The news that “The Golden Bachelor,” Gerry Turner, and his wife of three months, Theresa Nist, are divorcing likely pierced the hearts of fans that were rooting for the pair, who found each other on the ABC dating reality show that featured older people seeking a romantic partner.

Instead, the two are getting what’s been called a “gray divorce” because it happens among partners who are not doe-eyed youngsters or even mid-sters.

Gray divorce is not new. The number of couples ending marriages, in what AARP in 2023 called a “revolution” among older adults, has been climbing for more than 30 years. But Turner, 72, and Nist, 70, are outliers in many ways, since they met, married and divorced in months, not years or even decades. Most of the gray divorces are more like that of Bill and Melinda Gates, who parted ways in 2021 after 27 years of marriage.

“This is far from your typical gray divorce,” said Stephanie Coontz, a historian and author of numerous books on marriage and family life, including “The Way We Never Were.” “Usually those are divorces in long-term marriages where the couple has grown apart, or had been moderately discontented for several years, but no acute conflict. The kids are gone, or one or both have retired, and yet one partner (or sometimes both) feels like ‘my health is pretty good, the things that made us put up with it are not so pressing any more, I think I just want to be done with this.’”

Of the golden couple, she added, “They’re more like a young couple who marries without knowing each other very well, but with one or both having the added excitement of the great story it makes, the adulation they get, and also the perks, both monetary and social. This lasted three months, and the split seems to have been over differences they might have discovered before they married if they hadn’t been caught up in the glamour and unreality of ‘reality tv.’“

Among couples older than 55, the divorce rate has doubled since 1990 in the U.S. Among those 65 and older — where Nist and Turner find themselves — the rate has tripled. That’s happened even as the overall divorce rate in America has declined from 19 people per 1,000 in 1990 to 13 per 1,000 in 2021, according to research from Bowling Green State University, where social scientists have looked at the issue for a long time.

Gerry Turner arrives at the 57th Annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. | Evan Agostini

It’s important to keep in mind that the gray divorce rate isn’t huge. According to Bowling Green’s analysis by Krista K. Westrick-Payne and I-Fen Lin, “For both women and men, divorce rates tended to decline with age, a pattern that has remained unchanged over time.” But among older Americans, the “I don’ts” are certainly growing, particularly among those ages 55-64, where the rate rose from 5.1 per 1,000 to 10.6. Though the rate of increase is bigger for those 65 and older, the divorce rate itself rose from 1.8 per 1,000 to 5.5 per 1,000.

And the biggest increase is among women 65 and older, a nearly four-fold jump.

Unwinding a longtime marriage

The Texas-based Goranson Bain Ausley family law firm in a blog post noted that divorces can span ages in some of the things that drive couples apart, including addiction, abuse or infidelity. But other things are more unique to couples who have been together a long time, including empty nest syndrome, money disagreements, lack of intimacy, a desire to try something new and even boredom, among others.

But gray divorce can be more complicated because couples may have been together long enough to accumulate some wealth, creating financial battles, the blog post said. Some of the issues that may be more unique to older couples than young ones are the division of retirement accounts and pension plans, the impact on and influence of adult children, relationships with extended family that may have been formed over many, many years and health issues, including insurance. Absent a prenuptial agreement, things can get pretty complicated.

Susan Brown, co-director of Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, told AARP that she thinks gray divorce is and will likely remain more baby boomer-centric than a trend among other and younger generations. Boomers when they were young had higher divorce rates than other cohorts have at the same age. And they had higher rates in middle age, too.

Gray divorce can hit women in heterosexual relationships especially hard, Karmila Elliott, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Collective Wealth Partners, told CNBC recently. As researchers at Cornell University found, at any age, women’s household incomes can plummet between a quarter and 40% in the year after divorce.

But younger women are more likely to have been working outside the home consistently, while many older women were homemakers. That may mean they are disadvantaged both in terms of earnings and in earnings potential if they need to enter the workforce. “We’re seeing women in divorce today who are of the generation where they just didn’t work their entire life,” Natalie Colley, a certified financial planner in New York and senior lead advisor at Francis Financial, told CNBC.

While women often initiate a gray divorce, most studies suggest women experience larger income drops than men afterward. Brown and Lin found women 50 and older see a 45% drop in their living standard, compared to about 20% for men. But both can be severely impacted.

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“The economic ramifications of later-life divorce are mostly unknown, which is especially concerning for at least two reasons. First, older adults have relatively few years of working life remaining to recoup the financial losses associated with divorce, possibly placing them in precarious economic circumstances as they advance into old age. Second, remarriage is a potential route to economic recovery following divorce but most older adults, especially women, do not repartner following gray divorce, again signaling the risk of sustained economic disadvantage into old age,” they wrote. Their findings were published in Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences in 2021.

A feature published by the American Psychological Association in November explored why older couples divorce, looking particularly at three factors that might boost an older couple’s chance of divorce: that empty nest, poor health and retirement. Quoting Brown, the article said, “Those factors remain relevant, but are not as critical or central as we had initially anticipated.” She said other factors, like economic instability, played a bigger role.

In another study published in the same journal, researchers found that couples who don’t have debt or who own their home are more likely to stay together.

Per the association’s article, adults in a precarious financial position or who have health issues or who didn’t want the divorce could find post-divorce navigation hard. Brown points out in the article that Social Security and other benefits are tied to marital status.

Putting ‘I do’ back in the relationship

Despite what looks like grim statistics, research in 2018 reported by Deseret News shows that while people inevitably have some contention in marriage, couples who work through it come out happier the vast majority of the time. The study showed that “Couples who stick together and tackle their challenges are very likely to be happy long-term, their relationship quality undiminished by time or turmoil,” the article said.

Often, quality and satisfaction in those longtime marriages get even better.

“When you look at trajectories of marital quality over time, what becomes apparent is that marriages that are resilient, that endure through difficulties, eventually most of them come out happy,” Spencer L. James, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and the study’s co-author with sociologist Paul Amato, told Deseret News. “While it’s not guaranteed that marital difficulties and working through them will result in a good, stable, happy marriage, it is quite common and suggests that if people are willing to do that, it’s likely good things are down the road for them.”

Experts offer a lot of advice on how to keep a marriage strong, starting with talking through problems and really listening to each other. Sometimes problems can’t — and maybe shouldn’t — be overcome, like domestic violence or substance abuse where the person doesn’t want to make changes, but many pressures on marriage can be overcome.

Go on dates

Dating is one way to keep a relationship vibrant, regardless of the couples’ age. Researchers at the National Marriage Project and the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University published a report in 2023. “The Date Night Opportunity” found that fewer than half of married couples in a national survey said they have regular date nights, but those who said that rated their relationships higher on stability.

“Couples who devote time specifically to dating one another at least once or twice a month are markedly more likely to report better relationship quality compared to couples who do not go on dates as often,” said Jeffrey Dew, the study co-author.

According to the report, date night helps marriages in many ways, including:

  • Improved communication.
  • Novelty.
  • Romance.
  • Commitment.
  • De-stressing and emotional support.

Experts emphasize that marriage is a work in progress — and people ought to be working on it, year after year. If couples take each other for granted or don’t try to resolve issues until they become big, divorce may be more likely. Including gray divorce.