How to Cope When Your Parents Divorce Later in Life

Think a gray divorce can't hurt adult children? Well, it does. Here's why it hurts them and how they can cope with it.

When Bruce Fredenburg was 31, he learned that his parents were getting divorced. His mom and dad had fought often during their marriage, so this wasn’t a huge surprise for him. But when it was actually happening, Bruce was surprised at how shocked and disturbed he felt.

“After all,” he says, “I was a fully independent adult. I thought this news should not so strongly affect me. … I worried about how I would navigate the new life that was unfolding in front of me.”

Bruce went on to become a marriage and family therapist, and together with fellow therapist (and fellow child of divorce) Carol Hughes, wrote a guide for people like himself, whose parents called it quits later in life.

The phenomenon known as “gray divorce” — when couples older than 50 end their marriage — has grown dramatically in the past few decades. Since the 1990s, the divorce rate has doubled for Americans over 50, and tripled for those over 65. And the trend doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon.

What about the children in these situations, like Bruce? They are young adults or adults themselves, perhaps out of the home or getting ready to “launch.” How does their parents’ split affect them?

It’s not hard to find voices that suggest that young adults or adults are only minimally affected by their parents’ divorce, especially if they’re already financially independent from their parents, and “established” in their own right. Indeed, sometimes advice is given to struggling couples to “wait until your kids are out of the house” before divorcing, with the implication that the negative effects will be less.

But as is powerfully shown in Fredenburg’s and Hughes’s book — poignantly titled Home Will Never Be The Same Again — divorce still deeply impacts young adults and adults. Over and over in our ministry to those dealing with the effects of divorce, we hear from people who presume that because they are on their way to adulthood, their parents’ divorce “shouldn’t be a big deal.” But no matter how old we are, we always have a bond with our parents that, in positive or negative ways, affects our identity and impacts our own relationship styles and life choices.

Attachment theory can help us understand why threats to the parent-child relationship — our first and foundational relationship in life — can affect us so deeply, no matter how old we are. As Fredenburg and Hughes put it, “We would expect adult children to grieve their parents’ death. Why would we not expect adult children to feel pain, sadness, and deep grief at the ‘death’ of their family as they have known it their entire lives?”

Here are some unique challenges that adult children of gray divorce face (keeping in mind that every child of divorce will face these at some point as their parents age).

Worrying about your parent’s long-term care and financial stability. When mom and dad are together, they can rely on each other for mutual support as they age, retire, and possibly face new health challenges. But after divorce, their children often have to devote more attention and possibly financial resources to their parents’ care.

Feeling like your parent-child relationship has been upended. Many times parents who divorce later in life turn to their grown children for emotional support, companionship, and advice. This can be difficult for the child who wonders, Do I have a parent anymore?

Navigating family visits and holidays. Split families mean more people to schedule visits with and a more complicated dance of trying not to disappoint anyone. And it means less time with everyone, since there are no more whole-family gatherings.

Figuring out how to explain complicated family structures to your kids. In our own family, our oldest daughter has started to notice that grandma and grandpa don’t live together, and she asks questions about that. It’s challenging — and emotionally draining — to decide how to address our extended family situation in a way that’s truthful, charitable, and understandable to a kid.

Navigating your own major life transitions without steady support from your parents. Young adulthood and early adulthood are key times for big decisions in life, from education to work choices to relationship discernment and marriage. Dealing well with all these changes is hard enough, but when your parents are dealing with their own crises, or suddenly need your help more, it makes it even harder.

What are some effective and healthy ways that adult children of gray divorce can face these challenges? Habits of healing that help anyone dealing with their parents’ divorce all apply here.  In addition, there are some other ways to cope well when your parents divorce later in life:

  • Boundaries, boundaries, and more boundaries! It’s impossible to stress enough how important — and freeing! — healthy boundaries are when dealing with difficult relationships of any kind, and perhaps especially difficult family relationships. Particularly important in situations of divorce are setting boundaries for discussing your parents’ relationship issues. (You are not obligated to be their confidant, for example.) Remember, healthy boundaries are not selfish — their purpose is to help relationships survive and thrive over the long run, instead of leading to burnout.
  • Invest in life-giving community. Dealing with the fallout of your parents’ divorce can be draining, and we all need people who can listen to our feelings and help sustain us emotionally. This includes good friends, and also spouses. And don’t feel guilty prioritizing your own marriage and family, or time with supportive friends, even if that means less time with family members. (Again, it is the divorce — not you — making it harder to spend as much time with family.)
  • Seek out mentors with marriages you admire. One of the worst consequences of having your parents divorce later in life is that it can cause doubt and anxiety to creep in about your relationships and whether “happily ever after” is even possible. It is so helpful to find people who have made it — to learn from and just to have in your corner. For us personally, Dan’s long-married grandparents were a beautiful example of love lasting; even after their passing they continue to give us a model to strive after. And we find in our regular married couple’s group the peer support we crave to keep battling through difficulties.

It’s certainly not easy when your parents divorce later in life. It’s a real loss, worthy of being grieved. We hope that anyone who finds themselves in this situation will also find the support — and especially the supportive people — they need to move forward with greater peace and joy.

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