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Were human beings designed to be married to the same person for 50 years or more? This is a question that, until relatively recently, was hard to answer because few couples lived beyond that milestone. Conventional wisdom has held that people who shared their lives for several decades had overcome their difficulties and were well on their way toward growing old together. But even the longest relationship isn't immune to the problems and stresses that plague any other union, and unforeseen factors are contributing to a rising divorce rate for Americans age 65 and older.
In 1990, the Census Bureau reported that 6.3 percent of all Americans age 65 and older were divorced. By 2002, that share had grown to 8.3 percent. In 2008, one-fourth of new divorces were for couples married at least 20 years. High-profile late-life divorces, like the recent one between former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, are making headlines the world over. So, why are more older couples calling it quits after decades together? One potential factor is our longer life expectancies. More Americans today will live beyond age 80 than ever before. As people live longer, their attitudes and needs change and grow over time. Couples who marry young may find that as they mature and develop as individuals, they grow further apart and evolve in different directions.
Another factor may be improvements in the financial status of older women. Because more women today are financially secure and can pursue independent lives, they perhaps are more willing to end a marriage than previous generations. Women are more likely than men to initiate a divorce later in life, according to a 2004 study by AARP. Some experts say that women now have higher expectations of marriage, and particularly the quality of that partnership, than they did in the past. Women expect and want a close friend, a compassionate helpmate and lover. They are less likely to tolerate things like abuse and infidelity than generations before them.
Individuals' attitudes about retirement also may contribute to late-life splits. While one partner may be content to kick back and take it easy after decades of working, the other may want to travel, volunteer or stay active through work and lifelong learning. The resulting lifestyle differences can stress relationships. Often, people who've stayed together for the children or for their careers find themselves finally face to face and decide maybe there's more to life than living with this person.
Just like divorce in later life may have different causes than younger splits, they also have different effects. One is an often challenging new financial reality. Many older divorcees may find it difficult to live on a reduced income. In some cases, divorce is hardest when spousal maintenance, where one partner must pay long-term out of his or her pocket to support an ex, is dictated. However, financial security isn't the biggest fear for people who divorce later in life, the AARP study found. It's getting old alone. Forty-two percent of men and 47 percent of women in the study said what they fear most is being alone. For others, the effects of divorce are more positive. According to AARP, three in four divorcees feel their decision to split resulted in more freedom, self-identity and fulfillment.