Marriage & Remarriage

Marriage and Remarriage

The primary relationship for many older adults is their spouse. In later life, marriage often provides companionship, affection, personal and sexual intimacy, interdependence, belonging, and financial security notably, older married couples who have weathered life’s ups and downs are survivors; by definition they are a select group (Huyck, 1996). Likewise, what we know about marital patterns and satisfaction is somewhat select. Historically, research comes from studies that are largely voluntary and represent only the views of one spouse. Furthermore, they overwhelmingly represent non-Hispanic white couples from middle- and upper-class socioeconomic backgrounds (Huyck). Still, across studies and over time some general conclusions can be drawn regarding marriage in later life.

Marital Satisfaction

Numerous studies reveal that marital satisfaction follows a U-shape pattern: It starts high in the early years of marriage, wanes in middle age with the raising of children and associated financial pressures, and then steadily increases after children leave home (Bengtson et al., 1990). In the later years of marriage many couples rediscover or even redefine their relationship. For some, this manifests in more egalitarian division of household chores; for others it represents new joint interests or activities. As couples have more time to focus on their relationship separate from the competing demands of work and family, they tend to draw closer together. The dual effect of retirement and an empty nest has been theorized to improve marital satisfaction by reducing other commitments, role conflicts, and time constraints, and by increasing opportunities for companionship.

Several studies of long-term marriages identified factors that contribute to a successful marriage; viewing one’s mate as a best friend, liking one’s spouse as a person, sharing life goals and values, sharing similar interests and activities, maintaining a sense of humor and playfulness in the marriage, and practicing good conflict management skills (Alford-Cooper, 1998; Atchley & Miller, 1983; Lauer & Lauer, 1986; Bengtson et al., 1990; Lauer & Kerr, 1990). Commitment to one’s spouse and to the institution of marriage has also been rated high as a reason marriages are successful and otherwise have held together (Lauer & Lauer).

Compared to their unmarried counterparts, older married couples tend to report greater happiness and life satisfaction (Mastkaasa, 1994), better health (Pienta, Hayward, & Jenkins, 2000), and longer lives (Litwak & Messeri, 1989). A major California study (comparing middle-aged couples married 15 or more years with older couples married 35 or more years) found that older couples experienced more pleasure and less conflict than middle-aged marriages (Levenson, Carstensen, & Gottman, 1993). In general, whether comparing older marriages to younger marriages or older married couples to unmarried people, the picture that emerges is a positive one of greater happiness and satisfaction, better health, and longer lives. In addition, a long and lasting marriage gives many couples a sense of accomplishment, security, and comfort.

Of course a long marriage does not necessarily mean a happy or satisfying one. Couples stay together for any number of reasons – economics, the sake of the family unity or duty, convenience, or religious beliefs. According to one study, marital dissatisfaction in later life is not any more frequent than it is at any other age (Herman, 1994). Divorce, however, is less likely to be a resolution than in earlier years of marriage; only about 1 percent of all divorces occur after the age of 65 (Quadagno, 2002). Dissatisfaction with sexual relations, poor communication, and the presence of children in the home appear to be highly correlated with unhappy couples. Sometimes happy marriages deteriorate in later years as a result of declines in physical or mental health. Dementia, in particular, can devastate the foundation of the best marriage. Prolonged care giving has also been correlated to decline in marital satisfaction, particularly if the care giving spouse experiences health problems.


Gender (as well as race and ethnicity) significantly impacts marital status in later life. While over half of Americans 65 and older are married, men are much more likely to be so than women. According to 2000 census data (Census Bureau, 2003), more than three-quarters (77 percent) of men ages 65 to 74 are married, compared to a little over half (53 percent) of women the same ages. The disparity becomes greater with age: about two-thirds (67 percent) of men 75 and older are married, compared to less that one-third (29 percent of women.

If men are more likely to be married, women are more likely to be widowed. In 2000, nearly a third (31 percent) of women ages 65 to 74 were widowed, compared to less than one-tenth (8 percent) of men. The gap widens with age. Of Americans 85 years and older, 79 percent of women and 38 percent of men were widowed. Gender differences in marital status can be attributed primarily to men’s shorter life spans.

In contrast to widowhood, divorce or separation occurs about equally between the sexes in the 65 and older population, accounting for only 9.1 percent of all seniors in 2003. notably, over the past decade these numbers have nearly doubled from 5.4 percent in 1990.

Gender has also been correlated to marital satisfaction and well-being. In general, compared to their wives, husbands report greater marital satisfaction (Huyck, 1996). Some research indicates that this may be because, after children leave home, wives are more likely to become dissatisfied about marital issues that they once tolerated, while husbands are more likely to be in denial or gloss over the existence of problems and the resulting tensions (Huyck).

Social Support in Marriage

Most successful couples’ relationships over time nurture mutual interdependence, intimacy, and belonging (Atchley & Barusch, 2004). As time goes by, they come to value and rely on each other more for emotional and instrumental support. Lauer et l. (1990) found in their study of couples married 45 years or longer that the emotional support and intimacy between partners increased in intensity over the marriage. The vast majority found their spouses to be more interesting to them today then they were at the beginning of the marriage; they confided in one another, laughed together, and kissed nearly every day.

Some studies indicate that spouses become more interdependent in instrumental support over time, often sharing chores around the house, gardening, shopping, and doing other errands that may have once been the wife’s duty. Other studies counter that while this shift may not happen with baby boomers, who already practice more egalitarian household responsibilities, most seniors today maintain a more traditional division of labor – husbands mow the lawn, keep the car tuned, and tackle household repairs while women cook, clean, and do the laundry.

Late-life couples also become more interdependent on one another for personal assistance, particularly in times illness. When illness becomes a permanent state, the likelihood greatly increases that the spouse will become a caregiver. The spouse is the main provider of care for those who need assistance getting dressed, bathed, fed, and so forth. Often at the point that it becomes caregiving, it is not longer an interdependent relationship; rather, it becomes dependent. Feelings of resentment, helplessness, guilt, and other negative emotions often cloud the relationship. Studies show that prolonged caregiving can lead to burnout, poor health for the caregiver, and even poor care for the care recipient.

Not all marriage, even those self-defined as happy marriages, meet both spouses’ social support needs all the time, if ever. For example, while a husband may meet the emotional support and intimacy needs for his wife, her need for social validation and belonging may be best met by her peer group (Gupta & Korte, 1994).

Husbands report receiving more emotional and social support in their marriages than do wives (Quadagno, 2002). Studies show that men throughout the life course have smaller social support systems than women, including fewer and less intimate friendships (Courtenay, 2000). In particular, husbands are less likely than wives to have a confidant besides their spouse. Research shows that men overwhelmingly confide in their wives, whereas women confide more often in their children or friends (Quadagno).


Beginning in the 1970s, changes in cultural values and divorce laws saw a rise in divorces that continued to increase until the 1990s before leveling off. The number of divorced people 18 years and older exploded from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996 (Census Bureau, 2002). The number of people divorced and not remarried is a cumulative number, making the divorced population one of the fastest growing marital status categories (Census Bureau, 2002).

For the senior population, the proportion divorced is also rising. While only 8 percent of all seniors in 2000 were ever divorced, that percentage is likely to keep increasing in the coming years due to the cohort effect. Research based on cohort analysis demonstrates that the leading age of baby boomers born between 1945 and 1954 are about twice as likely to be divorced by their 40thbirthday as the cohort born between 1925 and 1934. They are about twice as likely to remarry – about 32 percent versus 15 percent, respectively (Census Bureau, 2002). The most rapid rise in divorces today is in the age group of 55 to 64 years (Snyder, 2000). The proportion of divorced Americans 65 and older is expected to reach 50 percent by 2010 (Quadagno, 2002).

In a recent landmarked study by AARP (2004), more than 1,000 men and women who divorced in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were interviewed about their divorce experience in midlife. The study revealed some startling facts. For example, contrary to the popular belief that older men leave their wives for younger women, the study found wives (66 percent) were more likely than husbands (42 percent) to initiate divorce. Furthermore, men reported being more caught off-guard by the news, with 26 percent of men stating “they never saw it coming” compared to only 14 percent of women. Other key findings from this study include:

  • People age 40 or older generally feel that divorce is more emotionally devastating than losing a job, about equal to experiencing a major illness, and nearly as devastating as a spouse’s death
  • Verbal, physical, or emotional abuse leads the list of causes of divorce (34 percent), followed by differences in values and lifestyles (20 percent), cheating (27 percent), and not being in love anymore (or having “no obvious problems”) (24 percent
  • The majority of respondents divorced in their 40s (73 percent), followed by 50s (22 percent) and 60s and older (4 percent)
  • Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents named being alone their greatest fear of divorce followed by a fear of failing again (31 percent), financial destitution (28 percent), and never finding someone to marry or live with (24 percent). Women especially fear being financially destitute
  • Among both men and women, the main reason for delaying a divorce was for the sake of children
  • Of those divorced, 56 percent have remained divorced or are separated, 31 percent have remarried, 9 percent are living with a partner, and 5 percent are widowed
  • Despite the worry, torment, and fear they go through in making the decision and going through the divorce process, most people cope fairly well with life after divorce. Three in four (76 percent) claim they made the right decisions in divorcing. Their buzzwords are “freedom”, “self-identity”, and “fulfillment.”

Social Support after Divorce

The implications of a growing divorce rate in matters of social support are enormous for middle-age and older men and women, particularly if they don’t remarry. For both parties, if they don’t remarry they lose what many consider to be the main source of social support in later life – their spouse. Men are particularly at risk in this aspect because, as previously pointed out, they tend to have a smaller social support system and rely more exclusively on a souse for support. Divorced fathers are also more likely than mothers to have less contact with adult children and live farther away (Shapiro, 2003). They also tend to have weaker emotional bonds (Bengtson et al., 1990). As one large study summed it up, men appear to gain more from marriage and lose more from divorce than women (Curran, McLanahan, & Knab, 2003).

That is not to say women get off easy. Women who do not remarry not only lose the social support of a spouse, but also are more likely to be worse off economically (Bengtson et al., 1990). In general, women 65 and older are twice as likely as men to be living in poverty (Older Women’s League, n.d.). Many divorced (and widowed) women 65 and older never worked outside the home, or if they did work it was part-time or for hourly wages with minimum benefits. Consequently, few qualify for a private or public pension plan or other retirement benefits such as health plans. Women married to the same man for 10 or more years are eligible for a spousal benefit if the couple were still married (Older Women’s League).

Several studies over the past 20 years show that compared to adult children from two-parent families, children of divorced parents generally feel less obligation to their parents, perceive a lower quality relationship with them, and have significantly less contact (Cicirelli, 1983;Bengtson et al., 1990; Aquilino, 1994; Webster & Herzog, 1995). When support is given, mothers are more likely than fathers to receive emotional, instrumental, and financial support (Wright & Maxwell, 1991).


Marriages that survive through the years ultimately end with the death of a spouse. In the United States, like most Western countries, life expectancy is longer for women, resulting in more widows than widowers. As previously mentioned, the likelihood of a wife becoming a widow increases significantly with age.

Despite its inevitability, death of a spouse is one of the most difficult family transitions families go through – emotionally, socially, and financially. While death of any family member is tragic, the death of a longtime spouse is particularly devastating. Along with grieving the loss of the individual, the spouse is dealing with the loss of the role and identity of being a spouse and part of a couple, “potentially one of the most pervasive, intense, intimate, and personal roles that they have ever had in their life” (Lund & Caserta, 2004).

Widowhood for both spouse is associated with increased physical and mental health problems, as well as increased risk for serious illness, hospitalization, long-term are placement, and death (Laditka & Laditka, 2003; Pienta et al., 2000; Prigerson, Maciejwski, & Rosenheck, 2000; Smith, Zick, & Duncan, 1991). The death of a spouse is an intensely personal experience and is influenced by a number of factors, such as how close the couple were before death, whether it was sudden or the result of a prolonged illness, the presence of health issues with the surviving spouse, and the use of hospice services. Noting the tremendous variation among individual experiences, it is still possible to highlight some generalizations between how men and women cope with the loss of their spouses.

Social Support in Widowhood

Men are often taken by surprise by their wife’s death, as noted by this 79-year-old man (Lund & Caserta, 2004):

I just can’t believe this happened. My wife was healthy. She was strong. She took me to the emergency room three times last year. I almost died twice. All of a sudden she has a heart attack and she’s dead. I’m here and she’s gone. This is crazy. Nobody thought I’d be the one to live the longest.

Since most men to not expect to outlive their wives, they are usually less prepared at every level to deal with their loss. Often having relied solely on their wives for emotional support, and feeling like they need to put up a strong front for their children, husbands often have no one to share their grief with in an intimate way. If it had been a traditional marriage, simple household chores such as meals and laundry can become overwhelming. Furthermore, men are less likely than women to ask for help, attend counseling or self-help groups, or seek other support services.

Men who are widowed are more likely than women to remarry. In 1990, elderly widowed men were seven times more likely than elderly widowed women to remarry (AAGP, 1999). In contrast to women, men are rarely worse off financially with the loss of their spouses.

In general, women seem to cope better emotionally than men with the death of spouse. Psychologically, they are more likely prepared to outlive their husbands. Most women over 65 know a neighbor, a friend, or someone else in their social network who is widowed, and they have likely been a source of social support through that transition. Women are more likely to have a strong social support system and are more willing to ask for and receive help from others. Friends and children are key sources of social support to widows.

In one study, women reported feelings of freedom after the loss by remarrying spouse alluded to being reluctant to give that up by remarrying (Davidson, 2001). This wish to maintain autonomy may be because women caregivers or those with overly dependent husbands feel as if they were tied down with responsibility, sometimes for years preceding the death (Davidson; Gierveld, 2004). Because women are often dependent on their husbands’ retirement benefits, they do tend to fare considerably worse financially after they lose their mates. According to one study, the greatest contributor to a widow’s drop in income and subsequent backslide into poverty was a decrease in Social Security and pension income as a result of the husband’s death (Hungerford, 2001).

Some studies indicate that the risk for adverse health outcomes diminished after about two years or if the person remarries (Laditka & Laditka, 2003). Coping strategies found to be effective for both husbands and wives include ongoing social support from family, friends, and peer; participation in social activities; faith-based activities (such as religious attendance and prayer); and counseling services (such as provided by support groups and hospice) (Hegge & Fischer, 2000; Lee, DeMaris, Bavin, & Sullivan, 2001; Michael Crowther, Schmid, & Allen, 2003); Utz, Carr, Nesse, & Wortman, 2002).


Older adults, particularly women, are less likely than their younger counterparts to remarry following divorce and, to a lesser degree, the death of a spouse. Still, about 250,00 people over 50 remarry each year. Increases in the number of middle-aged and older adults, increases in those who are single or divorced, longer life expectancies, and changes in values of the baby boomers entering retirement age portend that remarriage will occur more frequently in the future. Yet, little research exists on remarriages in later life (Pasley, 1998; Atchley & Barusch, 2004).

Social Support in Remarriage

The most-cited reason for remarriage in later life by both men and women is companionship (Bulcroft, Bulcroft, Hatch, & Borgatta, 1989; McKain, 1969). Women are also likely to remarry for economic security. Men tend to remarry more often than women; one study estimated that men are twice as likely as women to remarry (Burch, 1990).

Men’s higher propensity to remarry is attributed to a number of factors. First, particularly for today’s population 65 and older, it is more socially acceptable for men to remarry and to choose significantly younger wives (Burch, 1990). Second, men are more likely to meet a suitable mate, as they have a much bigger pool of mates from which to choose. Third, men gain more from the emotional support of a marriage than women; women are more likely to already have a good social support system, including emotional support from children, other family, and friends (Vinick, 1979). Indeed, women with successful careers or close relationships with friends and family, or those who value their autonomy and freedom prefer not to remarry.

Older adult who do remarry are likely to face a number of unique challenges. Unlike most first marriages, subsequent marriages bring to the relationship people with entirely different histories, in which the have already established a life, home, social network, career, and often a family. Where they will live, what their relationship will be to children and other family members, and inheritance and other financial dealings represent just the tip of the iceberg of a number of issues.

One of the greatest obstacles older couples face in remarriage, however, is the negative attitudes and dissuasion of friends and family. In one study (McKain, 1969) about one in four couples almost did not marry because of negative social pressure particularly from their adult children. Other research shows that negative reaction from peers presents an even more deterring influence (Vinick, 1979). Much has changed over the last 25 years regarding social attitudes towards blended families. Some evidence suggests that cultural views are changing, particularly with regard to more positive support from children toward a parent’s remarriage (Vinick & Lanspery, 2000).

For many remarriages the approval of friends and family is more than a hurdle – it predicts the success of the marriage. Other factors found to be associated with successful remarriages in later life include home ownership of both parties prior to marriage, estate planning that reassures spouses they will be taken care of and reassures children they will not lose all their inheritance, a sold friendship of several years before the marriage, and common interests and activities (McKain, 1969; Vinick & Lanspery, 2000).

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.