Survey Data Provide Hope for “Gray Divorcees”

Updated: Jan 4


I recently went through a divorce after being together with someone for 25 years. The choice to divorce wasn’t mine, but the consequences were, by necessity, very personal.

To get a better handle on what I had experienced, I turned (of course) to survey data. I began with a piece by M. Tosi and T. van den Broek in the April 2020 edition of Social Science and Medicine, “Gray divorce and mental health in the United Kingdom.” This article explored the mental health effects of divorces in which at least one of the partners was aged 50 or over. Although this kind of “gray divorce” has historically been rare, its incidence is apparently increasing quite dramatically. Good news, I guess – I’m not unique.


Possible explanations for the rise in gray divorce include longer life spans, greater income equality between spouses, no-fault divorce laws, and the growing sense, at least among some, that marriage is not necessarily a life-long commitment.

Tosi and van den Broek’s goal was to track self-reported mental health conditions prior to, during, and after divorce. They were keen to learn whether and how long it took for respondents to regain the mental health “baseline” they had experienced two years prior to their marriage’s dissolution.

The researchers used survey data from nine waves of the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which questioned the same over-16 individuals from 40,000 households in 2009, 2010-2017, and 2018. For this particular study, Tosi and van den Broek selected only those respondents  aged 50 and over who reported a divorce or separation during 2009-2018. The resulting sample included 909 adults, and these were questioned, on average, 5.1 times during the survey period. 


The dependent or outcome variable in the’ study was a numerical score 0-12 in which 0 = “least depressed” and 12 = “most depressed.” The researchers computed these scores from responses to 12 questions about mental health and mental health-related behavior (eg, sleep interruption). The independent variable of interest was time to and from divorce, divided into six categories: (0) two years prior to divorce (1) one year prior to divorce; (2) the year of divorce; (3) one year after divorce; (4) two years after divorce, and (5) three years or more after divorce. The researchers added a few moderating variables such as sex (male/female), number of previous divorces (0+), and parenthood status (childless/children).

The researchers studied the impacts of time on mental health by setting the baseline at self reported mental wellbeing two years prior to divorce. Their statistical results showed that depressive symptoms increased in the year prior to divorce and then during the year of divorce itself. By the second post-divorce year, however, subjects had recovered, on average, to their “baseline”condition. In other words, things got really tough just prior to and during the break-up, but improved substantially soon after. These findings suggest that gray divorcees follow the “crisis” pattern in which mental health declines just prior and during divorce, and then rapidly improves. This differs from the “convalescence” pattern, in which post-divorce recovery takes three to five years, or the “chronic strain” pattern, in which divorcees never return to baseline, remaining chronically depressed for years, if not forever.


In other statistical models, Tosi and van den Broek found no statistically significant differences between male and female divorcees. They did, however, find that parenthood mattered. Childless divorcees aged 50 and over recovered and even felt better than baseline at divorce-plus one year. Divorcees with children, by contrast, took three years, on average, to return to baseline, suggesting there is a fair bit of stress involved in dealing with offsprings’ responses to the marital break. The researchers did not find statistically different trajectories for respondents who had experienced more than one divorce in their lifetime.


I find myself taking heart from this study. I’m a father of two children, and it’s been almost two years since my official divorce date of October 31, 2018. The year BEFORE the divorce was really rough, as my spouse had already announced her surprise intention to leave, and the years SINCE the divorce were equally bad or worse.

Things have been getting better of late, however, and I’m beginning to feel like myself again. In other words, my divorce-related mental health is following an entirely average trajectory. It’s almost been three years since the divorce, and as an over-50 divorcee with children, it should take me three years – on average! – to return to where I was in October 2016, mental health-wise. And indeed, I’m right on track.


Survey findings don’t always say much about our individual lives, as everyone’s trajectory is somewhat unique. Very few of us fall directly on the statistical regression line. In this case, however, I feel like the study of 909 UK divorcees described my own experiences to a T, and I find that hugely reassuring. The pain was real, but I’m just an average Joe. Hooray for average outcomes!


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