Guest Host: Matt McCleskey

The divorce rate for couples over the age of fifty has more than doubled in the last twenty years. But nobody is sure why. Some blame the me-first attitudes of aging baby boomers. Others point to rising life expectancy and evolving expectations. We explore changing attitudes about divorce and marriage.


  • Ellen Weber Libby Licensed clinical psychologist; author, "The Favorite Child" (Prometheus Books)
  • Susan Brown Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University
  • Robert Lerman Director, Urban Institute Human Resources Policy Center, professor of Economics, American University


  • 13:06:41

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo. The kids are gone, the rat race is over, time to enjoy your golden years with the one you love. But what if you can't stand all that togetherness? It turns out the reality of having an empty nest and hitting retirement doesn't always match the idyllic scenario that many people envision. The divorce rate for married couples over 50 has more than doubled in the last 20 years. And if you divorced earlier in life, the odds are greater that you'll do it again.

  • 13:07:26

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYHere to help us figure out what's driving this trend, Ellen Weber Libby, a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C. and the author of "The Favorite Child." Thanks for being here.

  • 13:07:36

    DR. ELLEN WEBER LIBBYGood morning.

  • 13:07:36

    MCCLESKEYAlso Robert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University and an institute fellow at the Urban Institute. Good morning. Thank you for being here.

  • 13:07:43

    DR. ROBERT LERMANThanks for having me.

  • 13:07:44

    MCCLESKEYGood afternoon, I should say. Thank you for being here.

  • 13:07:45

    LERMANYeah, good afternoon.

  • 13:07:47

    MCCLESKEYThanks. I'm normally on in the morning, so I need to make sure I know what time of day it is. Also joining us by the phone, Susan Brown, a professor of sociology and co-director at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:02

    DR. SUSAN BROWNThank you.

  • 13:08:03

    MCCLESKEYWell, Susan Brown, let me start with you. Just how big of an increase have we been seeing in the divorce rate amongst those over 50?

  • 13:08:12

    BROWNWell, as you mentioned, we were surprised to find that the divorce rate since 1990s for older adults has actually doubled. And one way to contextualize that is to consider what it means in terms of if we consider all the people who have gotten divorced in a given year, how many of them are over age 50. And back in 1990 fewer than 1 in 10 of them would have been over the age of 50. And so maybe 20 years ago it would have been fair to say older people don't really get divorced, because they comprise of small minority of all divorces.

  • 13:08:47

    BROWNBut today, we find that in 2009, 1 in 4 people who got divorced was over the age of 50. And I think that that's really a dramatic increase in a very short period of time. And it's something that we can't ignore. Even our estimates, assuming that the divorce rate we observed today stays constant over the next 20 years, we'll see a 25 percent increase in the numbers of older adults who experienced divorce because the U.S. is an aging population.

  • 13:09:16

    MCCLESKEYAnd this is coming at the same time that the overall divorce rate has been down, right?

  • 13:09:20

    BROWNThat's correct. And so, of course, that raises a related question, which is if there's a rise in divorce for one age group that would indicate to us there must be a decline in the risk of divorce for people of other ages if overall the divorce rate has remained quite stable. And in fact, some of our ongoing analyses show that for people in their 20s, 30s and even into their early 40s, the risk of divorce has declined considerably over the past few decades.

  • 13:09:51

    MCCLESKEYThis spike in divorces in people over 50 showed up as the baby boom generation reached the 50-plus age bracket. I'll ask you, Ellen Weber Libby, how much of this trend is generational?

  • 13:10:04

    LIBBYI think a lot of it is generational. But I also think that a lot of younger people are not necessarily rushing to marriage the way people of my generation did. In my practice, I'm always surprised and delighted by the number of younger people who come to see me that are living together that maybe are living together for five, ten years. And they don't really see the need to get married. That doesn't mean that a break-up isn't difficult, but it doesn't get recorded in divorce rates in quite the same way.

  • 13:10:37

    MCCLESKEYSo, it may be a generational change, but not so much just the baby boomers are now over 50 and divorcing but rather people are generationally looking at marriage differently?

  • 13:10:46

    LIBBYI think that's one piece of it. And I think that the other piece of it is that people who were in the baby boomers -- now, 50 now isn't what 50 was 20 years ago. People who are 50 now tend to be younger, healthier, more vital. They are looking to the rest of their lives, they think that maybe they've lived two-thirds of their lives rather than three quarters of their lives. So they'll look the person in the bed next to them and they'll say, well, now that I have some freedom coming up, is this the person that I want to spend the rest of my life with? And so, there are a lot of questions that then come to the fore.

  • 13:11:26

    MCCLESKEYRobert Lerman, tell us how does the realm of economics influence divorce or perhaps, first, we should look at how it affects marriage. How does one influence the other?

  • 13:11:36

    LERMANWell, we do see that earnings gains do affect marriage but in a positive way. More earnings tends to encourage marriage, but marriage tends to encourage more earnings, too. So people in stable marriages tend to do better. But then the other thing that we're seeing more at the younger groups and the older groups is this wide gap between the more educated groups who, while they're delaying marriage, they are getting married by their 30s, let's say.

  • 13:12:19

    LERMANAnd especially they're getting married if they have children. Whereas the less educated and lower earning groups are tending not to get married nearly as much. And their cohabitations tend to be unstable even when they have children.

  • 13:12:39

    MCCLESKEYDo we have any sense -- we mentioned earlier that people who have perhaps been divorced before might be more likely to get divorced again. Do we have any numbers on whether people who have cohabited for a long time and then broken up might be more likely to divorce? Or is there correlation there, do you know, Ellen Weber Libby?

  • 13:12:55

    LIBBYWell, I certainly see that when people have cohabitated and a relationship breaks up, certainly those people are far more likely to cohabitate again and to take it slowly. They are generally pleased that they don't have to go through the messy legal process that people do when they are married. Certainly once people have gone through a divorce or a messy breakup, I think it often gives them confidence that they can handle it.

  • 13:13:28

    LIBBYSo that when they're in a difficult situation down the road, they're far more likely to walk away from it than they are to stick with it knowing that they've survived it once and maybe have come out somewhat better.

  • 13:13:40

    LERMANBut that's a kind of optimistic way of looking at it, I would say, because in the alternative way of looking at it is that people who are in an unstable relationship, they get used to an unstable relationships. They aren't really ready to commit, that they value commitment much less. And it may be, you know, a different group of people, those that value commitment vary greatly versus those that don't. But I don't know that it's entirely positive development.

  • 13:14:15

    BROWNWell, Bob, there are some recent research actually that my colleague Wendy Manning has just had come out in the journal Marriage and Family. And the NSFG put out a report a few weeks ago on this that for the most recent cohorts that the formerly positive effect of premarital cohabitation on your risk of divorce that is that historically we've known that people who cohabit before they get married are actually at a higher risk of divorce.

  • 13:14:40

    BROWNBut for those in the most recent marriage cohorts, that effect appears to have diminished considerably and is essentially non-significant, suggesting that cohabitation, now that it's become so common, it's much less selective. But like you're saying, people in the past who chose to cohabit were somehow distinctive from those who didn't in ways that put them at risk of marital instability.

  • 13:15:10

    BROWNAnd now today with cohabitation being so widespread and in fact the most common pathway into marriage, its effects on the risk of divorce have become comparatively benign.

  • 13:15:20


  • 13:15:20

    LERMANBut I just...

  • 13:15:22

    MCCLESKEYSure, go ahead.

  • 13:15:23

    LERMANBut that also suggests it's not necessarily positive.

  • 13:15:27

    BROWNRight. Oh, right, I wouldn't say it's positive, that's true.

  • 13:15:30

    MCCLESKEYRobert Lerman is a professor of economics at American University, also an institute fellow at the Urban Institute. Susan Brown, joining us by phone, is a professor of sociology and the co-director at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Also in studio with me, Ellen Weber Libby, a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington and the author of "The Favorite Child."

  • 13:15:50

    MCCLESKEYI want to ask our listeners, have you or your parents divorced after the age of 50? How did that affect your family? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can also email us at with your comments. The number again, phone lines are open, 800-433-8850. Susan Brown, let me ask you with these differences in cohabitation versus marriage, how much of that is generational?

  • 13:16:16

    BROWNCan you be more specific?

  • 13:16:18

    MCCLESKEYOh, sure. Well, particularly I'm looking at differences, as we've seen in the baby boomer generation, age, and with the younger generation having different ideas about cohabitation, different ideas about marriage. Is there research showing that to be tied to the generational differences?

  • 13:16:35

    BROWNWell, I think that's certainly a possibility. We know that boomers have what we would term complex marital biographies. They're the generation that came of age with the rise in unmarried cohabitation as well as the big acceleration in divorce that we saw in the 1970s and early 1980s. And that means that many of them are confronting old age either unmarried, we know about 1 in 3 boomers is unmarried, or among those who are married. A large share of them are in remarriages.

  • 13:17:05

    BROWNAnd remarriages are at higher risk of divorce than first marriages. And in our own research we found that divorce rate for people over age 50 in a remarriage was two and a half times higher than it was for those in a first marriage.

  • 13:17:22

    MCCLESKEYWell, the societal stigma surrounding divorce seem to ease after rate spiked in the 1980s. I'll ask you, Ellen Weber Libby, is that the case you find in your practice? And even if it is, why do you think people are sometimes surprised to learn that an older couple may be separating?

  • 13:17:38

    LIBBYI think many people project on to older people marital bliss, which is often not the case. I find that marriage -- older couples are far more likely to want to separate when they realize that their children, their lives with complexity that once held them together so that they passed in the night is no longer there. And they then get to a point often where they think, oh my goodness, I have so much ahead of me.

  • 13:18:08

    LIBBYOlder people tend to have a kind of courage, if you will, that they're not as frightened of the unknown as they once were, assuming that heretofore that they have felt some success in their lives. The old expression, success breeds success and failure breeds failure. So I think that the notion of a life that is how we envision it to be becomes far more compelling for older people. They say, I'm 50, I'm healthy, I'm vibrant. I have this going for me, that there's a lot ahead.

  • 13:18:47

    MCCLESKEYHow are you seeing the trend of more people over the age of 50 divorcing affect your family or your circle of friends? Our phone lines are open, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Email to We're going to take a short break now, but we will return in just a minute and we'll get right to your calls. We do have some callers on the line. We'll get to that just on the other side of this break. I'm Matt McCleskey, the local host of "Morning Edition," sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be right back.

  • 13:20:58

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Joining me this hour Ellen Weber Libby, a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington, also the author of "The Favorite Child." Robert Lerman, professor of economics at American University and an institute fellow with the Urban Institute. And by phone Susan Brown, a professor of sociology and co-director at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

  • 13:21:24

    MCCLESKEYI do want to go to the phones. Let's talk to Jane in Springfield, Va. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead with your question.

  • 13:21:31

    JANEHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I have two comments. One, one of your panelists mentioned perpetuating wedding bliss and I have to so identify with that. I talked to our daughter about not perpetuating what I call the picket fence and have just told her how hard marriage can be, even the most rewarding ones. So I'd like your panelists to respond to that.

  • 13:21:57

    JANEAnd the other thing is I have a 55-year-old brother who is going through a divorce. It's his second marriage for him and for her and they have a four-year-old daughter. And he was very -- I mean, he kept the trouble in their marriage very private, but if this was a woman that I was talking to, I would probably say he has battered spouse abuse. His wife has just been awful. And I wonder if you can talk about the difference in the way the courts view divorces in -- I don't know if it's older people or just since the last time either of them divorced, which was maybe ten years ago.

  • 13:22:32


  • 13:22:32

    JANEAnd I'll take my answers off the air. Thank you.

  • 13:22:35

    MCCLESKEYThanks very much for your call. A lot to unpack there, Jane. Thanks for the call. First with this idea of perpetuating wedding bliss. How about you, Ellen Weber Libby?

  • 13:22:43

    LIBBYI think you've given your daughter a gift, Jane. I think that the more realistic parents are in talking with their children about the realities of what is in a relationship, how difficult a relationship is gives your daughter a far more realistic view of what is ahead. I hope that what you convey to your daughter is that the only way a relationship can stay healthy and vibrant is if each person takes responsibility for their part in it.

  • 13:23:14

    LIBBYAnd I would venture a guess that if your 55-year-old brother who is getting a divorce from his second marriage, and his wife has also been married twice, my hunch is that neither of them probably did much soul searching between marriage one and marriage two. And it's far more likely that people repeat their errors because they blame it on the other person. So it certainly is important that between divorces people look at themselves, they look at themselves with honesty, that is you talk with your children about marital bliss and the white picket fence that you give everyone the gift of letting them know what's involved in having a relationship work out.

  • 13:24:03

    MCCLESKEYAlso she mentioned a four-year-old daughter of her 55-year-old brother who's divorcing. In that situation obviously a young child is involved in the family that's going to be splitting up. But often, Robert Lerman, you were saying off the air that when couples are older having young children is often not as big an issue with older couples divorcing.

  • 13:24:23

    LERMANRight. I think we have an extraordinarily important social issue in child rearing. We do see much better outcomes for children growing up and intact biological with intact marriages and biological parents living together than we do including, you know, that includes all the marriages, including the imperfect ones than we do in the case of divorced or never-married parents.

  • 13:24:56

    LERMANSo society, that is, third parties have a very big interest in stability when you're raising young children or, you know, even through 18. As you get into the older ages, maybe it's certainly an important personal issue and personal level of satisfaction or personal tragedy, as the case may be, but it's less a societal push.

  • 13:25:27

    MCCLESKEYWell, Susan Brown, if there are not young children, do you find that people are looking less in terms of the stability of the overall family?

  • 13:25:37

    BROWNWell, I think that not having young children just provides one less barrier to divorce. And as you're psychologist said, many people use these turning points, whether it be an empty nest or retirement, to take stock and assess their lives. And given our increased life expectancy in the United States, people who are 50, 60, 65 years old realize I could live another 20, 25 years and is this the person that I want to spend the rest of my life with?

  • 13:26:06

    BROWNAnd as we've shifted our definition of marriage and really raised the bar and made it into this mythical white picket fence that the caller referenced where we're to derive personal satisfaction from marriage, it's no longer enough to be a good wife or a good husband, but rather it's about what's this marriage doing for me. If this marriage is no longer serving my needs maybe it met my needs as a young adult but later in life it's not living up to its promise then as a society we share the belief that it's acceptable to turn to divorce as a solution.

  • 13:26:44

    MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones. Carol calling from Bethesda in Maryland. Carol, thanks so much for your call. You're on the air.

  • 13:26:50

    CAROLYeah, thanks for taking my call. I'm a childcare consultant and I help employees at workplaces with their childcare. What I wanted to first say is that I think the younger couples with so many more men involved in this process, I think that there's great hope for that generation to stay together longer. That's just my sense of their involvement. Many of the men even come into the consults without even their wives.

  • 13:27:16

    CAROLSecondly, I have witnessed some people in their late 50's, early 60's, friends of mine getting divorced after the children leave the nest, as was mentioned earlier. They were horrendous marriages but they stayed together because they really felt that they owe the kids that. They didn't want to put them through single parent relationships and visiting each other on weekends and all of that that goes with divorce. They witnessed their own parents getting divorced in the '70s and didn't want to do that to their kids. But once the empty nest occurs they feel more open to leaving. So those are just my insights.

  • 13:27:56

    MCCLESKEYWell, Ellen Weber Libby, in your practice do you tend to see people who've stayed together for the kids?

  • 13:28:00

    LIBBYI do, but what's even more interesting to me is in my practice I see many college students who come to me distraught. My parents are getting a divorce and what makes me so unhappy about it is that life at home was miserable. And we're really unhappy that they stayed together all those years and we had to hear the fights and we had to see my mom be abused, or we had to see my father come home drunk and how he treated us. And they said they stayed together for us. These young people are so distraught about that because they really feel that they were really deprived of a more peaceful upbringing.

  • 13:28:46

    LIBBYSo in many situations, as Robert commented before, certainly if you have a healthy family that can talk things out and work things out kids clearly benefit. But in situations where life is stressful and parents wait for the children to leave home, again I'm always so struck by how upsetting and disorienting that is to younger people. They end up feeling a kind of betrayal. And that is certainly something that then affects them as they mature and look to relationships.

  • 13:29:21

    MCCLESKEYThat's where I wanted to go next. Susan Brown, is there any literature or studies showing what it does to kids of parents who stay together?

  • 13:29:27

    BROWNRight. Yeah, yeah, that's what I wanted to jump in with, that we know the research is very consistent with the description Ellen just provided that in highly conflictual marriages it's actually better in terms of the long term health and wellbeing of children through young adulthood for parents to divorce. The cases in which divorce has negative outcomes for children seems to be when kids think their parents get along well and they're surprised and shocked when the parents say we're splitting up.

  • 13:30:00

    BROWNBut in those households where kids are well aware of the conflict and are experiencing it day in and day out, their outcomes tend to be worse if their parents stay together for the sake of the kids, so to speak, and not call it quits than if they were to get a divorce.

  • 13:30:15

    MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phone lines now. Wanda calling from Washington. Wanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:21

    WANDAHi. I wanted to add to the conversation that a number of women have worked for decades at this point and so they have retirement. And so they'll be able to take care of themselves as seniors where in the past, they wouldn't have been able to do that. Many women worked in the past, but they may not have worked at jobs where they would have a retirement that they could live on. So I think that must be something that makes a difference.

  • 13:30:58

    MCCLESKEYRobert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University, do you think part of why we're seeing this trend is because women now feel more financially secure to get a divorce?

  • 13:31:08

    LERMANI actually have no idea but I would add one element of public policy that's kind of interesting. And that is that over the years we've changed the ability of people who've been married -- let's say women who have been married and then were divorced. If they are married for at least ten years and then are divorced they can still qualify and receive the spousal retirement income credited to the retiree, or even other kinds of income.

  • 13:31:45

    LERMANSo as a public policy matter we were trying to help people who got divorced and especially if you had a wife who wasn't working while the husband was working building up these credits presumably for both members of the couple and then suddenly divorced and she was left with nothing. Now policy has changed. I mean, that's over the last 20, 25 years but it may have added to the retirement income capabilities.

  • 13:32:19

    MCCLESKEYAnd the idea they'd have a safety net in place.

  • 13:32:21

    LERMANYeah, retirement income capabilities of divorced women.

  • 13:32:25

    MCCLESKEYWell, Susan Brown, are we seeing more economic self sufficiency from women as they age? And is there any tie between that and this trend we've seen in more divorces amongst people over 50?

  • 13:32:36

    BROWNYes, I think that's a big factor. It's allowing women a way out of an unsatisfactory marriage because, as your caller noted, in the past women were largely economically dependent on their husbands. And certainly today that's much less true on average.

  • 13:32:51

    BROWNAnd I think Bob points out another interesting factor which is changes to social security policy. And arguably that change has a perhaps unintended consequence of discouraging remarriage. Unless you're going to get remarried to someone who has more economic resources than your first husband, you know, you might benefit from forming a cohabiting relationship as opposed to legalizing that tie. So certainly our policies do have consequences for individual's family behaviors.

  • 13:33:25

    MCCLESKEYLet's go to Sharon calling from Washington. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:33:29

    SHARONHi there. My call concerns women of my age, which is 63, who are single and independent. And being out on the single scene and going to different functions, I see a vast difference in the physical health between the men and the women. And I do not want to see myself in my later years taking care of my partner. So that's a real fear of mine. And really when you socialize, it really stands out. The women have taken care of themselves, they're fit and many of the men are not. They've allowed themselves to get overweight. And so that's a big concern.

  • 13:34:09

    MCCLESKEYWell, Susan Brown, I believe I heard you saying um-hum along with that. Do you have a comment?

  • 13:34:12

    BROWNYeah, yeah, that resonates because we've got a lot of evidence suggesting women -- older women are not nearly as interested as older men are in re-partnering. So whether they've been divorced for 20 or 30 years or just recently got divorced or were recently widowed in later life, most women are not interested in tying the knot again. And they do time and again refer to this notion of they've been there, done that. They've raised their kids, they took care of their husband and they don't want to take care of somebody else in later life.

  • 13:34:46

    BROWNAnd if we think about what the marital bargain has been traditionally, it's the man will provide financially for the family and the woman will take care of her husband and her children. And you raise your kids and they leave the house. The husband works his job until he retires. And once he's older he's done with his provision and he's going to rest on whatever assets he's got in his retirement. But for a woman the traditional saying really applies here, her work is never done. And she raises her kids and then she's still going to be expected to provide care to her ailing spouse.

  • 13:35:19

    BROWNAnd arguably our expectations for care provision are certainly from a traditional sense greater for women than they are for men. And those expectations seem to have real consequences when it comes time for unmarrieds to think about whether they want to get married again. Women are just much less interested in forming a partnership than men are.

  • 13:35:44

    MCCLESKEYEllen Weber.

  • 13:35:44

    BROWNAnd I think it's because they're going to get the short end of that stick they're afraid.

  • 13:35:48

    MCCLESKEYIs that what you see in your practice, Ellen Weber Libby?

  • 13:35:50

    LIBBYNo, and the reason I don't necessarily see it in my practice is that I see many people in my practice that we joke has called the Susan Sarandon phenomena. Susan Sarandon, a movie actress is dating a very young man. And older women more and more are giving themselves the freedom to date younger men. So yes, what I do see in my practice is older women are not interested in taking care of men, yes. As Susan said, been there, done that.

  • 13:36:19

    LIBBYBut it's really exciting to me and to many of my colleagues to see that older women are beginning to see more options for themselves in looking at younger men. And indeed often that does result in cohabitation as opposed to necessarily marriage.

  • 13:36:35

    MCCLESKEYRobert Lerman.

  • 13:36:36

    LERMANWell, two things. First, demographically women tend to live longer and therefore as you get into older ages, there are fewer men per woman. Second point, I think, has to do with health insurance. Up until recently, there was a very good incentive for people to be married because if either party had a job with health insurance, that would cover the partner. As we move toward, let's say, health reform or even Medicare itself, that need no longer exists and therefore, you know, you have one less incentive to remain married.

  • 13:37:26

    LERMANI would say though that, you know, it's important not to over-generalize. These may be generalizations, but I'm kind of skeptical that this is such a broad trend that women and men are increasingly unwilling to take care of their partner.

  • 13:37:46

    MCCLESKEYWell, perhaps not such a broad trend, but what we have seen is an increasing trend which is why the show today. Of course, every couple is individual and different. It's impossible to necessarily tie it to one root cause, but, Ellen Weber Libby, what do you see in your practice that could help us answer the question of why more couples over 50 these days are divorcing?

  • 13:38:07

    LIBBYI think if we look at the generation ahead and the generation behind, we learn a lot. I think that in terms of the psychology at 50, it's far more likely that parents of the 50-year-old are passing away, people in their 70s or 80s. When parents die, it really stirs up family dynamics. Many people have a freedom to live their lives in ways or to -- that heretofore they'd been unable to live because of how tied in they stay, even as adults, to their parents' expectations.

  • 13:38:47

    LIBBYSo I think that the death of a parent stirs people. People will often then go into therapy, they'll seek council from a clergyman. And out of that process, they come to terms with how their lives are really not what they want them to be. Similarly at the age of 50, when you look down the generational line, we've talked more about children leaving home and empty nests, we often see at that point how people have lived very separate kinds of lives.

  • 13:39:21

    LIBBYAnd I had a couple that I met with earlier this week. They were over the weekend taking the dog for a walk on a beautiful day down the tow path along the canal. And this woman realized that everyone else was walking hand-in-hand and her husband was walking with the dog behind her and she felt incredibly lonely. And as she began to think about it she was thinking, oh my gosh, am I going to have this kind of loneliness for the rest of my life.

  • 13:39:50

    LIBBYSo I think that when we have these kinds of factors coupled with the economic points that Bob has pointed out, it makes it possible for people to imagine a life where they don't have to dread tomorrow, but rather where they can look forward to it.

  • 13:40:07

    MCCLESKEYAnd Susan Brown, in terms of -- we've talked about a lot of various reasons that might affect this trend. On a broader level, can you address any more of what's causing it?

  • 13:40:20

    BROWNWell, I think we don't want to underestimate broader cultural shifts in terms of shifting meanings of marriage and divorce. Most people in the United States today are accepting of divorce as a solution to an unsatisfactory marriage even if there are minor children present in the household, and as I mentioned earlier, I think that really we've raised the bar for what constitutes a good marriage and that these expectations are characteristic of all age groups now, not just our new generation of younger adults, but boomers and even older folks hold this.

  • 13:40:56

    BROWNIf we look at those who are 65 and older, we also found more than a doubling of their divorce rate. Now, their divorce rate is much lower than that of the boomers, but nonetheless, they show the same general pattern of an increased risk of divorce, and so I think that we want to be mindful of shifts in attitudes. Also, think about the changing demographic composition of the married population with more of them being in remarriages and the rise in female labor force participation is also important along with the lengthening life expectancies that have changed our time horizon for marriages.

  • 13:41:36

    MCCLESKEYSusan Brown's a professor of sociology and the co-director at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Also joining me this hour, Robert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University, and an institute fellow at the Urban Institute, and Ellen Weber Libby, a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington, also the author of "The Favorite Child." We're talking about the increase in the divorce rate amongst Americans over 50.

  • 13:42:00

    MCCLESKEYWe're gonna take a quick break. We'll be right back though, and we'll get back to your calls. We do have a couple of lines open, 800-433-8850 the number to call. is our email. If you can't get through there, you could try to get us a comment via email, and we'll be right back on the other side of this break. Stay with us.

  • 13:44:02

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And I want to get straight back to the phone. Lisa calling from Washington. She's been on line for a while waiting patiently. Thanks for waiting. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:44:18

    LISAWell, I just wanted to say I think it's so interesting the age of divorce -- the age that people get married and how that impacts whether or not they get divorced. Both my husband and I had parents who were divorced multiple times, and in the first case they were both married when they were in their early 20s, and of course now we know it's impossible, or nearly impossible, to really, you know, grow together if you get married before you even sort of know your own self.

  • 13:44:42

    LISABut the other point is, a lot of our friends now, we're all in our late 30s, many of us with young kids, we're seeing now the friends of ours that did get together in their early 20s and then stay together, are now having serious problems. And they're grappling with how to deal with each other and sort of this idea of falling out of love, whereas the friends of ours that found each other later in life as most of generation seems to be doing, in their mid- to late-30s, they seem to be having a much easier time and I wanted to see if the panel had anything to say about that.

  • 13:45:12

    MCCLESKEYWell, Susan Brown, let me come to you. How does age at marriage affect the propensity for divorce?

  • 13:45:18

    BROWNWell, the age at marriage is related to divorce, and it's just as your caller described. The younger you are, particularly those who are in their late teens or early 20s, are at a higher risk of divorce than those who marry on time, or those who marry a little later than what might on time. And that does have to do largely with maturation issues like she described, that you're still growing and developing as an individual, and oftentimes that means that you and your spouse are not going to grow and develop in the same direction, but rather in two different directions, and that can be an insurmountable challenge for a marriage.

  • 13:45:56

    MCCLESKEYWell, Ellen Weber Libby, what other demographic factors do you see playing into divorces -- I suppose divorces at large and not necessarily an individual, but when you look across the wide spectrum?

  • 13:46:07

    LIBBYCertainly education is a factor. I think that when people are less educated that sometimes they look for quicker solutions, and sometimes divorce appears to be a quick solution although I don't think it necessarily is. I certainly think that as Lisa mentioned in her phone call, I absolutely think family history is a major factor. I think that people tend to replicate what they grew up with, and if they're not going to, as Lisa talked about, it really requires a very concerted effort to do it differently.

  • 13:46:44

    MCCLESKEYWe have an email from Andrew who asks, "Are people whose parents divorce more like to divorce themselves?" Do any of you know the numbers on that?

  • 13:46:51

    BROWNThat's correct.

  • 13:46:52

    LIBBYYeah. Correct.

  • 13:46:52

    MCCLESKEYThat is correct?

  • 13:46:53

    LIBBYBut I don't know the numbers.

  • 13:46:53


  • 13:46:54

    MCCLESKEYOkay. Robert Lerman...

  • 13:46:55

    BROWNThat's a big factor.

  • 13:46:56

    LERMANI think one interesting thing about this development and social scientists always think about this, and to what extent is it kind of this particular cohort that's going through as they age a particular set of experiences that may be different even from the following cohort. Certainly we know it's different from the cohort that age before them because we already observed what happened, but we don't know exactly whether this is going to be a rising trend throughout or whether it's the unique experiences of that particular cohort. Probably it is more of a trend rather than a pure cohort effect, but I don't know, Susan, you may have a view on that.

  • 13:47:42

    BROWNWell, I think it could be combination, and it's hard to say. It is a challenge to figure that out, but I think we've seen such a shift in terms of attitudes and expectations for marriage that span across cohorts, but at the same time, the baby boomers are Exhibit A for being a very unique distinctive cohort whose experiences right now in late middle age may not be indicative of what the Gen Xers are going to experience when they reach that age group for instance.

  • 13:48:17

    BROWNI mean, Gen Xers have been slower to get married, they've been a more select group getting married, so they've had lower divorce rates. And so whether this rise in divorce in later life is going to continues remains an empirical question and I think we've got evidence to support either answer that it could continue or that it may stall out.

  • 13:48:40

    MCCLESKEYWe have an email from Don in Takoma Park, Md. He says, "Many older couples seem to go straight to divorce without trying couples counseling." He says, "Why is that?" Ellen Weber Libby, is that what you've seen in your practice?

  • 13:48:51

    LIBBYGolly, I don't know. I'd have to give that some thought.

  • 13:48:54

    MCCLESKEYI suppose if they're going straight to divorce, you're not seeing them.

  • 13:48:56

    LIBBYI wouldn't see them, exactly. Exactly. I mean, certainly what I do see is that when people get older, many people become more of who they were, and as people get older, if they're more curious about themselves, they're more likely to seek some counseling and some answers, and if they're more defended, they're more likely to walk out. But yeah, people that I see and have contact with are certainly people who look for some answers before leaving.

  • 13:49:26

    MCCLESKEYSusan Brown, do you have any insight on that, whether older people are more or less likely to seek counseling?

  • 13:49:31

    BROWNWell, I'd like to ask Ellen a question, which is...

  • 13:49:33


  • 13:49:34 understanding is that many people who go to counseling have already made up their mind that they want to get divorced and it's almost proforma. Would you say that's accurate?

  • 13:49:44

    LIBBYI would say that happens. I wouldn't say most people.

  • 13:49:47


  • 13:49:47

    LIBBYI would say it's a pretty even split. Certainly we see a lot of couples that will come in for couple's counseling because one person has made up their mind and they want to leave feeling as if...

  • 13:49:59


  • 13:50:00

    LIBBY...they're leaving their spouse in the hands of a therapist, whereas there's certainly a lot of couples who come in who feel really very committed to working through the issue. So I would say it's split, and I haven't figured out for myself where it's more likely to be one or the other.

  • 13:50:17


  • 13:50:17


  • 13:50:18

    MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones now. Mary calling from Burke, Va. Mary, thanks for the call. You're on the air. Hello?

  • 13:50:26

    MARYHi. Oh, hello?

  • 13:50:27

    MCCLESKEYHi. Yes, Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:30

    MARYOh, yes. My comment is that the problem, I believe, is that couples put so much time into the children that they don't have enough time for themselves, and they stop falling in love with each other. And I think that's one reason why (unintelligible) kids go away for college, they're feeling like they've grown apart. They don't know each other any longer. So it's very important, even though while you raise children, you should still have time for yourself. And also, another reason is because people let themselves go, gain weight, don't look -- you know, as you get older, you don't look any prettier, and you definitely need to take care of yourself.

  • 13:51:21

    MCCLESKEYWell, Ellen Weber Libby, is it important -- it's certainly good advice that I heard before my marriage, it seems like you take care of yourself and then that does contribute to a healthy marriage.

  • 13:51:32

    LIBBYYes, I think that's true. I think that as Mary said, a lot of people put so much into their children. I think another way of saying that is a lot of people hide behind their children. So I think you're really right, Mary. People -- for a marriage to be vibrant, one has to keep taking care of themselves, they have to keep taking care of the relationship, they have to know how to flirt, they have to enjoy it, they can't outgrow some of the magic of what first pulled them together.

  • 13:52:02

    MCCLESKEYI want to read an email from Lucy here as well, just because we have talked about how with more economic self-sufficiency, perhaps it's easier to divorce, more people are able to take care of themselves later into life, but there are of course costs as well associated with divorce. Lucy says, "I got divorced after a two-year separation that followed 25 years of marriage at the age of 61." It says her husband found a younger woman, 19 years younger, while traveling for work. This affair went on for a few years and then they married one year after the divorce.

  • 13:52:30

    MCCLESKEYShe says, "This experience was difficult on our grown kids, and I'm still struggling big time." Now, obviously as we've said, each couple is going to be different, but there are real costs both emotionally as well as financially associated with divorce. Susan Brown.

  • 13:52:47

    BROWNI would say that this is the big question that we need to turn to as researchers and practitioners which is what are the consequences of getting divorced later in life, because life course circumstances at this stage are so unique. I mean, as your letter writer noted, she's in a very precarious position now. When this is the age of retirement, you've amassed your resources and your time or ability to amass additional financial resources is limited to zero, whereas for a young person who gets divorced, they still have much of their life ahead of them.

  • 13:53:25

    BROWNAnd so if you are experiencing divorce from a position of advantage, it may not be so detrimental, but for individuals who are financially vulnerable, or who are in declining health, both of which can be commonplace later in the life course, this could have very important and potentially devastating consequences for the well being of older adults.

  • 13:53:49

    MCCLESKEYHelen has been waiting on the line from McLean, Va. Helen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please with your comment.

  • 13:53:55

    HELENThank you. I think this is a very important topic to be discussing. There should be more discussion about this, and particularly the economics of divorce. I think when you look at divorce trends you have to also delve deeper to consider how many more people would be getting divorced if they were financially able. It is a financial issue for most people. I'm 55, happily divorced for about seven years, but wow, did I learn a lot of lessons in the process, and I was fortunate to have the financial means to afford a divorce attorney, but for a lot of people, it's an incredibly expensive hurdle, and the person who has less financial means very often doesn't have the ability to do what they need to do to put themselves in a good position following the divorce.

  • 13:54:36

    HELENSo I pass along the advice my mother gave me when I was young, that I shared with my daughter, that when you into a marriage, you should always be aware that it could end in divorce, and to be able to leave the marriage financially in a situation where you're able to live in the style to which you're accustomed, and I think that's advice all young people should have, daughters and sons alike.

  • 13:55:00

    MCCLESKEYRobert Lerman, what are the economics of divorce?

  • 13:55:04

    LERMANWell, we do see in actually economic downturns where you would think divorce rates would go up, they tend to go down, and that tends to be confirming what the caller just mentioned.

  • 13:55:17

    MCCLESKEYIs it like sticking with a job because you've got a job?

  • 13:55:19

    LERMANYeah. I think, you know, you're trying to husband your resources to use a nice pun. But anyway, the second point, though, I think, and it relates both to this call and to an earlier call about advising young people, I think given the importance in people lives of couple relationships, whether it be a cohabiting couple or a married couple, long-term relationships with a couple, whether it be same-sex or opposite-sex, we do very, very little preparation of young people for what it's like.

  • 13:55:59

    LERMANWe don’t really provide any kind of formal relationship skills training in high school, whereas we do provide sex education. So it seems to be that it's a huge gap. There is a movement to try to fill it, but it's still such a major issue in people's lives and yet we basically do nothing to try to help people gain the skills to achieve a really high quality relationship.

  • 13:56:29

    MCCLESKEYWe only have a couple of minutes left in the hour. I want to thank Helen for her call and go to one more email here from Brian. He says, "Why get married at all? Are we, or should be more committed to a relationship after marriage just because it's such a hassle to get a divorce?" I'd be interested in getting your response. Why get married at all, Ellen Weber Libby?

  • 13:56:46

    LIBBYWell, I think that the question is really not why get married at all, I think the question is really am I up for working out what's required in an intimate relationship, because we're really talking about how people are intimate, how they sustain intimacy. Helen a moment ago was talking about her mother's advice in getting a job or being self-sufficient in some way, and really, the way a marriage best works and the way intimacy best works is when people can be independent, can stand on their own two feet, and as opposed to just be totally fused and lose their own sense of themselves.

  • 13:57:27

    MCCLESKEYEllen Weber Libby is a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington D.C. and the author of "The Favorite Child." Robert Lerman, a professor of economics at American University and an institute fellow at the Urban Institute. We've also been speaking this hour with Susan Brown, a professor of sociology and the co-director at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I want to thank you all so much for being with us this hour.

  • 13:57:48

    LIBBYThank you.

  • 13:57:49

    MCCLESKEYAnd thanks so much to all our callers who also took part. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today is Kellan Quigley. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CS and free transcripts are all available at our website, and you're also invited to join us on Facebook or to send a tweet to @kojoshow. Thanks so much for listening.

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