Sociology Ph.D. Dissertations


Marital biography and well-being in later life: the role of remarriage, disruption pathways, and duration on health, parent-child contact, and ambivalence toward children

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

I-Fen Lin (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Susan Brown (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Karen Guzzo (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Wendy Manning (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Sudershan Jetley (Other)


In 2015, nearly 30% of individuals aged 50 and older had two or more marriages compared to 19% in 1980, indicating that a growing share of older adults either divorced or were widowed during early or midlife and later remarried. Although widowhood remains a common exit from marriage in later life, divorce to people over 50 is also on the rise. Despite increasingly complex marital biographies of older adults, few researchers have examined differences between disruption pathways (i.e., one divorce, one widowhood, or multiple disruptions) and whether remarriage is associated with fewer costs of marital disruption. It is also unclear whether duration remarried or unmarried relates to better or worse health after different disruption pathways. Using the 1992-2014 Health and Retirement Study, I investigate the associations of different disruption pathways, subsequent remarriage relative to being unmarried, and duration remarried or unmarried with older adults’ mental and physical health, contact with children, and ambivalence toward children. I also account for gender differences as the health and parent-child ties of men and women often differ in later life. This dissertation underscores the need to pay attention to older people with multiple disruptions, as they are often disadvantaged in health and parent-child relationships relative to older adults with one divorce or widowhood. The findings regarding the role of remarriage for each well-being outcome are mixed. Remarriage is beneficial for the mental health of men relative to being unmarried after any type of disruption, and for the physical health of divorced women. Although remarriage relates to more frequent parent-child contact for divorced men, remarriage relates to less contact among women after one widowhood or multiple disruptions. Remarriage also links to greater ambivalence among men after multiple disruptions. Duration also matters, but not uniformly across outcomes. Remarried men after multiple disruptions have worse mental health with more years remarried men after one divorce, indicating that duration remarried after multiple disruptions links to poorer mental health than duration remarried after one divorce. Although men with multiple disruptions have less contact with children than widowed men, additional years remarried yield more contact for men with multiple disruptions than for men with one widowhood. Moreover, women who remarry after widowhood have less contact with children than their unmarried counterparts, but each year remarried after widowhood is associated with more contact, suggesting these remarried women rebuild ties with children over time. In sum, my dissertation highlights the utility of employing different disruption pathways, subsequent remarriage, and duration remarried or unmarried to capture increasing complexity of marital biographies among older adults and to clarify its association with multiple dimensions of well-being.