So much for "till death do us part." For the first time, more Americans 50 and older are divorced than widowed, and the numbers are growing as baby boomers live longer. Sociologists call them gray divorcees.
Barbara Wingate and her husband of 34 years divorced in 2009 - after the marriage of their daughter. Both were 58 and they had tried for a year to resolve their differences.
"I was in shock and sought counseling for several months," Ms. Wingate said. "My whole identity was connected to him and here his career."
A half-century ago, only 2.8 percent of Americans older than 50 were divorced. By 2000, 11.8 percent were. In 2011, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 15.4 percent were divorced and another 2.1 percent were separated. Some 13.5 percent were widowed.
While divorce rates over all have stabilized and even inched downward, the divorce rate among people 50 and older has doubled since 1990, according to an analysis of census data by professors at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, where Ms. Wingate now lives. That's especially significant because half the married population is older than 50.
In 1990, 1 in 10 persons who divorced was 50 or older. By 2011, according to the census's American Community Survey, more than 28 percent (more than 1 in 4) who said they divorced in the previous 12 months were 50 or older.
Researchers at Bowling Green warn that the rising divorce rate among older Americans has serious implications that go well beyond the couples themselves. Like widowhood, divorce can contribute to economic strain and poor health, placing a larger burden on children and, given shrinking family size, on institutional support from government and other sources.
"It's still true that in general the longer you are married, the lower your chance of divorce, but it's sure no guarantee anymore," said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches family history at Evergreen State College in Washington State.
She attributes the trend to the higher rate of divorce among baby boomers and to the fact that many are in second or third marriages, making them statistically more prone to divorce. Still, she and others detect an increase in divorce among couples who have been married 25 years or more.
"I don't necessarily think this will accelerate, but I don't expect it to go down," she said. "Staying together until death do us part is a bigger challenge than it used to be because we expect so much more of marriage than we did in the past, and we have so many more options when a marriage doesn't live up to those expectations.
"The extension of the active, healthy life span is a big part of this," Professor Coontz said. "If you are a healthy 65, you can expect another pretty healthy 20 years. So with the kids gone, it seems more burdensome to stay in a bad relationship, or even one that has grown stale."
Most divorces among older couples, as in younger ones, are initiated by women.
"Women have long been more sensitive to - or less tolerant of - a mediocre relationship than men," Professor Coontz said, "and so another big factor is that with their increased work experience and greater sense of their own possibilities, they are less willing to just 'wait it out.'
"We expect to find equality, intimacy, friendship, fun, and even passion right into what people used to see as the 'twilight years,' " she added.
It takes work. "It's not something you can put on the back burner while you raise your kids, for example, and think it won't scorch somewhere along the way," Professor Coontz said.
Robert D. Gould, a New York trial lawyer who handles matrimonial cases and himself was divorced when he was over 50, said: "A lot of marriages died a long time ago, but because of the shame involved, in a family people often stuck together for the children. Now the children are grown up. Viagra is another reason - men are able to satisfy younger women. And people are living longer and they can get out and still have a life."
Two sociologists at Bowling Green call it the "gray divorce revolution."
In a recent study of census data, Prof. Susan L Brown and Prof. I-Fen Lin attribute the trend to several factors, including societal acceptance of divorce and the increased economic autonomy of women. "Finally," they write, "lengthening life expectancies decrease the likelihood that marriages will end through death and increase the length of exposure to the risk of divorce."
The professors found that divorce is more likely among older couples who have less education, who are African-American or Hispanic and who have been married for fewer than 10 years. Nonetheless, they say that if the rate remains constant, "we project a 25 percent increase in the number of people that will experience divorce" two decades from now among Americans 50 and older.
After Ms. Wingate divorced, she moved closer to her daughter, put the proceeds from the sale of her marital home in real estate and, after two years, began trolling Internet dating sites for companionship. "I've been dating a widower for two years," she said, "but am struggling with any thoughts of remarrying."