Marriage and Divorce in Later
sea for which no compass has yet been invented."
"Divorces, as well as marriages, can fail."
One of the special values of the field of aging is that it offers new windows through which to view the human condition. For so long in the mental health field, the typical view was that if you want to understand what has unfolded in the lives of individuals, you should go back and examine their early years to uncover the basis for what followed. But with the growth of the field of aging, a new appreciation has emerged that psychological growth and development continue throughout the life cyclethat one's beginning does not determine one's destiny. To be sure, the early years have a profound influence on how we developemotionally, cognitively, and behaviorallybut throughout the aging process there are abundant opportunities for mid-course and late-course adjustments. Moreover, through a focus on aging, we have a chance to look back and examine an individual's life course over a period of decades. We have an opportunity to identify key factors and interactions that influence how he or she feels, thinks, and acts over time. By looking back with a longitudinal perspective, the likelihood is increased that we can discover what promotes and what interferes with functioning at different stages of life. In turn, such understanding increases our ability to plan more effective health promotion and disease prevention programs. Views from the vantage point of aging add to these insights. For example, what can we learn about marriage and divorce by examining them in later life to better understand both phenomena, independent of age? Too little research has been done here; it is waiting to be carried out.
The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. In 1992, in the United States, for every two marriages taking place, there was one divorce. The last census data were in 1990, when, among the population as a whole (essentially among those age 15 and older, totaling 195 million people), there were 1,182,000 divorces reported. The Census Bureau also reported that in 1990 there were estimated to be only 15,000 divorces among those age 65 and older (totaling 31 million people); most people age 65 and older who are divorced were divorced before entering later life. In 1993, among all elderly men and women (age 65 and older), about 5% were currently divorced and had not remarried. Meanwhile, most elderly men are married (76. 5%) whereas most elderly women are not (41. 5% married). The biggest factor influencing the number of elderly married persons is, of course, death of a spouse, as opposed to divorce. Elderly women in the 1990 census were more than three times as likely as men to be widowed. Also, during 1990, elderly widowed men were seven times more likely than elderly widowed women to remarry.
These data beg a wealth of questions, most of which are associated with little research to provide good answers. For starters, why do so few older adults get divorces, and what lessons can we learn from these adults that can increase the odds for marriages, in general, to do better? Several years ago, in a descriptive study, I interviewed 50 older individuals; one of the things I asked them was to describe their marriages and relationships in later life as compared with earlier adulthood. Here are some of the responses:
Although she wasn't involved in any study I carried out, Agatha Christie once commented, "An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have; the older she gets, the more interested he is in her." Agatha Christie married an archeologist.
It is remarkable how so many aspects of everyday life that influence mental health with aging continue to be so understudied. Prominent on this list are marriage and divorce in later life. We know too little about the feelings, thoughts, experiences, and insights of older persons in these two domains. More knowledge here will not only benefit aging persons, but everyone who wants to improve his or her marriage and reduce the number of reasons for divorce.