When older people divorce, we often overlook the impact this decision has on the couple’s adult children. The disruption and pain that occurs because of this “gray divorce”—a reference to the hair color older people frequently have—is often minimized or dismissed. Adult children are treated as if they are only marginal players in an extremely significant disruption in their family life, even though they are major stakeholders in their parents’ divorce. The family they have known their entire lives is disintegrating, yet there is an unspoken expectation that it will not hurt them much because they are grown.
Divorcing Later in Life
Between 1990 and 2015, the divorce rate for adults 50 and older has doubled. Why are more people choosing to divorce later in life? First of all, people are living longer than they did in previous generations. When they become empty nesters (i.e., their children leave home to pursue college, careers, etc.), they may still have decades of life ahead of them. While couples may have tolerated each other when the children were still at home, they now cannot imagine staying married to the person they married decades ago and with whom they have nothing in common.
Economics is a factor too. Since most American women have jobs and careers outside the home, they are not economically dependent on their husbands or partners. While women may have previously had no other choice but to stay with their spouses, now they can choose to divorce if the relationship is no longer fulfilling because they have the means to support themselves.
As people age, their values and expectations about marriage can change too. In 2001, 45% of Americans considered divorce morally acceptable; in 2014, 69% did so. Many people in later life rank happiness higher than honoring the traditional expectation of “’til death do us part.”
Overlooking the Effect of Gray Divorce on Adult Children
Many older couples who choose to divorce don’t tend to factor their adult children into the equation. The cultural myth is that, since they are adults and at various stages of adult life, their parents’ divorce should not affect them. They are adults, after all, and should be well-equipped to deal with it. During divorce, parents are often so caught up and overwhelmed by their feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and confusion that they can barely manage their own feelings let alone their children’s. It is an easy relief to believe that their adult children will be OK and is one less thing to worry about.
The legal system reinforces this idea too. There is no place for adult children in the current court system. In fact, the courts see them as uninvolved. Lawyers tell the parents that adult children are not legally a concern. The U.S. family court system only has jurisdiction about the “best interest” of minor children, so the implicit message is that adult children do not matter.
Regardless of their age, however, parental divorce can be extremely stressful and emotional. Younger adult children who may be in college or beginning a career might still be financially dependent on their parents and feel insecure about their future. They wonder if their parents will be able to continue helping them financially. Those in college may worry that they will have to drop out. At a time when they are just launching their careers or juggling work and parenthood, older adult children may need to help one or both of their parents financially, which can be burdensome and strain their own marriage.
Managing extended family celebrations—births, graduations, weddings—can transform into nightmares if the parents are hostile. Their children can lose contact with their grandparents at holiday times for the same reasons. Sometimes adult children must become caretakers for one or both of their parents because of the divorce. For example, they may need to step in if a parent becomes so depressed that he cannot work or even get out of bed. Adult children may also worry that con artists might take advantage of parents who are emotionally vulnerable after the divorce.
Helping Adult Children Cope With Divorce
There are many ways parents can help their adult children cope with divorce. First, parents must understand that their divorce is affecting their adult children—no matter their ages. Then, they need to listen to what their adult children say they are feeling. Research indicates that being heard helps humans heal. Parents must also understand that adult children are experiencing a lot of losses and are likely grieving these losses. There are holiday, birthday, graduation, wedding, and birth celebrations and traditions that may never happen again as a family. Family factions supporting one parent against the other can rip apart family, extended family, friends, and community relationships, so that adult children lose some of these relationships. Grandchildren lose these relationships too.
For those of you in the midst of a gray divorce, know that your adult children may not be as happy for you as you are for yourself. You are moving toward a new life. Your adult children are experiencing losses. Most of all, avoid disparaging the other parent and using your adult child as your confidant. Your adult children have and are entitled to have a different relationship with their other parent than you do. Avoid trying to force them to choose a side. It may be your marriage but it is their other parent.
Navigating Parental Divorce as an Adult
Are you struggling to navigate your parents’ divorce as an adult? Even though divorce can distress or break the attachment bonds between adult children and their parents, there is hope and healing available for you and your family, friends, and community relationships. Your feelings of shock, anger, worry, sadness, anxiety, and grief are valid, and you are not alone. Research indicates that at least half of adult children of all ages report a range of negative emotions about their parents’ divorce, yet eventually were willing to resolve the issues with their parents.
Learn effective communication skills and boundary setting with your parents, family members, friends, and community members. Plan your own holiday traditions, rituals, and traditions if you want to. Avoid becoming your parents’ confidant. Instead, encourage your parent to talk with a professional (e.g., clergy, counselor, or therapist) to work through their emotions. Consult with a professional who has expertise in the effects of divorce on adult children and how to deal with your parents dating, re-partnering, and remarriage.
As a starting point, you might explore our new book called Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce. It gives a voice to adult children of divorce and features the experiences of adult children ranging in ages from 18 to 50 years old. All of them are in different stages of shock, fear, and sudden, dramatic change. We wanted to recognize this often-overlooked group and let them know that they are not alone, that we hear their pain, and that we can provide them with solutions for coping with their parents’ divorce.
About the Authors: Carol Hughes & Bruce Fredenburg
Carol Hughes, PhD, LMFT, holds her doctoral degree in clinical psychology and her master’s degree in counseling psychology, graduating both summa cum laude and with Phi Beta Kappa honors. She is also a two-time Fulbright scholar. Carol served for 10 years as an associate professor of human services at Saddleback College. For more than 30 years, she has assisted hundreds of divorcing families in her practice in Laguna Hills, California, as a licensed marriage and family therapist, child and co-parenting specialist, divorce coach, and mediator.
Bruce Fredenburg, MS, LMFT, has been a California licensed marriage and family therapist for more than 30 years and is board certified in clinical hypnosis. He was a college instructor in human services at Saddleback College and at the National Medical Review School in Southern California. He also created and taught parenting classes for adoptive and foster parents. Trained and experienced in chronic pain management, trauma, addictions, mediation, and collaborative divorce, Bruce helps families as a therapist, divorce coach, co-parenting specialist, and mediator in his practice in Laguna Hills, California.