aging experience, a life-course perspective is particularly informative. A major tenet of this approach is that history shapes an individual's life experience. In terms of divorce, this is certainly true, as documented by the variations in divorce statistics by historic period and birth cohort. The life-course perspective also contends that the timing of life transitions influences how they are experienced. Thus, divorcing in early adulthood is likely to constitute a very different experience than divorcing later in life. Young and old adults face different developmental challenges, and they differ in the types and amount of resources they possess for dealing with life changes like divorce.

Even when divorce occurs in early adulthood, it can affect one's later years. This may occur as a result of individuals divorcing in their twenties, thirties, or forties, and then remaining divorced throughout their lives. Timothy Brubaker has labeled these persons the career divorced, and, as a result of declining remarriage rates, their numbers are growing (see Uhlenberg, Cooney, & Boyd). However, even for those who remarry, divorce may have a cumulative and lasting impact, as some consequences of divorce are not easily reversed. The life-course perspective emphasizes how events such as divorce differ in their impact depending on the life experiences that preceded them. Finally, this perspective considers individuals within their family and social systems. Because of family interdependencies, individuals may be affected by events such as divorce even when they occur to someone other than themselves. These principles of the life-course perspective shed light on the interplay of aging and divorce.

Divorcing in middle and late life

Although most divorces occur in early adulthood to couples whose marriages have lasted less than a decade, divorcing is not unheard of in the second half of life. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 12 percent of divorces granted in 1988 in the United States involved persons in marriages of over twenty years duration. About one-third of the half-million divorces granted that year were to men age forty and over, and 25 percent involved women in midlife or beyond. After age sixty-five, only two out of one thousand married men are likely to divorce in a given year, and fewer than two of every one thousand women age sixty-five and over divorce.

Yet, many more middle-aged and older adults divorce in early adulthood and reach later life in that status. Between 12 and 18 percent of individuals between forty-five and sixty-four years old reported their marital status as divorced in 1998 (depending on sex and age). In addition, 6.1 percent of men and 7.1 percent of women age sixty-five and older were divorced. This compares to 3.6 percent of older men and 3.4 percent of older women were divorced in 1980. The rapid growth in the rate of divorce for older adults has led demographers to project that the likelihood of divorce may be as high as 11 to 18 percent for baby boomers who reach midlife (age 40) in an intact first marriage.

What leads couples to divorce in later life, after many years of marriage? A 1970s Canadian study of over two hundred individuals divorcing after twenty or more years of marriage found that adultery, alcoholism, and incompatibility were frequently given as causes. In this sample, 75 percent of the middle-aged and older adults noted long-term marital unhappiness, and about half claimed to have postponed divorce until their children were adults. Research done in the 1990s comparing predictors of divorce for persons of different marital durations indicated that personality factors (e.g., neuroticism, disagreeableness) were not linked to a heightened risk of later-life divorce, although they predicted divorce earlier in marriage. Thus, situational factors and incompatibility appear more predictive of divorce in later life than individual personality factors.

The impact of a recent midlife or later-life divorce on individual well-being varies by gender. One study of individuals age fifty and over who had ended long-term marriages found that women reported more feelings of guilt, confusion, anger, avoidance, and helplessness, postdivorce, than did men. Compared to widows, however, neither sex appeared markedly disadvantaged emotionally or psychologically. Similarly, Walter Gove and Hee-Cheen Shin (1989) found that the only significant difference in adjustment between divorced and widowed women was that the former felt more "trapped" after marital disruption; while divorced men actually reported better adjustment than widowed men. Studies also indicate that the effects of divorce on emotional adjustment are no worse for persons divorcing in middle or late life than those ending marriages voluntarily in younger adulthood. In fact, a longitudinal study conducted in the 1990s revealed positive outcomes for women divorcing in midlife. Paul Costa and Ilene Siegler (1999) found that women who divorced between ages forty and forty-nine became more active and outgoing, whereas men in this age range who divorced exhibited reductions in their sociability and achievement strivings. According to the life-course perspective, role experiences in marriage may shed some light on these outcomes. A positive adjustment to divorce could be explained by considering the distress experienced by persons in their in marital role prior to divorce. For example, women who are able to escape an abusive marriage after years of violence may have fewer physical and psychological symptoms after divorce.

Personal well-being following divorce also depends on social support, with some types of support being more helpful than others. Having a confidant who provides emotional and social support has been linked to reduced depression following divorce, while receiving material support can have a negative psychological effect. In addition, specific sources of support may vary based on age and gender. Middle-aged and older adults who divorce may not consider their parents as useful sources of help, while offspring may be more significant sources of support for this age group. In Carol Wright and Joseph Maxwell's 1991 study of persons divorcing after an average of twenty-eight years of marriage, women were more likely than men to rank grown children as the most helpful source of support. They received more advice, services, and financial, social, and emotional support from offspring than did men. In contrast, friends and parents reportedly provided more support than offspring to men.

The fact that adult offspring are more available to and supportive of their mothers than their fathers following later-life divorce is consistent with findings regarding relations between adult children and parents who have divorced years earlier. Both Teresa Cooney (1994) and William Aquilino (1994) reported that when the parents of young adults divorced after long-term marriages, rates of intergenerational visitation and contact were significantly reduced, especially with fathers, compared to rates for still-married parents and their adult children. Divorce also seems to result in a more voluntary relationship between adult children and parents. In divorced families, contact between young adults and their parents was associated with the younger generation's feelings of closeness to parents, whereas contact appeared to be motivated by something other than, or in addition to, affection, perhaps obligation, in families with married parents. Aquilino also found that older, recently divorced parents provide less emotional, practical, and financial support to their sons (but not their daughters) than parents who are still married.

The career divorced

Divorce early in adulthood has been linked to both advantages and disadvantages in later life. Some outcomes associated with divorce have cumulative, negative effects, so that, as time passes, the disadvantages precipitated by the divorce actually increaseor at least are not relieved. For example, the economic setback many women experience with divorce may not be dramatically reversed unless they remarry.

Similarly, the effects of earlier divorce on family relations can be especially enduring. As with recent divorce, both career divorce and earlier divorce followed by remarriage result in poorer quality relations between older parents and their adult offspring. Previously divorced parents, especially fathers, have less contact with their adult offspring than married parents, with reductions in interaction being particularly strong for those who divorced when their children were very young. Regarding affective relations, adults whose parents have divorced feel less loved and listened to by their older fathers than those with continuously married parents. Reduced contact and affection also translate into reduced support for aging parents who have divorced at some point in adulthood, as older men who have been divorced perceived significantly less potential support from their adult offspring than do continuously married men. Adults in general, however, believe offspring bear some responsibility for the care of their aging parents, even when parents have divorced. But most people consider the level of responsibility to be highly contingent on the parents' contact and commitment to their children over the preceding years. Support to aging parents, therefore, may be seriously jeopardized by divorce, especially when marital disruption occurred relatively early and substantially altered the ongoing relationship between parent and child.

Divorcing in earlier adulthood has been shown to have some long-term positive consequences for older adults. By coping with the divorce transition during one's earlier years, some individuals appear to gain important survival skills and character strengths that pay off in late life. One study found that women who had experienced divorce early in their life course demonstrated better adjustment to widowhood after age sixty. These previously divorced older women were more self-sufficient, and they adapted to the widowhood transition more effectively than did continuously married women.

Effects of divorce in the family system

Because older adults are heavily involved in exchange relationships with members of their families, divorce may affect their lives even when it occurs to someone else in the family. Colleen Johnson (1988) reported that two-thirds of the adults she studied turned to aged parents for instrumental support, especially childcare and other services, following divorce. In addition, emotional support and practical advice are frequently offered. According to Raeann Hamon (1995), however, older parents struggle with finding a balance between offering support and avoiding interference in their children's postdivorce lives.

The grandparent-grandchild relationship also is subject to dramatic change when adult offspring divorce. Whether these relationships are intensified or weakened clearly depends on the custodial status of the divorcing offspring. Because mothers still maintain primary custody of children in the majority of divorces, maternal grandparents often experience heightened involvement with their grandchildren following an adult child's divorce. This intensified grandparental role typically results from the increase in assistance they are providing to the single, custodial mother (their daughter). In contrast, paternal grandparents are often delegated to a more distant position, characterized by ritualistic contact on special occasions.

Finally, the flow of support to aging parents may be threatened by the divorce of adult offspring. As grown children experience greater vulnerability and need during and after their divorces, they may be less able to assist the older generation. In addition, the reduction in involvement with former children-in-law may reduce the size of the potential support system for older adults.

Teresa M. Cooney Jeong Shin An

See also Divorce: Economic Issues; Life Course; Marriage and Remarriage; Parent-Child Relationship.


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