Older people in England and Wales are getting married and divorced in greater numbers. What's behind it? Why are these so-called "silver splicers" and "silver separators" starting and ending relationships in later life?

Marriages of opposite-sex couples

The number of brides and grooms aged 65 and over went up by 46% in a decade, from 7,468 in 2004 to 10,937 in 2014, the most recent ONS marriage data has shown.

But this is against the backdrop of an ageing population, with the number of people aged 65 and over up by 20% in the same period. This is due to the post-war baby boom as well as people living longer.

When we looked at marriage rates for those aged 65 and over – the number of people getting married as a proportion of the single, divorced or widowed population – there was still an increase for both sexes since 2009.

Marriage rates for people aged 65 and over (opposite-sex couples), by sex, England and Wales, 2004 to 2014

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Why are the proportions so different between men and women? Simply, men tend to marry younger women. More than half (56%) of men aged 65 and over who tied the knot in 2014 married a woman under 65; in contrast, only 22% of women aged 65 and over married a man under 65.

Almost all (92%) of the brides and grooms aged 65 and over in 2014 were divorcees, widows or widowers, with only 8% getting married for the first time.

Marriages and civil partnerships of same-sex couples

The first marriages of same-sex couples took place on 29 March 2014, so we don’t yet have a complete year of data. But the part-year up to the end of 2014 shows that 2.4% of men and 0.8% of women marrying partners of the same sex were aged 65 and over.

As expected, when marriage was introduced for same-sex couples, the number of civil partnership formations fell steeply, from 5,646 in 2013 to only 861 in 2015. Older people have made up a greater proportion of civil partnerships since 2013.

Percentage of people forming civil partnerships who were aged 65 and over, by sex, England and Wales, 2005 to 2015

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Divorces among opposite-sex couples

In England and Wales, divorce is in decline – our most recent 10 years of data show a 28% fall in the number of divorces between 2005 and 2015.

But older people are bucking the trend. In the same period, the number of men divorcing aged 65 and over went up by 23% and the number of women of the same age divorcing increased by 38%.

To take account of the large rise in the number of people in this age group in the same period – and the larger number of them who are married – we can look at the number of men and women divorcing as a proportion of the married population. This shows that the divorce rate has actually remained broadly consistent over the past decade.

Divorce rates for opposite-sex couples aged 65 and over, by sex, England and Wales, 2005 to 20151

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Divorce and dissolutions among same-sex couples

The first divorces recorded between same-sex couples were in 2015, when a total of 22 couples in all age groups divorced.

Dissolutions of civil partnership were first granted in 2007. Between 2007 and 2015, only 131 men and women aged 65 and over dissolved a civil partnership in England and Wales. This represents 1.1%  of all dissolutions. However this analysis is limited because of the small number of dissolutions that have actually taken place.

Why is it happening?

The increase in older people ending and forming new relationships is likely to be because they are living longer.

In 2004, an average 65-year-old man could expect to live for a further 17 years and a woman for a further 20 years. Continuing a long-term trend, in 2017, this has increased to 19 years for a man and almost 22 years for a woman. The gap between male and female life expectancy is also narrowing.

Period life expectancy at age 65, by sex, England and Wales, 2004 to 20172

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We also know that older people are more connected, economically and socially, than they were before. People aged 65 and over are more likely than ever to be working, and therefore be able to support themselves outside marriage. They’re also catching up with younger people in their use of the internet – perhaps trying out online dating?

We can’t rule out practical reasons for older couples deciding to tie the knot. One of these may be a substantial change to inheritance tax rules made in October 2007, which allowed married couples or those in civil partnerships to transfer their tax-free allowances between each other for the first time.

What does this mean for our society?

In the future, people in England aged 65 and over are more likely to be living with just their partner than on their own, according to projections by the Department for Communities and Local Government.  This may be because of the large number of post-war “baby boomers” living longer, combined with the closing of the gap between male and female life expectancy, meaning fewer widows and widowers living on their own. Older people forming relationships later in life may also be a factor.

Households with a household representative3 aged 65 and over, England, 1991 to 2039

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It is possible that older people marrying and divorcing in greater numbers will have an effect on how happy we are: those who are married, remarried or in a civil partnership are least likely to say that they feel lonely. People living with a partner may find themselves spending some of their later years providing unpaid social care for their loved one.

Other Visual.ONS articles:

Unpaid care worth £57 billion Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people say they experience a lower quality of life What affects an area’s healthy life expectancy?

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  1. In 2014 and 2015, 9% of records had no age stated for the husband or the wife. Before the 2014 data year, in cases where the age of the husband or the wife was missing it was imputed using a series of look-up tables, depending on whether the age of one or both parties was missing.
  2. 2004 to 2014 data are based on unsmoothed calendar year mortality rates, 2015-2017 data are estimates based on national population projections data
  3. These projections are based on the age of the "household representative", the individual taken to represent that household – usually the eldest male.