- Parent-child relationships are significant from the cradle to the grave.
- Later-life parental divorce can destabilize adult children.
- Adult children's feelings and experiences of their parents' "gray divorce" are valid.
- Parents, family members, and friends should acknowledge them.
This article and subsequent articles are part of a series that describes how gray divorce affects family relationships and provides solutions to benefit all family relationships.
When you hear the word “relationship,” what comes to mind? Many of us think about the feelings we associate with romantic partnerships, whether warm and loving or painful and heartbreaking.
Yet as Pepperdine University's Dr. Louis Cozolino writes, the field of interpersonal neurobiology understands humans as individuals who are born into relationships. It is through myriad relationships from birth to death that we develop and live our lives. Being in all types of caring and meaningful relationships with family, friends, marriage partners, co-workers, and others can alter the structures and biochemistry of the brain.
Gray Divorce Can Strain Parent-Adult Child Bonds
The term "gray divorce" refers to divorce among couples who are aged 50 and older.
Thirty years of research about families of later life indicates that parent-child relationships are important to both parents and children throughout their lifespan, and that the quality of relationships between parents and their adult children is associated with the psychological functioning of both generations.
Here's an example of how this might play out in real life:
It was a day like any other day in my (Carol's) psychotherapy practice. I entered the waiting area of my office and saw a lone young woman sitting on the couch. She was nestled deep into the corner of the couch, supported on one side by the high arm of the couch, on the other side by a large pillow she had snuggled against her side. Her hands lay lightly in her lap. Her fingers entwined like those of a supplicant, and her head tilted slightly downward.
My Labrador therapy dog Molly accompanied me and greeted Maria, offering her unconditional friendship and her favorite soft toy in her mouth. Her tail wagged amicable acceptance of Maria. Feelings such as anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, and worry are often clients’ companions on their first visits to a therapist’s office. For most people, Molly’s presence allays these feelings somewhat.
I watched as Maria raised her head slightly, smiled at Molly, and scratched her head. Her ice blue, fiercely intelligent eyes snuck a quick peek at me. Then, she followed Molly into my office. I followed Maria. For several minutes, Maria and I sat in silence. Molly had instinctively placed her head on Maria’s lap. Absently stroking Molly’s velvety ears, Maria sat stiffly on the couch. Her face was frozen in the wide-eyed stare that portrays shock and pain.
Tears gently rolled down each cheek and dropped into her lap. Maria seemed oblivious to her tears. At twenty years old, she was already quite an accomplished and mature young woman, attending college 3,000 miles away on an academic scholarship. Yet I could see her devastation from pain.
After several minutes, she took a slow, deep breath. It was the kind of deep breath that presages immeasurable agony arising from the psyche's depths. She paused after exhaling a final, deep breath. Then, one shallow breath, as if steeling herself, and the words cascaded out.
“I’m truly in shock. I can’t believe this is happening. I feel like I am living someone else’s life.”
She inhaled another shallow breath as though gasping for air. Her eyes drifted slowly downward. Her fingers stroked Molly’s soft ears as tears continued softly spilling down her cheeks.
“We weren’t the perfect family, but we always had each other. I always thought the three of us were the perfect family. We called ourselves the three musketeers. All for one and one for all!”
Divorce Creates Relational Change with Others and with One’s Identity
Maria continued, “They both seem like such different people now, only focused on themselves. I feel guilty wondering how or if they will still be able to help and support me when they are both going through so much pain themselves. I feel overwhelmed, with no one to turn to. I feel alone. This is so sad. My life is so sad.
"I’m questioning everything I thought our family was. I’m questioning everything, period. Is nothing stable or constant? What else in this life isn’t real? What else can’t I count on? They are... well, they were my rock, my foundation for my entire life! And it’s gone! They are gone! We are gone! My family is gone!
"I can remember all that we have been as a family, yet all those memories feel entirely out of my reach. What we were is gone forever! I feel like I don’t know who they are anymore. I don’t know who I am anymore."
She continued, “I can’t imagine that our relationships, our closeness, will ever be the same again. I feel like I need to be the strong one for them, but I just can’t. I’m angry that I am expected to support them! I was not prepared for this. I don’t know how to deal with all of this. I’ve lost my home base, my grounding. I’m sorry. I am so all over the place!”
Adult Children Experience a Range of Emotions
I assured Maria what she was describing was common for adult children whose parents are divorcing. Maria’s gaze was now locked on me. Her red, watery eyes were barely blinking. “Really?” she asked incredulously. “You mean what I’ve been going through is normal, and I’m not crazy? I sure feel crazy!”
Then, her face flushed red, and she shouted, “I don’t feel prepared to deal with all of this. I feel like I am supposed to be the parent for them now!” Maria’s voice grew stronger and louder. “I’m so angry! How can I be expected to support them? I’m still in college! I don’t feel like a grown-up!”
I told Maria that when parents first tell them they are divorcing, adult children often report instantaneously feeling shock, disbelief, and sadness. Everything feels surreal. They describe that their world begins to spin; they feel lightheaded. It is like they can see their parents’ lips moving, but they cannot hear their voices. They say that it feels like the entire foundation of their lives is crumbling around them.
“That’s… exactly… how… I… feel,” she said. Long, silent pauses lingered between each of her words laden with the pain of grief. "This is the first time I feel understood and not completely alone. Now I have hope that I can get through this overwhelming situation."
Gray Divorce Can Be Traumatic for Adult Children
Parents' gray divorces can be a shock and trauma for adult children. Often, adult children never expected the divorce to occur and become overwhelmed by what they are experiencing and feeling. When divorcing parents, family members, and friends listen deeply to understand and acknowledge adult children's feelings and experiences, all relationships can benefit.
Copyright Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT
Conzolino, L (2014). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Umberson, D. (1992) Relationships between Adult Children and Their Parents: Psychological Consequences for Both Generations. Journal of Marriage and Family. 54: 664-674. https:// doi:10.2307/353252.