Rates of "gray divorce," or a split after age 50, have more than doubled in recent decades
Bill and Melinda Gate
Bill and Melinda Gates
| Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

News that Bill and Melinda Gates were calling it quits after nearly 30 years of marriage came as a surprise to many — but perhaps not to marriage experts, who say that so-called "gray divorce" is a trend that's been on the rise.

"People are saying, 'I'm 50 years old, I have 30 more years on this planet, how do I want to spend those years?'" Jocelyn Elise Crowley, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, told the Wall Street Journal. "And they look at each other and stare."

When Gates, 65, and Melinda, 56, announced their split on Monday, the couple said in a joint social media statement that they "no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives" — a sentiment that appears to be one shared by many other couples also going through a "gray divorce," or a split after age 50.

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Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State, wrote in an essay for NBC News that reaching 50 years old typically brings "major life transitions," such as kids growing up and moving out and careers wrapping up — things that bring to a halt routines and schedules that have been in place for decades.

While the cause of their split remains unclear, the youngest of the three Gates children, daughter Phoebe, turned 18 in September. Still, "Gray divorce is often not precipitated by a singular event, but is instead the result of drifting apart," Brown wrote.

Add to that the fact that people are living longer, and divorce becomes an even more appealing option.

"It really has been more and more common," Israel Helfand, who runs retreats in Vermont for wealthy people whose marriages are on the brink of failing, told Time. "I mean, not only are people living longer and healthier at their older ages, they're also seeing more opportunities. And so people have become a little bit more picky about their level of happiness. They don't want to compromise."

As Brown explained in her essay, a cultural shift may also have some effect.

"Many couples would remain in these 'empty shell' marriages largely because separations were stigmatized, or couples didn't believe in divorce," she wrote. "These days, couples are less willing to remain in empty shell marriages. Societal changes also mean that women are often less economically dependent on their husbands, and thus they can afford to get divorced."

Brown told the WSJ that while divorce rates in the U.S. have declined overall in recent decades, the rates have more than doubled for people over 50 — 11.4 per 1,000 currently married people ages 55-64 divorced in 2019, compared to just five per 1,000 in 1990.

She added that the COVID-19 pandemic — which interrupted scheduled activities and forced people to spend more time at home — may have also exacerbated the issue by forcing more introspection.

"The pandemic made them think differently about their own mortality and goals in life, what they are willing to accept and not accept," she told the outlet. "People are less willing to stay in these empty-shell marriages that are not conflictual, but also not happy."

With COVID restrictions beginning to lift, many attorneys are seeing an uptick in cases.

Sodoma Law, a family law practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, told the WSJ that the firm is experiencing a record number of divorce inquiries; this April saw 87 consultations, compared to just 50 in April 2020.

"There was a fear factor when they called to inquire," divorce attorney Susan Myres of Houston's Myres & Associates told the outlet. "Now they're starting to get back to me… People are starting to say, 'Okay, we are ready to go.'"