The Viagra Effect: Divorce Rate Also On The Rise In Older Couples

Since 1990, the divorce rate among adults aged 50 and older has doubled. Now roughly 1 in 4 divorces involve persons aged 50 and older.  In Japan, the trend is referred to as “retired husband syndrome.” In the United States it is known as “gray divorce.”  

Is Viagra partially to blame?

While the prescription drug has energized tens of thousands of marriages, it has also destabilized many by upsetting an unwritten truce among older couples: you mind your business and I’ll mind mine.  Husbands previously unable to perform are confronting so-called "Viagra wives" who are not excited to be asked once again for sex. Now able to continue their sex lives into their later years, men will often leave wives who have lost interest in sex.  Women, however, are not without blame. A lot of middle-aged women are having affairs with older men who were impotent before Viagra.

While the theory is titillating, and at least partially true, Viagra is likely not the primary driver of divorce in the over-50 crowd.  

Rather, the rise in the divorce rate among couples in long-term marriages is mostly attributable to several factors. First, and most obviously, couples are living much longer. Where "till death do us part" may have only meant twenty or thirty years in the not-so-distant past, with people now living into their eighties and nineties, it can potentially mean forty, fifty or even sixty years or more today. In lengthy marriages, individuals change and couples grow apart or simply become bored with one another.

That was the driving force behind, Tracy Bryan, 53, seeking a divorce. On the drive home with her husband after celebrating their 25th anniversary, Tracy realized that being married to him was not how she wanted to grow old. As she related to Anita Creamer of ThirdAge.com, "We had grown and changed. I changed what I wanted out of life."

Older individuals are also looking for self-actualization in their later years. After the children are grown and living on their own, spouses find themselves with years remaining in their lives. With no joint responsibilities binding them together, many individuals are no longer willing to remain with a spouse with whom they no longer share common interests.  In a study titled The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond, the AARP reports that “while it may seem odd that two people who have been married for years, even decades, decide in their golden years to separate, senior citizens may feel entitled to start over before it’s too late.”

Growing acceptance of divorce is also driving the trend. In “The 37-Year Itch” Alex Kuczynski, writes for The New York Times, that “among older Americans -- the 55-plus crowd, and those on into their 80's -- divorce appears to be more accepted and more common than ever, according to divorce lawyers, marriage counselors and gerontologists. Those professionals, along with people going through so-called gray divorces, point to many factors, including a rise in longevity among Americans, the fact that the values of the boomer generation and its tradition of self-expression and self-examination have influenced the generation above, and the growth of economic independence among women.”

In short, life-long marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies. Older adults are simply not willing to remain in empty shell marriages.

Senior Divorce Issues

Older couples going through divorces often face issues that their younger counterparts do not.  Because these couples are close to or in their retirement years, their income is usually limited. As a result, ongoing support or alimony for the financially dependent spouse may be minimal, particularly if marital retirement accounts and pensions are treated as assets. Monitoring beneficiary designation on pensions and other retirement accounts is also of greater importance while the divorce is pending, because if a spouse dies, and the other spouse is not named as the beneficiary, the surviving spouse may lose his or her claim to those assets, which are often significant. Extended health care can also be an important issue. Long-term care plans that had been worked out in advance may no longer work due to divided assets and limited insurance. Medicare is an option but a very limited one at best. As a result, good legal representation is often critical for older couples.

Gray Divorce By The Numbers

In 1990, only one in 10 people who got divorced was 50 or older; by 2009, the number was roughly one in four. More than 600,000 people ages 50 and older got divorced in 2009.

According to the AARP study titled The Divorce Experience: A Study of Divorce at Midlife and Beyond, 66% of female participants initiated the divorce.

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