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Divorce

How Can Gray Divorce Affect Middle-Aged Children?

Middle-aged children can experience many confusing and painful effects.

Key points

  • Middle-aged children of divorcing parents report a wide range of painful feelings including worry, irritability, depression, and grief.
  • Middle-aged children of gray divorce may feel pulled into alliances with parents, siblings, spouses, and extended family members.
  • Middle-aged children of gray divorce benefit when significant people in their lives empathize with their feelings and experiences.

"Divorce is deceptive. Legally it is a single event, but psychologically it is a chain, sometimes a never-ending chain of events, relocations, and radically shifting relationships strung through time, a process that forever changes the lives of the people involved," wrote Wallerstein and Blakeslee.

Matthew Bennett/Unsplash
Gray divorce can cause unexpected, never-ending, and painful changes in family relationships.
Source: Matthew Bennett/Unsplash

Our previous posts explained that "gray divorce" refers to divorcing couples aged 50 and older and how gray divorce affects family relationships.

What Middle-Aged Children May Experience During Parents' Gary Divorce

Here's a real-life example:

A warm July sun brightened the waiting room of my (Carol's) psychotherapy practice. My therapy dog Molly and I greeted Daniel (not his real name). As he and I shook hands in greeting, I noticed that he quickly averted his eyes downward after brief eye contact. His hand was cold and clammy. Daniel followed Molly into my office. His shoulders hunched as if carrying a heavy weight, and he seemed older than his years. He sat down on the loveseat directly across from me. His hands fidgeted; his right foot bounced at the end of his right leg crossed across his left. Molly lay curled upon the floor next to his left foot.

I began, “Sometimes, it is difficult to know where to start. Anywhere you begin is fine.”

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Middle-aged children of gray divorce can experience many negative emotions, including sadness, irritability, anger, and depression.
Source: Andrea Piacquaddio/Pexels

For several minutes Daniel and I sat together in silence. Suddenly, he blurted out, “I can’t believe I am sitting in a therapist’s office! I'm 42 years old, married with two kids. My wife and I are both teachers. We work with kids every day. I am supposed to be an adult, but sometimes I feel younger than my students. What am I doing here? I know I have been feeling depressed and irritable. My wife and I have been arguing a lot. I don’t get it. What's going on?”

"Any recent changes in your life? I asked.

“No." He paused. "Well, my parents have been going through a divorce for the past year. It hasn’t been one of those hostile divorces where everyone lines up on one side or the other. When I told my two best friends they were divorcing, one said, 'Aren’t you glad you’re an adult now? Be grateful this didn’t happen when you were 6!' and the other said, 'There's good news here. You aren’t the one getting divorced. You're going to roll with it. You're an adult after all.' I accepted what they said and assumed I would 'roll with it.'"

Daniel fell silent again, seeming unsure how to continue.

“Daniel, may I share with you how parental divorce can affect adult children?”

“Sure,” he replied.

I explained, “Contrary to our cultural mythology, when adult children experience their parents’ divorce, it can be exceptionally stressful, painful, and even traumatic.”

He took a deep breath and held it for several seconds. His chest swelled from the inhaled air. Suddenly, as he exhaled, the words spewed out.

“I found out that they were divorcing when Dad called me to tell me that Mom had been having an affair and wanted a divorce. They are also teachers. He is still not doing very well. He seems depressed and tells me he misses work sometimes because he can’t get out of bed. But he won’t get help. Instead, he calls me. He asks if I see Mom. When I say I see and talk with her just like I do with him, he asks if I believe what she says about him. I say I don’t know what to believe. I wonder if I should not be so truthful with him because I worry that he might pull away from me because of what I think.

“And Mom calls me to ask for my help with money because she has never been on her own. She told my sister and me that our dad had been abusive to her after we left home years ago. My sister and I aren’t getting along. She's mad at me for talking to Dad. She is very angry with him and says she doesn't know who he is anymore. What if Mom can't make it financially? What if Dad doesn't snap out of it and can't work anymore? My sister won’t attend family functions if Dad is there. Mom is hurt because I haven’t just kicked Dad to the curb. How do I help our kids not feel sad because they can't be with Grandma and Grandpa together? I feel pulled in every direction!"

Tyler Nix/Unsplash
Relationships are the most important part of humans having well-being, good health, and happiness.
Source: Tyler Nix/Unsplash

Supportive Relationships Are Crucial to Human Survival

Daniel's life changes, added responsibilities, and worries overwhelm him, and his lack of supportive relationships worsens everything. His best friends, sister, mother, and father focus on what they want, are unaware of how their words and actions affect him, and offer him no empathy or support.

Dr. Daniel Siegel, professor of Psychiatry at UCLA Medical School, author, and founding co-director of the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA, writes, "Relationships are the most important part of our having well-being, in being human. It’s that simple. And that important … of all the factors in human life that predict the best positive outcomes, supportive relationships are number one. These research-proven findings include how long we live, the health of our bodies, the well-being of our minds, and the happiness we experience in life.”

Adult Children Often Avoid Talking With Family and Friends about Their Parents' Divorce

First sessions with adult children of gray divorce are often like Daniel’s. Because their experiences have been like Daniel's, by the time adult children of divorcing parents meet with a therapist, many have been resisting talking with family and friends about what has been happening in their lives. Their parental and familial relationships are rupturing. Yet, they report no one understands or acknowledges what they are feeling and experiencing.

They may have slipped into denial as Daniel did. Initially, he seems unaware that his parents' divorce affects him and says his parents' divorce "hasn’t been a hostile one ... where everyone lines up on one side or the other." Yet, he feels pulled in every direction. The feelings and thoughts these adult children have repressed for months or even years often erupt in first sessions, like lava and ash billowing from a years-long dormant volcano.

What's the Solution?

Our culture must recognize that adult children are never too old to hurt when their parents divorce. Family and friends must listen to them and show compassion so adult children have the supportive relationships they need.

Copyright Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT

References

Greenwood, J. https://doi.org/10.1080/10502556.2012.635959

Greenwood, J. https://doi.org/10.1080/10502556.2014.920686

Siegel, D. https://drdansiegel.com/relationship-science-and-being-human/

Wallerstein, J. and Blakeslee, S. (2004) Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce. Boston: Mariner Books.

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