Family Relationships Quarterly No. 18

AFRC Newsletter No. 18 – March 2011

Divorce and wellbeing in later life: Trends and statistics

by Catherine Caruana

While there has been much research focus on the short-term effects of marital breakdown, less is known about the long-term impact of divorce on social, emotional and financial wellbeing. Are people who have had an earlier experience of divorce more likely to be unhappier, poorer, sicker and lonelier in later life? A recent report published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), provided a snapshot of the social and emotional legacy of marital breakdown on Australia's ageing population.


As the baby-boomer generation approaches retirement age, social researchers have the opportunity to investigate the long-term effects of certain aspects of social change occurring in Australia in the latter half of the 21st century. The swell in the divorce rate following the introduction of the no-fault system in 1975 has lead to a similar spike in the number of older Australians who have experienced divorce in their lifetime. The report Divorce and the Wellbeing of Older Australians (Gray, de Vaus, Qu, & Stanton, 2010),1 released by AIFS, presented findings on measures of wellbeing from a nationally representative sample of older Australians. This report complements earlier research by the same authors on the financial impact of divorce, (de Vaus, Gray, Qu, & Stanton, 2007). Together they demonstrate that the negative effects of divorce2 persist into later life, particularly for divorcees of either gender that remain single, and most pervasively for women.3


The study involved analysis of data from reports by survey participants from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (HILDA)4 on a number of largely subjective measures of wellbeing, including social interaction and connectedness, perception of social support, physical and mental health, and life satisfaction. Comparisons were drawn between those in the sample who were divorced and single, divorced and remarried, and those that were married and had never divorced.5

The sample

The sample used in the current report consisted of participants in the HILDA survey aged 55-74 years who were married or who had previously been married. Of these, around one-quarter had experienced divorce (26.7% of males and 25.8% of females). Within this sub-group men were more likely to have remarried, with two-thirds having done so at the time of the survey, compared to around half of the women. In the sample, 62.5% of the men and 55.7% of the women were married and had never divorced, whereas 7.3% of men, and 4.6% of women had never married.


Social support

Responses to questions relating to the number of friends they have, being able to access help when needed and having someone to confide in were analysed to provide measures of perceived social support. Both men and women who remained single after their divorce had significantly lower levels of perceived social support, while there was little difference overall between those that had divorced and remarried and those that had remained married.

Life satisfaction

Analysis of ratings of levels of satisfaction regarding certain aspects of life (such as health, financial situation, home, neighbourhood, feeling safe, feeling part of their community, and the amount of free time they enjoyed) uncovered lower satisfaction with life overall for both women and men who had divorced and remained single. Single women in particular reported lower satisfaction across all dimensions. Women who had divorced but remarried scored less on life satisfaction ratings than women who had remained married and men who had divorced and remarried.


On a scale measuring three aspects of health - general health, vitality and mental health - a history of divorce appeared to have no effect on men's health. Divorced single women on the other hand, reported lower levels of vitality and physical and mental health than those who had remarried or who had never divorced. There were no significant differences found between the groups of older married women.

Social contact

Measures of social connection used in the survey included: getting together with friends and relatives living elsewhere at least once a week; being an active member of a sporting, hobby or community-based club or association; and spending time in voluntary or charity work. Divorced single men were significantly more likely to report getting together with friends and relatives at least once a week than men who were divorced and remarried, or married and never divorced. Given most of them lived alone, it is not surprising this group would be more likely to seek social contact outside the home. There were little differences between the groups of men in relation to the time they spent involved in club activities. However, for women, those who had been divorced and had remarried were significantly less likely to be an active member of a sporting, hobby or community-based club, or to spend time in voluntary or charity work, than those who remained single and those who remained married.

Financial impact

In any discussion about social and emotional wellbeing in later life, it is important to also consider financial status, as the two appear to be linked (Pinquart & Sörenson, 2002; Arber, 2004). An earlier study by the authors on the long-term financial impact of divorce (de Vaus et al., 2007), which used HILDA data from a slightly different sample at a different point of time, paints a similar picture of disadvantage flowing from divorce. Using a range of living standard measures such as income, superannuation, housing, assets, receipt of income support, perceived prosperity and financial hardship, the authors found that the experience of divorce also has a negative financial impact in later life, and that similarly, the financial deficits are substantially reduced by re-partnering.

Divorcees who remained single were substantially more likely to be in rental accommodation than those that were married, had lower levels of per capita household assets, were more likely to experience financial hardship, to receive income support and to report lower prosperity. On a number of measures, those that had divorced but remarried reported a financial status not dissimilar to the ever-married group.

A notable exception to this trend was that divorced single women were more likely than both ever-married women and remarried women to have superannuation (with the ever-married women the least likely to), though there was little difference across the three groups in relation to the amount of superannuation when it existed. Similarly, marital history did not appear to affect median incomes reported by women across the groups. However it is interesting to note that older women who remained single after divorce had a higher rate of outright home ownership than their male counterparts (49.4% compared with 40.9% of the male respondents).

Implications for practice and policy

The above-mentioned reports illustrate the importance of the role of marital history in emotional, social and financial wellbeing in later life and in determining current social trends. This is supported by a recent report on homelessness amongst older women (McFerran, 2010) which suggested that separation and divorce is one of the big drivers in the phenomenon of increased rates of single-person households and the decline in home ownership amongst older Australians. It is well understood that an ageing population will place greater demand on health and social services (Attorney General's Department, 2010). Coupled with consistently high divorce rates, policy-makers will increasingly be developing policy relevant to a growing population of older Australians, and more commonly older women, with particular vulnerability to social isolation, physical and mental ill health and financial insecurity.

Practitioners working with separating or separated families, may need to give greater consideration to the impact of separation and divorce on housing security, both in the immediate and long-term future, particularly for women.6 In their 2009 report, Beer and Faulkner talked about the policy challenge "of assisting people to retain owner occupation following divorce, rather than increasing the rate of entry [into the housing market]" (p. 101). This is a challenge that could equally be seen as relevant to family relationship practitioners working with separating families.

On a more general note, these findings suggest that service providers need to actively monitor the mental health of their older clients, an increasing number of which have the added responsibility of caring for their grandchildren (see Horsfall & Dempsey article in this edition). They should remain alert to the level of social support and social contacts available to older and single clients, and to their level of engagement in sports, hobbies, club activities and voluntary work. Working with clients to develop strategies that build and maintain social support, that help them identify their interests and access local information on ways to meet those interests, may help foster resilience in later life to the long-term negative effects of relationship breakdown, and to promote greater wellbeing among an ageing population.


  • Arber, S. (2004). Gender, marital status and ageing: Linking material, health and social resources. Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 91-108.
  • Attorney-General's Department. (2010). Australia to 2050: Future challenges. Canberra: Author.
  • Beer, A. & Faulkner, D. (2009). 21st century housing careers and Australia's housing future. (AHURI Final Report, no. 128). Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute:.
  • Cooney, T., & Dunne, K. (2001). Intimate relationships in later life: Current realities, future prospects. Journal of Family Issues, 22(7), 838-858.
  • de Graaf, P., & Fokkema, T. (2007). Contacts between divorced and non-divorced parents and their adult children in the Netherlands: An investment perspective. European Sociological Review, 23(2), 263-277.
  • de Vaus, D., Gray, M., Qu, L., & Stanton, D. (2007). The consequences of divorce for financial living standards in later life. Australian Institute of Family Studies: Melbourne.
  • Gray, M., de Vaus, D., Qu, L., & Stanton, D. (2010). Divorce and the wellbeing of older Australians. Australian Institute of Family Studies: Melbourne.
  • McFerran, L. (2010). It could be you: Female, single, older and homeless. Woolloomooloo, NSW: Homelessness NSW
  • Pezzin, L., & Schone, B. (1999). Parental marital disruption and intergenerational transfers: An analysis of lone elderly parents and their children. Demography, 36, 287-297.
  • Pinquart, M., & Sörenson, S. (2002). Influences of socioeconomic status, social network and competence on subjective wellbeing in later life. A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 15(2), 187-224.
  • Rezac, S. (2002). Intergenerational assistance in Australian families: The role of parental family structure. Journal of Family Studies, 8, 24-37.
  • Robinson, E., & Adams, R. (2008). Housing stress and the mental health and wellbeing of families (AFRC Briefing No.12). Melbourne: Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse. Retrieved from: <>
  • Solomou, W., Richards, M., Huppert, F., Brayne, C., & Morgan, K. (1998). Divorce, current marital status and wellbeing in an elderly population. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 12, 323-344.

Catherine Caruana is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.


1. Divorce and the Wellbeing of Older Australians (Gray, de Vaus, Qu, & Stanton, 2010 <>

2. Those in the age range who had never been married but had separated from a de facto partner were not included in the analysis given the difficulty of determining the degree of "seriousness" of the relationship from the HILDA data.

3. This contradicts the findings from a number of earlier studies referred to by the authors that suggest that divorce has more of a negative effect on older men than older women, especially in relation to maintaining ties with members of extended family (Cooney & Dunne, 2001; de Graaf & Fokkema, 2007; Pezzin & Schone, 1999; Rezac, 2002; Solomou,Richards, Hupper, Brayne, & Morgan, 1998).

4. The HILDA project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA ) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research (MIAESR). The findings of this research and the views reported, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to either FaHCSIA or the MIAESR.

5. Further details regarding the methodology and limitations of the study  </>

6. For a discussion of the impact of housing insecurity on wellbeing, see Robinson & Adams (2008).