Home Will Never Be the Same Again: The Impact of Divorce on Adult Children, Hello Divorce

Home Will Never Be the Same Again: The Impact of Divorce on Adult Children

When older people divorce, we often overlook the impact this decision has on the couple’s adult children. The disruption and pain that occur 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 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 doubled. Why are more people choosing to divorce later in life? First, 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 at home, they now cannot imagine staying married to the person they wed decades ago and with whom they have nothing in common.

Economics plays a role, too. Since most American women hold jobs and careers outside the home, they do not financially depend on their husbands or partners. While women may have previously had no other choice but to stay with their spouses and remain married, they can now 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

Home Will Never Be the Same Again: The Impact of Divorce on Adult Children, Hello Divorce

Many older couples who choose to divorce don’t consider their adult children in 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 feelings. It is an easy relief to believe that their adult children will be OK and that their well-being is one less thing to worry about.

The legal system reinforces this idea. There is no place for adult children in the current court system. In fact, the courts see them as uninvolved. Lawyers tell parents that adult children are not legally a concern. The U.S. family court system only has jurisdiction over 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 on adult children.

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 become nightmarish if the parents are hostile. Adult children may 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 they 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 divorce.

Helping adult children cope with divorce

There are many ways parents can navigate divorce with adult children. First, parents must understand that their divorce affects 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 understand that adult children are experiencing a lot of losses and are likely grieving those 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, friendships, and community relationships, and adult children may lose some of these relationships. Grandchildren may lose these relationships, too.

If you’re 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. 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, hope and healing are available. 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 they 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 parent’s 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 remarrying.

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 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 parent’s divorce.

About the Authors: Carol Hughes and Bruce Fredenburg

Home Will Never Be the Same Again: The Impact of Divorce on Adult Children, Hello DivorceCarol Hughes, PhD, LMFT, holds her doctoral degree in clinical psychology and her master’s degree in counseling psychology, graduating 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 at her practice in Laguna Hills, California, as a licensed marriage and family therapist, child and co-parenting specialist, divorce coach, and mediator.

Home Will Never Be the Same Again: The Impact of Divorce on Adult Children, Hello DivorceBruce 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 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 at his practice in Laguna Hills, California.

Comments

  1. I work for Dept if corrections w juveniles – ready to retire and may divorce also . Worried over my kids will take it . Together 30 yrs . But the romance died suddenly and everything changed fast .
    Not talking – not sharing- nothing but arguments all the time .
    This is going to be hard on all of us .
    We r a close family- I did everything now we’ve lost the love for each other
    sad but true……

    1. Exactly my situation, 3 adult children mid 20s living at home with parents (me and wife) and same thing arguing about everything

  2. Hello – long time divorced mom here (10 years) with 2 children (21 & 26). I could use some help. My expectations of them being more accepting of the divorce are not matching with their on- going issues.
    I’m willing to do some therapy. Thank you, Lisa

  3. Very good article! J am struggling with divorcing husband of 37 years. Please send me resources on Gray divorce. Thank you!

  4. I was married for 30 years. Husbands addiction to social networking plates a huge part in our divorce. My ex remarried and did not let our children know. We found out of FB. Family, our friends together have pretty much dropped him. He posts on social network scripture and ways we should act as Christians. He has never shown remorse or tried to remedy any anger,sadness or depression that all of us have felt through all of this.

  5. I am divorced for 2 years after 32 years of marriage. My husband left marriage for a young coworker 26 years younger and moved out and in with her. Now he is engaged and living in a new house with her. My adult daughters, ages 27 and 30, feel like my ex and I have been acting like selfish teenagers during divorce and that no one cared about how they were doing. It is not amicable with my ex since he had an affair with coworker and treated me very disrespectfully coming out of marriage.

  6. 2 years into legally divorcing and not over yet. Married for 28 years. My four adult children will not speak with me and I’m heartbroken. No clue what to do.

  7. My wife and I were both previously married like many today are. My adult children from my wife’s side became entangled in our martial issues that could have been easily worked out. My kids hated to see this occur since they had my grandchildren spend so much quality time. My side would love us to work out but her side basically has made her feel they wouldn’t talk to her anymore if we were together. I forgive them but they can’t forgive me. My wife loves me but she loved her new grandson more. I get that… But, I feel played by the situation that makes it hard to shake I always treated her kids with the upmost respect and the only bad things I said was second hand from my wife. I’m in a no win situation my apologies are unanswered and it about their non-forgiveness that started the true break down. Nothing I haven’t tried on my part. It takes two to forgive and then not let adult children hold you hostage.

    Randy Prisco

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