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  • Mothers are twice as likely to have more frequent contact with their adult children after a late divorce than before. Fathers are only half as likely to engage regularly with their grown children after a split. Tweet This
  • Fathers do man up in one way: they increase their financial support of adult children after late divorce. Tweet This
  • Fathers may be more likely than mothers to find a romantic companion after a late divorce, but at the likely cost of greater alienation from his own children. Tweet This

From certain angles, “gray divorce,” usually defined as divorces involving couples over 50, doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Unlike divorce involving still-developing children, the progeny in question are already grown and living on their own; they often have their own families, where presumably they can expect financial and emotional support. As adults, they should be more emotionally capable of adapting to their parents’ split no matter how unexpected or upsetting it is. As for the divorcing couple themselves, they’re past the stage of child support, custody, and visitation disputes. They’ve had plenty of time to analyze the nature of their unhappiness, delve into their spouse’s foibles (and hopefully their own), and to weigh the tradeoffs between an unsatisfying marriage and the unknowns likely to come along as their gray hair gets sparser. In the 21st century, 60-year-olds can reasonably expect to live another two decades and to have a good chance of remaining healthy enough for a decent quality of life.  

Adding to the not-such-a-big-deal case is the fact that, by and large, graying divorcees are Boomers, the generation that first turned divorce into a popular American pastime. At this point, gray divorce is best thought of as Boomers simply being Boomers. We might have to modify that notion depending on the future marital behavior of Gen X and Millennials, but there’s some evidence that Boomers have a more lenient attitude towards divorce than younger adults. Those of us who lived through the 70’s and 80’s will recognize the hopeful attempt to paint divorce as an exciting new personal adventure: Great News DO50’s: The Best Sex of Your Life Awaits,” promises a website for divorcees over 50, lending support to one theory that the late divorce surge is simply a byproduct of the availability of Viagra. When Al and Tipper Gore announced their split in 2010 after 40 years of marriage and four children, it seemed both shocking and mildly ridiculous. Not anymore. Tinder and other dating sites have been so inundated by senescent Boomers on the make that there are now numerous websites with names like Elite Singles, Silver Singles, and Our Time just for them.  

But the reality is that gray divorce, whose rates have doubled since 1990 and now represents a quarter of all divorces in the U.S., does have individual and social costs worth pondering, especially in an aging society. Much of what we know about the subject has come through the work of a team of sociologists from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University over the past decade or so. Their newest paper, “The Roles of Gray Divorce and Subsequent Repartnering for Parent-Adult Child Relationships” by I-Fen Lin, Susan L. Brown, and Kagan A. Mellencamp, forthcoming in the journal, Gerontology , examines 16 years of data from the Health and Retirement Study for 920 subjects who reported a divorce at age 50 or older with biological children at least 25 years old at the time. A quarter of the subjects were white, 13% were black, and 9% were Hispanic; one-quarter had a college degree and over 70% were homeowners. These numbers closely reflect the demographics of the over 50 cohort, which is whiter, less educated, and more likely to own a home than the overall adult population.  

What sets the study apart from earlier work on gray divorce is its long view into the aftermath, particularly its impact on the relationships between older divorcing parents and their adult children. Before looking into that question, however, it’s helpful to recall some of the findings from an earlier 2012 paper from the Bowling Green group, “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” about the demographics of gray divorce. First, gray divorcees are more likely to be “divorce careerists” than novices. True, some are parents who seem to have waited to call a lawyer until the kids moved out; presumably, they wanted to keep their nuclear family intact during their children’s vulnerable years. And some divorce attorneys say they’re seeing more older clients, especially women, who say they want a divorce in order to start “a new chapter” in their lives after decades of tending to their families. But that’s not the norm. More than half of older divorced people were already on their second or third (or more) marriage. (In this latest paper, a full two-thirds of the gray divorcees are in higher order marriages.) Gray divorce is more evidence for the established fact that second marriages are more likely to end up in divorce than first, and third marriages are more vulnerable still.  

Another likely misperception is that gray divorce is more common among the very wealthy. You could easily get the impression from media coverage that moguls like Sumner Redstone (79 years old and 55 years of marriage), Bill and Melinda Gates, and, of course, Al and Tipper are typical of late life divorces. But gray divorce is no high-end luxury good. Wealthy older couples with joint assets are more likely to stay together than lower-income and non-home-owning parents. The researchers estimated that the odds of divorce were roughly 38% lower for those with over $250,000 in assets compared with couples whose assets ranged from $0 to 50,000. 

Fathers and mothers react to a grey divorce very differently, per a new study. 

So, what happens to relations between parents and adult children after gray divorce? The first thing to note may not sit comfortably with those committed to gender-neutral assumptions: fathers and mothers react to a break-up very differently. Mothers increase their involvement with their adult children; they are twice as likely to have more frequent contact with their adult children after a late divorce than they did before. For men, it’s the opposite; they are only half as likely to engage regularly with their grown children after a split. Furthermore, 22% of older women and 37% of men re-partner within 10 years of a gray divorce and that only enlarges the gender gap. If a mother remarries, she maintains her relationship with the kids at the same level. Again, that’s not the case for men; they become even less involved with their kids. Not surprisingly, fathers are more likely to be in contact with their children born within the marriage in question. (Nota bene: Half of the adult children in the study were born into the marriage that ended in divorce; the other half were not. The paper rarely distinguishes between biological and stepchildren, which is odd: it would be surprising if that didn’t make some difference to parents’ post-divorce behavior.)  

Fathers do man up in one way: they increase their financial support of adult children after late divorce. Dads, especially those with some college who own their own homes, increase their support; mothers, regardless of whether they remain single or re-partner, do not give as much financial assistance.  

A major reason for the financial support gender gap should be obvious. Women are simply likely to have smaller bank accounts than men and less savings than their former husbands. Mothers with a college degree, who are likely to be in higher paid professions, do turn out to give more financial support to their children than those without a college degree, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic mothers. In general, gray divorced women are less likely to receive Social Security benefits than widows, perhaps because women who divorce after less than 10 years of marriage are not entitled to their ex-husband’s benefits. Single divorced older mothers’ poverty rates are higher (27%) than single divorced men (11%) and even than never married older women (25%); older, remarried, and cohabiting couples have poverty rates of four percent or less.  

But even if they have more money in the bank, men’s munificence towards their adult children is puzzling. Younger nonresidential fathers don’t have a strong track record when it comes to child support. Why would they be more willing to find some extra cash when their kids are older and seemingly less needy? The authors speculate that older men are either trying to compensate for their own emotional loss after a late divorce or hoping to assuage guilty feelings. But I see another possibility. Men may resist giving money to their ex-wives (via the state) even if it’s ultimately for the kids. Passing on cash to their adult children directly is a personal gift. For whatever reason, men tend to be less verbally intimate with their children than mothers and often show their feelings differently. “My love language is service;” is an expression I’ve seen some men use on social media. A money gift might be a gesture of service.  

Regardless, divorce and nonmarital childbearing have weakened connections between fathers and children while fortifying children’s relationships with mothers, and gray divorce is no exception. As a 1995 paper by Frank Furstenberg et. al. theorized, divorce creates a “matrilineal tilt” in families. Mothers remain the nerve center of most families; though many working women complain about the “emotional labor,” they’re the ones noticing when a child needs a new coat or shoes, keeping track of schoolwork, birthdays, and social obligations; they’re the ones more attuned to children’s moods. That dynamic weakens but doesn’t entirely disappear when children are grown. In fact, it often re-ignites when grandchildren arrive on the scene. Once divorced, the Bowling Green authors conclude, a man loses not only a wife “but a conduit that connects them with their children.” If he remarries, he is more likely to tag along with his new wife to her family than his new wife is to join his. Fathers may be more likely than mothers to find a romantic companion after a late divorce, but at the likely cost of greater alienation from his own children. His children’s mother won’t have to pay that price.  

The authors of “The Roles of Gray Divorce and Subsequent Re-partnering” caution that none of this means that mothers have more affectionate or loving relationships with their children than fathers do. But the paper adds to the evidence that women and children are not the only ones made vulnerable by family breakdown. Gray divorce can leave men cut off from crucial social support when they are most frail, and most in need of medical care, hospital visitors, and final reassurance of family love. In research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis described a recent surge in the number of “kinless” older adults. Most of those kinless are men. 

“Research has focused on women and children as the sufferers from divorce, but in old age, as family relationships based on marriage and parenthood grow in importance, it is males who are at risk,” the sociologist Frances Goldscheider speculated in a 1990 paper. Her words were prophetic.  

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.