You’re Not a Kid Anymore. So Why Does Your Parents’ Divorce Suck So Much?
“I was really angry when my parents got divorced,” Dina tells us. Her parents split up in their fifties after 25 years of marriage and when Dina was in college. “If I could go back in time and choose, then I would 100 percent want them to split up when I was 5 years old instead.” Even though Dina was technically an adult when her parents called it quits, she says that the timing of the divorce really affected her.
“If they had split up when I was younger, would all of that resentment that they had towards each other have had time to develop? Probably not. I think if they’d just gotten divorced earlier then it would have led to a much more peaceful rest of our lives, for all of us,” she adds.
Dina is part of a growing population of adult children dealing with their older parents’ divorce. Because although the overall rate of divorce in the United States has declined over the last 20 years, the divorce rate for people over 50 is actually on the up. Dubbed “gray divorce,” the National Center for Health Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau reveals that the divorce rate has doubled for Americans over 50, and tripled for those over 65.
Why gray divorce is becoming increasingly common
Paulette Rigo, a certified divorce coach and author of Better Divorce Blueprint, tells us that one third of her client roster is in their late fifties to early seventies. “There are a few reasons why gray divorce is on the rise,” she says. “The first is that the stigma surrounding divorce in general is softening—it’s a little bit less controversial. Another reason is people's life expectancy and the quality of life you can have as you get older is improving—many people at 50 realize that they have another 40 or 50 years left, and they don’t want to be miserable or keep pretending.” The third reason, Rigo tells us, is the rationale. “The excuse of staying together for the children is less of a valid excuse when your kids are grown up.”
But here’s the thing—adult children are still children, and when their parents split up it can still have a deep impact on them. Exactly what type of impact, however, isn’t always clear. While there has been a lot of research done on the consequences of divorce on younger kids, there have been very few studies on how it affects grown-up children. But it does affect them.
(One notable and recent study worth mentioning is from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. Their paper, The Roles of Gray Divorce and Subsequent Repartnering for Parent-Adult Child Relationships looked at 16 years of data for 920 subjects who reported a divorce at age 50 or older with biological children at least 25 years old at the time. What they found was that fathers and mothers react to the break-up very differently. Specifically, mothers increase their involvement with their adult children; they are twice as likely to have more frequent contact with their adult children after a late divorce than they did before. Men, on the other hand, become less involved with their kids.)
Divorce can still be traumatic for older kids
“It can be shocking,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. While Dina wished that her parents had split up earlier because it would’ve saved her family years of heartache, many other children of gray divorce are totally blindsided by the announcement.
“Because they are adults, they feel they should handle it better than if they were kids,” Dr. Hafeez explains. “They may be reluctant to talk to friends or seek help from a therapist and even be in denial themselves about how much this is affecting them mentally.”
But the psychologist stresses that although the circumstances and sentiments may be a bit different, the emotions are just as raw. “The reality is that adult children can hurt from divorce just as kids can.”
In one of her cases that settled last week, Rigo shares how the grown-up children struggled with the proceedings. “The husband is in his seventies, the wife is in her sixties and the kids are in their thirties and forties. The kids are taking it really badly—they feel like they should take sides and that there was so much secrecy. They resent their parents for not sharing and keeping a lot of [the marriage troubles] to themselves.”
Feelings of betrayal and deception are common reactions from adult children when it comes to gray divorce, says Catherine Richardson, LPC, at Talkspace. “They may feel deceived—wondering if the years of happy memories were a lie.”
And it can be even trickier when one of those happy memories—the marital home—is sold, something that almost always happens for financial reasons, says Rigo. “There are many other assets too, but that’s typically the most emotional one and the kids are devastated.” Because unlike when parents get divorced when kids are younger, gray divorce often means that the children spent decades in the home. “The kids really feel a deep sense of grieving and loss and sadness because of it.”
Adult children are still children
Another unique circumstance of gray divorce is that the children may be privy to more information, since their parents view them as grown-ups and think that they can confide in them.
“As an adult, I think your parents think that they can talk to you in more detail about all of these problems and that you can understand or commiserate, but really it just makes you feel unstable because you’re supposed to go to your parents for advice and guidance and not the other way around,” shares Sara, whose parents divorced when she was in her late twenties.
This is one of the biggest mistakes that Rigo sees in her practice when it comes to gray divorce. “They start to think of their adult children as confidants or they start asking them for advice. But adult children are still children—it's really hard for them to hear all that ugly, messy, confidential stuff. You should never use your children as a therapist, a mental health practitioner or a coach,” she adds.
This can get particularly problematic when financial considerations are discussed. While a 10-year-old likely won’t think too much about the financial implications of her parent’s split, it often becomes front of mind for adult children. And in gray divorces, there are typically more assets—and more complications—involved. When two people split up after decades of creating a life together, how do those assets get divided? What happens with wills, health care, proxy power of attorney? If a parent remarries, what does that mean for the child’s inheritance?
“[Adult children] may also feel the burden of having to take care of the more vulnerable parents as if the parent were the child,” adds Dr. Hafeez.
Sara recalls how after the divorce, when her mother turned 60, there was no one to throw a birthday party for her because that had been her dad’s role in the past. She felt that the burden of organizing a large event landed on her when she didn’t have the budget to do so. “And then I worry about the future,” she adds. “My dad is 100 times more financially stable and is already retired. Whereas my mom had to start over career wise after the divorce. I worry about my mom not being able to retire anytime soon or if she’ll have enough money when she needs extra care when she’s old.”
However, the logistics of gray divorce are typically less disruptive to an adult child—there’s no back-and-forth between two different houses, for example, and no shuffling between homes on the holidays. And in some ways, gray divorces are more clean-cut.
When Michael’s parents divorced after 35 years of marriage, he was shocked by just how immediately the bond between them was severed. “I was surprised how quickly our family dynamic changed and how little they spoke to one another after signing the papers,” he shares. “I don't think I really understood that they wouldn't really speak to each other unless absolutely necessary. But that’s exactly what happened.”
How adult children can successfully navigate their parents’ divorce
Whatever the circumstances of your parent’s split, it can be a tricky situation to manage. Here are some tips from mental health experts that can help.
- “Be neutral like Switzerland unless you really feel one parent is to blame as in the case of cheating, physical or emotional abuse,” advises Dr. Hafeez. “Otherwise, state upfront to both parents in their presence that you will be there for support but that you will not be caught in the middle as a referee.”
- Children should plan on inviting both parents to family events so that one parent doesn’t feel excluded. But make sure you let them know that they are both invited, especially if the divorce is too new to have them be in the same room together, says Dr. Hafeez.
- “Be patient with them as they learn to live alone,” suggests Richardson. “Many older adults have not lived on their own in decades, if at all. And the learning curve may be tough.”
- Encourage parents to seek support from their peers and a professional. “Relationships can be difficult to foster in middle age and beyond, but they are one of the greatest predictors of good health and quality of life as you get older,” says Richardson.
- Talk to grandkids about the divorce in and honest and age-appropriate way. “Adult children have the responsibility of not only working through their own feelings, but also the feelings of their children who have only experienced their grandparents as a unit,” says Richardson. Reassure grandkids that both grandparents’ still love them, while being honest about the things that will change like holidays and family celebrations. You can also lay out what special time with each grandparent will look like going forward (think: “grandma is going to pick you up from school on Mondays and play with you and we’ll go to grandpa’s house on Sunday for dinner.”)
- Most importantly, do not let yourself get so involved in your parent’s affairs that you are neglecting yourself, your job or your children. If their split is making you question your own relationship or causing emotional turmoil, try therapy or joining a support group for adult children of divorce.
Every child of a gray divorce that we spoke with had the same sentiment: It doesn’t matter if you’re 8 or 38—when your parents split up, it just sucks. As such, it’s important to give yourself the time and support you need in order to process and heal.
Many adult children also report that their parents’ break-up affected how they view their own relationships, causing them to question or doubt a romantic partnership.
But there may, perhaps, be a bright side to having an adult perspective of your parents’ divorce. Seeing what didn’t work in their marriage can help you do things differently in your own relationship. “That’s the flip side of it, I guess. That I feel like it’s a priority for me to not put my kids through the same thing,” says Dina.