Book Review: Gray Divorce by Jocelyn Elise Crowley

gray divorce

My own “gray divorce” was finalized when I was just past fifty, twenty-five years in and after a long separation during which I kept looking for ways to make things work. It was a frequently troubled marriage, one with signs from the beginning it might not last, but also, frequently, a happy and even joyous one. It’s been fifteen years now since we first separated, and it all still affects me; my divorce shook me to my core. Many days I am reminded of things I miss about my marriage: the discovery of new places in the world together; the family holidays and gatherings; the conversations and books and meals shared; the anticipation of a secure financial future together; my husband’s love; our children’s youths and my own.

But if I am still sometimes confused by and caught up in all the whys and wherefores of my past, I’ve refound freedoms, friends, another good man, closer relationships with my family, the thrill of discovering the world on my own, even my own sense of style. I have rediscovered truths about myself and the world that bring me joy every day and learned that my core is, after all, sound. I have also, of course, realized that my experiences, while unique, have much in common with others who have gone through a later-in-life divorce.

Fifteen years on, I am still processing it all. So it was with intense personal interest that I picked up Jocelyn Elise Crowley’s Gray Divorce (University of California Press, 2018), to see if its perspectives in any way mirrored or shed new light on my own or if it might offer practical help to us all in moving along in our lives after a long or late marriage ends.

Gray Divorce’s format is a collection, selection, and rough organization of material gleaned from phone conversations with 40 men and 40 women recruited via Facebook posts. It employs liberal use of tables and charts, both from the author’s phone study and from articles in other journals,  that purport to show  current facts about how those over fifty experience divorce in America, and it combines those with anecdotes from the study subjects about their own experiences.

gray divorce

Review: A breakdown of Gray Divorce

The Facts

With little personal or philosophical analysis of the responses and no follow-up interviews, the author implies that she is presenting “data,” facts logically and impartially organized. And indeed the relating of these facts is curiously dispassionate, but that does not make it either scientific or insightful. This is a cohort that is exclusively heterosexual, nearly all white, and nearly all earning above-average incomes. Over a quarter of respondents did not have children from the marriage in question, and only one in 80 had remarried at the time of the study. There is no discussion regarding why or how this peculiar sampling is a self-selected group before a brief mention in the appendix.  All of these factors mean we learn little here about the range and prominence of divorce experiences, with conclusions and generalizations therefore very hard to form.

Even the information offered is unclear. The tables ranking the predominant responses to questions, such as the the most important reasons for the divorce or gains from the divorce, do not give numbers or percentages, so we don’t know if the #1 response means three or thirty people have mentioned it, and only in the appendix the author clarifies that only responses found in at least 12.5% of respondents (i.e. 5 people of either gender) are noted; responses detailed in subject anecdotes are sometimes described arbitrarily (are “involvement with other women” and “infidelity” different things?); and subjective  (as far as the reader knows) terms like “porn addiction” and “financially secure” are inserted without definition or criteria.

The author finds it unusual that a person earning $150,000 a year and enjoying additional family resources would be able to afford long term healthcare insurance but accepts without question or comment another person, with a $50,000 income, being unworried about their financial future.

Men who do not express worry over having long-term health coverage are assumed never to have considered its role in their futures. The author claims that the social penalty of divorce is disproportionately born by men, but with a table showing loss of relationships the #2 loss for men and #4 for women, we cannot know how wide the gap is even among these rather privileged people. Throughout, the whole premise of the book is disturbingly pseudoscientific, a strange choice for a university press.

The Style

The author’s writing style is often elementary, another factor that threw me off. She spends time on glaringly obvious statements like, “These findings suggest that the decision to divorce is not simply an economic one; it may be intertwined with assessments of marital quality as well.” Summaries for chapters and in transition sentences between paragraphs follow the most basic rules of content paraphrasing; the author has adhered to the minimal requirements rather than seeing them as opportunities for deeper perspectives and connections. This is a compiling of information, organized into rough categories, without the passion of insight a truly invested author might bring.

The Anecdotes

I found myself more engaged in Gray Divorce when I reached the chapter on “Moving Forward Personally,” and perhaps that is a function of where I am in dealing with my own divorce. The commonly repeated sense of independence, of not having to make decisions with another or seek another’s approval, resonated with me. Some study subjects mention rediscovering themselves, who they are as unique individuals, and that process and bonus could also have benefited from more exploration.

It’s possible someone early in their stages of divorce would be comforted (if initially incredulous!) by reminders of the good to come. Such readers might be similarly encouraged by the anecdotes and statistics of those facing social or financial challenges as the result of their divorces. Certainly there is reassurance in knowing “I’m not alone,” that others have trod similar roads and not only survived, but thrived. A further discussion of how we view interdependence and dependence in our culture and as we age, inside and outside of marriage, would have been enlightening.

Public Policy Implications

Gray Divorce’s final chapter deals with public policy issues. This is Crowley’s realm as a professor at Rutgers, and she outlines the changes to tax laws, social security benefits, and community mental health efforts she and many others believe would make life easier for older people divorcing. But all this is accepted wisdom in some circles. She doesn’t address typical Conservative objections to the measures or the impediments, unintended consequences, or effectiveness of these policies.

She throws out a list of support groups for men and women as though they came up during a Google list. She inserts tables of poverty levels and how they change with gender, age, and divorce status but makes the peculiar decision to detail those at the poverty level and at 125% of that, omitting the fact that even a single person making 200% of the poverty rate is currently living on about $24,000 a year before taxes, a figure just over a quarter of what the average study subject had attained and one most readers would find shockingly low and unliveable.

The Verdict

Everything here could have been a starting point for more thorough and considered statistical insights; more probing explorations of cultural and individual experiences and perspectives; or a close look at implications for public policy. This would have entailed writing three books, or perhaps choosing one of these areas and writing one book but writing it well. In short, I came away not sure for whom Grey Divorce was written.

Perhaps it’s for gobsmacked people who never thoughtfully considered or read about the reasons for or consequences of either marriage or divorce, desperate for the distraction of tables and anecdotes that require little of them in this traumatic time. Perhaps it’s for counselors or clergy who somehow, with virtually no past interest in human psychology or American sociology, find themselves needing to know a smattering of the basics—or for young students going into these fields without the life experience to have gleaned this information. Perhaps it’s for politicians or policy makers looking for quick and easy facts and stories, with Crowley as their academic source, to hold up in support of whatever they’re trying to accomplish. Gray Divorce was not, however, for me.


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