The Impact of Gray Divorce on Adult Children

Today, “gray divorce,” or the phenomenon of older couples seeking to end a long-term marriage, has become increasingly relevant. Changing social norms, longer life expectancies, and a willingness to look beyond a marriage that is no longer happy or fulfilling have fueled a new wave of divorce in older adults. 

While this new social trend allows older adults to find happiness and even new partners in their later years, it does leave a significant demographic behind: their children. 

If you are the adult child of a divorcing older couple, you may be feeling your own sense of loss. These people are your history. They are the grandparents of your children. And yet, society and even the legal landscape have all but forgotten your feelings on the matter. How can you and your parents navigate a divorce that considers the whole scope of the family’s loss so you can all find closure and create a new meaningful way of being “family”? 

Society tends to overlook adult children in divorce 

When older people divorce, we often overlook the impact this tough 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, 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. And in 2022, that climbed up to 81%. Many people in later life rank happiness higher than honoring the traditional marriage 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. Couples divorcing with adult children often think their children will 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 of divorce do not matter.

Regardless of their age, however, parental divorce can be extremely stressful and emotional for adult children.

Want some help for your parents who may be trying to navigate divorce at an older age? We can help answer questions.

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.

Possible psychological effects of gray divorce on adult children

While it’s been well-researched that children suffer a variety of effects from their parents’ divorce, little has been studied regarding the psychological effects divorce has on adult children of divorce, particularly when parents are older and have been married a long time. 

A recent study entitled Attitudes of Marriage and Divorce in Adult Children of Gray Divorce by Walden University attempted to do just that. Depending on the age of the adult child, the effects of gray divorce can mirror some of those of younger children, often opening their eyes to the realities of marriage and even altering their own desire to marry in the future. 

But adult children also often take on the added burden of worries, concerns, and responsibilities for their parents and extended family in these situations. These can include

  • Family stability: Adult children of gray divorce often experience a profound sense of instability in the family structure during their parents’ divorce and feel the need to maintain it for themselves and their children.
  • Role reversal: Adult children often find themselves in a type of role reversal, providing emotional support and even financial assistance to their parents during the divorce process. 
  • Concerns about financial stability: Adult children can become concerned about their parents’ long-term financial stability as divorced individuals and how they will navigate their financial future independently. There may also be concerns about their inheritance or their children’s.
  • Concerns about their own emotional well-being: Adult children may feel a sense of grief and loss over the family history they treasured and how this divorce will impact the future of their own family. 
  • Concerns about marriage and personal relationships: Watching their parents' marriage dissolve can even lead some adult children to reassess their views on marriage and long-term relationships. If it could happen to their parents, it could happen to anyone, including them. 

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 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 holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings, 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.

Tips for handling family gatherings after gray divorce

Navigating family gatherings after a gray divorce will require an extra dose of sensitivity, honest communication, and flexibility, especially if any new relationships have developed after the divorce. 

Create new traditions

Your parents’ divorce may have upended many beloved and well-established traditions. This may be the time for you to step in and create new traditions that will consider these new family dynamics. When creating these new traditions, try to maintain a supportive atmosphere so everyone can enjoy their time together and not feel uncomfortable or pressured to take sides. 

Strive for open communication

Communicate plans well in advance, and set expectations clearly when planning a family gathering after your parents’ divorce. Whether this means discussing who will be in attendance or even if new partners will be there, honest and open communication is key, remembering that many emotional touchpoints may get triggered.

Give thought to logistical concerns

When making family plans, make sure both of your parents can spend quality time with you and the rest of the family. If both parents live in separate locations, make travel plans and accommodations as fair as possible. If your parents can’t yet be together in the same place, make plans to spend time with each other at separate times and locations.

Tread carefully with new partners

The time may come when one of your parents asks to bring a date to a family gathering. Before you agree, make sure that everyone is comfortable with that. It simply may be awkward and not yet the right time. Your decision should consider everyone’s best interests, if possible. 

Establish clear boundaries

You’ll want to maintain a peaceful environment during these gatherings. As such, you will want to establish clear boundaries and expectations around any sensitive topics that might come up. Have a “Plan B” in your back pocket that allows family members to take a break, and let cooler heads prevail if any conflicts do arise. Speak privately to anyone who can’t seem to play by the rules, and be clear about the consequences.

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 are 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 traditions and rituals 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 the book Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce. Written by expert advisors Carol Hughes and Bruce Fredenburg, it gives 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. Authors Hughes and Fredenburg wanted to recognize this often-overlooked group and let them know that they are not alone and that coping solutions are available for adult children struggling with their parents’ divorce.


How can an adult child of a gray divorce protect themselves financially from the impact of the divorce?

You may not have been actively involved in your parents’ divorce, but you might be indirectly affected financially. During the divorce, your parents’ assets were divided between them, and they’re now maintaining separate households and living costs. One may also be paying spousal support to the other. Wills, trusts, beneficiary designations, and any other estate planning efforts also had to be reconsidered as divorced individuals. 

If you’re in college or still financially dependent on your parents in some way, divorce could also affect their ability to provide continuing financial support to you. You may need to explore other options, such as financial aid, or find other alternatives to pay for other transitional needs. 

It may be a difficult conversation to have, but it’s important to have this information as an adult child so you can adjust your expectations, understand how it can affect your financial life, and help you prepare for the future. You may want to get the help of a financial advisor to get professional advice, given the new family dynamic.

What are some tips for adult children who need to set new boundaries with their divorced parents?

When you’re an adult child dealing with your parents’ divorce, establishing clear boundaries will be a delicate balance, but it’s essential if you want to maintain a healthy and respectful relationship. Here are some things you should consider when establishing boundaries with your parents after their divorce.

  • Know your own needs and limitations. Although you want to be there for your parents, you also have your own life. How will you address it if they try to drag you into their disputes and want you to side with them? If they show up on your doorstep at dinnertime? If they call you 20 times a day with a new grievance? How much time and emotional support can you offer without feeling personally overwhelmed?
  • Communicate this sensitively yet assertively with them to avoid any misunderstandings. Don’t blame, but use “I” statements. For instance, “I want to have a happy relationship with both of you, so I can’t get involved in your fights.”
  • Stay consistent and fair with both parents, and don’t engage in conversations that appear to be taking sides. 
  • Be flexible, and offer alternatives. If one of your parents wants to spend time with you or needs your help but you have other commitments, suggest another time or another way to help.
  • Don’t be their messenger. When you relay messages or share information, you place yourself right in the middle of their conflict. 
  • Keep focused on your well-being. Setting boundaries with a parent can feel awkward, and as their child, you might feel guilty when you have to say no or refuse to get caught up in their disputes. But they are adults, and you can’t be responsible for managing their emotions or their problems. 

How can an adult child of gray divorce preserve independence if they find themselves in a caretaker role?

Being a parent’s caretaker is difficult enough, but when that’s been preceded by a divorce in later life, it can be even more challenging. Trying to preserve your independence while supporting an older parent can be a fine line. Consider these ideas.

  • Know your limits, and share them with your parents and other family members. After all, you won’t be the best caregiver if you’re depleting your own resources.
  • Know your parent’s financial, living, and daily care needs and expectations. This information can help you determine if you can realistically meet them or need to explore other arrangements. 
  • Set boundaries. Be clear about what you can do physically and financially so it doesn’t compromise your own life. 
  • Maintain interests and a social life outside your caregiver role. 
  • Get help from family. Coordinate with other family members and discuss how each can contribute.
  • Get help from public agencies. Utilize community organizations that support aging individuals.
  • Encourage your parents to get financial advice. That way, both you and they will understand their financial options.
  • If your parent is struggling emotionally, encourage them to get mental health support. This helps prevent you from becoming their sole support. 

Caring for a parent after a divorce and trying to maintain your own independence can be a balancing act. Finding that sustainable balance ensures that both of you will get your needs met while maintaining a loving parent/child relationship. 


Attitudes of Marriage and Divorce in Adult Children of Gray Divorce. Walden University.
Brenan, Megan. Americans Say Birth Control, Divorce Most 'Morally Acceptable'. (June 2022). Gallup.

Expert Advisors: Carol Hughes & Bruce Fredenburg

Carol Hughes, Ph.D., 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.

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 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.

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.