by Joe Casey
In their article “The Gray Divorce Revolution”, the researchers note that the rate of divorce among older Americans 65 and over, has more than doubled in recent years – in contrast to the divorce rates in younger groups which decreased or remained flat. Multiple factors are contributing to this trend. Life spans have increased and perhaps more time provides more opportunities for conflicts – or more time for partners to feel like they have grown apart. Cultural norms have evolved and divorce is much less stigmatized and more readily accepted today. As shared tasks change over the life course, couples may feel that they have less in common and less reason to stay together after children leave the home.
Clearly there is an economic impact of divorce. Divorce has also been associated with adverse social and health outcomes in older adults. In his research on marriages, John Gottman cited a lengthy list of adverse consequences on both parties, including affecting physical and mental health, a higher rate of accidents, and fatal diseases. Ouch.
On the Back Nine – and I Don’t Have Time to Whine
What’s going on? Besides the trends noted earlier, what other factors lead to divorce among older adults? Stanford professor Lauren Carstensen’s Socio-emotional Selectivity Theory postulates that as time horizons are perceived to be shorter, people are less willing to focus on the negative and want to focus more on positive, meaningful endeavors.
Does it make some spouses more likely to look past the inevitable irritants of daily married life, which may be amplified as they may now be spending more time together? Or does it make others more likely to seek greener pastures with their remaining time? (Dear John, Life’s too short…to spend any more of it with you!).
Life changes a lot in retirement. There is some evidence that unlike the other relationships that older adults have with friends, there is “an increase in spousal negativity over time.” Personality factors that were assets in earlier phases of marriage, may not be as important as couples enter a different phase of life. And a greater similarity in personality was found to be associated with “more negative slopes in marital satisfaction trajectories.” (Um, Honey, how’s the slope of our marital satisfaction trajectory? Ok, I’ll ask Alexa).
Any of The Four Horsemen Can Mess Up Your Ratio
The relative levels of positive and negative behaviors are the heart of the matter. One study found that how couples resolve conflict matters, finding that “in older marriages, the resolution of important conflicts was less negatively emotional and more affectionate than in middle-aged marriages.” Gottman’s research found that the ratio of positive to negative behaviors is critical, ranging from 5:1 for stable marriages and 0:8 for unstable ones. Specifically, Gottman found that couples who were on a path to divorce exhibited a high rate of problematic behaviors such as “criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling”, which he aptly dubbed “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Gottman advises us to be mindful of the importance of giving full attention and responsiveness. This can be a challenge with the degree of distractions we all face with technology today. According to Gottman’s research, a key in the positive to negative ratio is how often one partner “turns toward” their partner in daily interactions versus “turning away.”
Focus On Your Behaviors
So, put aside what you see your partner doing – concentrate on what you do:
- Give full attention to your partner. Turn toward him or her when they offer to interact.
- Avoid The Four Horsemen – dial it way back on criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
- Mind your Positive to Negative Ratio (perfection is not the goal – it’s 5:1, not 5:0).
On a personal note, we’ve celebrated our 36th anniversary and this topic is of great interest to me, as I’d like to keep raising my game. Researching the topic further has provided food for thought on how I can improve my “turning toward” rate. The NBA playoffs can wait.
Joe Casey is a former senior HR executive pursuing his Second Act career as a retirement coach. He writes for The RW Blog, a retirement blog at retirementwisdom.com
Birditt, K.S., Jackey, L.M.H. & Antonucci, T.C. (2009). Longitudinal patterns of negative relationship quality across adulthood. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 64B (1),55-64.
Brown, S.L., & Lin, I.-F., (2012). The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(6), 731–741.
Carstensen, L.L. & Mikels, J.A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and cognition: aging and the positivity effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (3),117-121.
Ellin, A. (2015, October 30). After full lives together, more older couples are divorcing. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nytimes.com
Gottman, J.M. (1998). Psychology and the study of marital processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 49,169-197.
Shiota, M.N. & Levenson, R.W. (2007). Birds of a feather don’t always fly farthest: similarity in Big Five personality predicts more negative marital satisfaction trajectories in long-term marriages. Psychology and Aging, 22(4), 666-675.