Divorce rate rises for over-60s but falls for rest of population

An elderly couple sits on a bench The number of divorces for older people was stable in the 1980s and early 1990s, but has risen since

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The number of over-60s in England and Wales who are getting divorced is rising, the Office for National Statistics has said.

The trend, which began in the 1990s, contrasts with falling divorce rates in the rest of the population, it added.

The ONS said part of the explanation was simply the ageing population: there are more over-60s than there were.

But other factors cited included a loss of stigma over being divorced, and more financial independence for women.

In 1991, there were 1.6 divorces per 1,000 married men over 60, figures released by the ONS showed. By 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, this had risen to 2.3.

There were 1.2 divorces per 1,000 married women over 60 in 1991, rising to 1.6 in 2011.

In contract, overall divorce rates for all married men fell from 13.6 per 1,000 to 10.8 over the same period, and the trend was similar for women.

'Fewer stigmas'

The average length of marriage for men aged 60 and over who got divorced in 2011 was 27.4 years, the ONS found. Women over 60 who divorced in the same year had been married for an average of 31.9 years.

The overall number of divorces has been falling since the mid-1990s after reaching a peak of 165,000 in 1993 - 22 years after divorce law reform made it easier to split.

In 2011, the total number of divorces was 118,000. Of these, 9,500 were granted to men aged 60 - a 73% rise from 1991.

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In general, women are now more able to support themselves outside of marriage than in the past”

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Although husbands tend to be older than their wives, officials noted, the trend was similar for women: 5,800 women over 60 divorced in 2011, up from 3,200 in 1991.

The ONS cited US-based academic research from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, to offer possible explanations for the trend.

Because of increasing life expectancies, the ONS said, "even with a small chance of divorce during each year of marriage, marriages are now more likely to end in divorce and less likely to end in the death of one spouse than they were in 1991."

As it has become more common to be divorced, it added, there are fewer stigmas attached.

It noted: "The employment rate of women aged 16 to 64 rose from 53% in 1971 to 66% in 2012.

"This means that women have become more financially independent and are more likely to have built up their own pensions.

"Therefore, in general, women are now more able to support themselves outside of marriage than in the past."

'Empty nest syndrome'

Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of relationship charity Relate, said: "It is clear from today's statistics that there are many pressures facing couples as they grow older.

"Relationships are often missing in the current debate on our ageing society but 83% of people we surveyed aged over 50 told us that strong personal relationships were the most important factor to a happy later life.

"This data shows once again that this is a very real issue for many older people."

Louise Halford, a family law specialist at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "This increase is unsurprising considering trends seen across the past few years.

"It is unfortunate but simply not uncommon in modern times to see couples drift apart as a result of 'empty nest syndrome', when their children head off to university or move out of the family home.

"This can have a major impact on the dynamic between a couple and bring issues to the fore which may have been hidden by their continued responsibilities to their offspring.

"Of course, another issue is that people are also living healthier, longer lives and simply wish to pursue other relationships. In the past, people may have felt compelled to stay together in old age.

"However, these days if people are in an unhappy relationship at 60, they may consider carefully whether they want to spend another 25 years or more living with that person."

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