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.”
Parents, unfortunately, usually do not help the situation. Unlike young children who are shielded from the divorce, adult kids are oftentimes ill advisedly treated like mom or dad’s confidant, therapist and war ally. But no matter what your age, “you want your parents to be that rock for you,” Gaspard says. “You don’t want to be thrust into the role of being a pseudo-parent to your parent.”
This role reversal usually includes being spoken to as a friend rather than child, with one or both parents bad-mouthing the other, sharing details about their sex life or the other’s infidelity, and seeking emotional support and advice. Adult children tolerate these difficult conversations out of a perceived obligation to their parent, despite the emotionally toxic toll it might take on them. Experts advise against this form of self-sacrifice, however, encouraging adult children to instead set boundaries with over-sharer parents. “Show empathy, but say ‘I’m not really comfortable with that,’” Gaspard says.
Adult children also feel the economic strain of grey divorces. Legal fees can run a gamut, from about $5,000 per side to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Suddenly, things parents formerly promised to pay for—college, weddings, a down payment on a first home—might no longer be possible. Furthermore, if savings accounts are drained to finance the divorce or if parents remarry into new families, then the adult child’s inheritance might also be jeopardized. Finally, a grey divorce might mean that an adult child will have to eventually assume the role of caretaker or bank account for mom or dad. “The financial implications for adult children are unbelievable,” Green says. Because of this, she recommends that young adults err on the side of financial caution when making life decisions, because family funds aren’t guaranteed to be there years down the road.
Following the divorce, some adult children also find themselves questioning their own relationships or shunning commitment. They might cultivate a cynicism about love and assume that every relationship has an unavoidable expiration date. Gaspard encourages her patients to steer clear of this negative outlook and instead try to use the divorce as a learning experience, analyzing what went wrong between their parents and applying that knowledge to their own relationships to avoid the same pitfalls.
Ultimately, she says, adult children need to be given permission to grieve the loss of their family, including time to work through acute feelings of denial, sadness and anger. Therapists who specialize in dealing with this situation can help smooth out the transition, Gaspard says, as can sympathetic friends, spouses or family members. A growing number of books about grey divorce provide solid advice, too, and some people find that blogging or keeping a journal is useful for working through their feelings.
While life will never be the same, Gaspard says, the good news is that it does get better.