Most people are familiar with today’s depressing divorce stats: Up to 50 percent of U.S. marriages fail, and about half of all children will have to deal with that trauma before their 18th birthday. What many people don’t realize, however, is that there’s no expiration date for divorce risk. In fact, more older couples than ever are deciding to go their separate ways. As a result, a growing number of adult children are being thrown into the emotional cyclone of their parents’ split.
Experts refer to this relatively new phenomenon as grey divorce—separations that occur between those 50 years or older. Sociologists are just beginning to catch on to this trend, sparked by a 2012 study that found that the number of grey divorces has doubled since 1990. While one in 10 couples who divorced then was over 50, older couples now make up a quarter of all divorces in the U.S. “We have this preconceived notion that older people are not going to call it quits, that long-term marriages survive,” says Susan Brown, Ph.D., a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and lead author of the study. “When we found this doubling, we were just blown away.”
Researchers are still playing catch-up about what the spike in later-in-life divorces means for society and for families. In the meantime, however, the trend shows no sign of abating, and adult children are oft-overlooked casualties in this process.
“A lot of parents who are in my office seeking a later-in-life divorce haven’t really done a lot of thinking about how it’s going to impact their kids,” says Janice Green, a family law attorney based in Austin and author of “Divorce After 50.” “But adult kids have longer-established family rituals and home memories than the younger ones, so in some sense the divorce can cause more of an impact.”
This includes the intangible impacts of no longer sharing family holidays, for example, or of having to meet mom or dad’s new significant other. Moreover, when life events like graduations or weddings come up, focus can shift away from celebrating those landmarks and instead to the awkward logistics of keeping warring parents apart.
Based on her experience treating patients, Terry Gaspard, a licensed clinical social worker serving Rhode Island and Massachusetts, says that the first two years after the divorce are usually the most challenging for adult children, and that women—because they typically have better emotional memory—tend to take longer to get over that trauma than men.
To make matters worse, friends and spouses are oftentimes less than supportive during the recovery and adjustment period. Common reactions include comments such as, “At least you had a family for as long as you did,” or, “You don’t live at home anymore so it doesn’t affect you.” Some adult children report unsympathetic therapists, and even parents can be shocked by their kids’ strong reaction.
Lacking emotional support, adult children often conclude that there is something wrong with them for feeling as intensely as they do. Instead of sharing and seeking help, they keep those thoughts inside, causing the problem to fester. In the meantime, school or work performance might suffer and they could develop depression, all the while telling themselves they’re overreacting and that there’s no need to reach out for professional help. “In our culture, we tend to minimize the impact of parental divorce on adult children,” Gaspard says. “So they might feel some discomfort in complaining about the problem.”