Although it is not new, a trend called “gray divorce” is growing. Charles Schwab’s Advisor Services recently ran an article in which they point out that, “People are living longer, and divorces after age 50 are happening at twice the rate they did just a generation ago.” This statement is based on a Pew Foundation study of the marriage patterns of those over fifty years of age.
Many who divorce late in life believe that their work as parents is finished. They tell themselves that they have endured an unhappy marriage until the children were raised. “Looking out for number one” becomes the order of the day.
However, these considerations pale in comparison to the moral consequences—which can well be eternal.
The Increasing Divorce Rate
Most people over the age of sixty can remember when divorce was relatively rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the divorce rate was flat through the fifties at slightly less than 400,000 per year. During the early sixties, divorce became more popular. By 1974, there were over a million per year, a number that stayed flat until the end of the nineties.
There were many reasons for that rise. The misnamed “No Fault Divorce” laws passed by most states during the seventies made the civil process of ending a legal marriage far easier. Prior to that, one spouse needed to prove that the other had committed adultery, engaged in extreme cruelty or abandoned the family to have the marriage legally dissolved.
The fact that more wives worked outside the home allowed a divorced woman to survive financially without an award of alimony from her former husband. Increasing mobility made it possible for divorced persons to leave the scene of marital unhappiness and live somewhere in which no one knew of their past indiscretions. Protestant denominations became more accepting of divorce, a trend that was echoed in the behavior of some “Catholic” individuals. As divorce became more common, those who divorced were less likely to be ostracized.
Interestingly, the divorce numbers dropped during the first decade of the twenty-first century. There was a brief period of congratulation among churchmen who allowed themselves to think that people were entering marriage better prepared. The real reason was far more simple—and morally unacceptable. Cohabitation without marriage lost its social stigma at about the same time that divorce became common. Fewer marriages meant fewer divorces.
As society becomes more “libertarian,” there are those who have no issue with “gray divorce.” Some might even praise parents who waited until their children were raised before dissolving their marriages. This attitude is profoundly mistaken for a number of reasons.
Divorce Hurts Everyone Connected With It
According to the Church, setting up a new relationship is still a mortal sin if one’s spouse is still living. This is just as true at age 75 as it is at age 25. The Sixth Commandment says it simply, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Our Lord reiterates it in the Gospel (Matt. 5:32) when He says, “But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting for the cause of fornication, maketh her to commit adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.” There is no passage of scripture that implies that divorce and remarriage—whatever the State may call it—is anything other than adultery. It is not just a one-time act that is a sin; it is living in sin.
A “gray divorce” still breaks up a family. Many who try to justify their behavior indulge in a popular fallacy, “Children are flexible, they can adjust more easily than adults.” This is not and never was true. Adult children do not have to endure some of the immediate aspects of divorce on younger children—living in two homes, figuring out which parent to obey, or remembering not to plan anything for the weekend that they spend with their “other” parent. That being said, it is still an immense disruption in the lives of the now adult—or almost adult—children.
These children are just at the time that they are setting the patterns for their adulthoods. Part of a generation that perpetuates adolescence, they are vulnerable in a way that their parents were not at that age. The home in which they were raised is dismantled at just the point that they are establishing their lives and careers. The emotional dynamics of choosing one parent over another are just as present as if the divorce had happened earlier. The divorce cuts the ground out from underneath them as it threatens the basis of their lives.
“Gray divorce” also sets a terrible example for future generations. The example of one’s parents is vital when it comes to choosing a spouse and setting up a successful marriage. While it is not true that the children of divorced parents necessarily get divorces themselves, the chances of that happening go up.
What About the Grandchildren?
The divorce also affects the grandchildren. The divorcees are teaching their grandchildren that divorce is an acceptable option. Children naturally revere their grandparents. When there is conflict—and any divorce is going to have conflict—the grandchildren will regard that conflict in one of two ways. They will either accept it as an inescapable part of life, or they will be bruised by the fact that they never see grandma and grandpa at the same time, happily enjoying each other’s company. If they accept it, this will affect their own ability to form a happy marriage in the future. Those bruised will suffer from a fear of rejection. “Grandma can live without grandpa—maybe she can live without me, too.”
No matter how the grandchildren internalize the divorce, it will still complicate their lives. Holidays, which should unify families, become times of stress as families must decide which grandparent will come for the festive dinner. The grandchildren overhear discussions about whether both grandparents can attend a birthday celebration at the same time. The stress that accompanies such an occurrence is felt, even by those too young to describe it.
Modern culture touts divorce as a panacea on the road to personal freedom. This fallacy must be resisted. A “gray divorce” is not a tollbooth that opens the way to a merry and lighthearted retirement without responsibility. It is another attempt by the evil one to trip up the otherwise virtuous couple and lead them into mortal sin, destroying their families in the process.