- Divorcing parents often underestimate the impact on their adult children, thinking that since their children are grown, it will not affect them.
- Adult children struggle with the breakup of their family and accompanying losses that ensue from their parents' divorce.
- Adult children need to set healthy boundaries to avoid falling into loyalty issues, inappropriate roles, and alliances against one parent.
Gray divorce refers to divorce after age 50. Divorce at any age is an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved. It is the second-highest stressor for humans, second only to the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, parents often underestimate the impact their divorce has on their adult children. They believe that since their children are grown, their divorce will not affect them.
When divorcing parents of adult children think this way, they can inadvertently force their kids into taking sides in the divorce. Here are ways you can avoid this:
1. Ask Your Parents to Avoid Conflict and Be Amicable With Each Other
Decades of research indicate that interparental conflict correlates with children of all ages feeling caught between parents, leading to weak parent-child relationships and insecure well-being. Encourage your parents to choose a family-focused divorce process like mediation or collaborative divorce, which provides opportunities to solve conflict respectfully with dignity and minimize the emotional and financial costs that often accompany litigated divorces.
2. Tell Your Parents You Want to Have a Relationship With Both of Them
Your parents will always be co-parents, with the emphasis on “co-.” While some adult children of gray divorce say that their parents have no relationship, it is impossible for parents to have no relationship. What they mean is that their parents have a negative co-parenting relationship. Remind them that each of them is your other parent, and you want to have a relationship with both. Explain to your parents how you, your children (if you have children), relatives, and family friends can benefit from them focusing on preserving meaningful relationships and avoiding the temptation to pull you into an alliance against your other parent. As the Nobel Prize-winning French philosopher said, “Peace is the only battle worth waging.”
3. Request Your Parents Respect Generational Boundary Lines
Ask your parents to honor your parent-child relationship. Remind them that they are still your parents, and you are their child. Adult children often feel guilty and think they should be their parent’s confidant, therapist, surrogate spouse, helpmate, secret-keeper, or even dating buddy. It may even feel good to be close to your parents in this way and to share confidences. Nevertheless, resist allowing yourself to slide into this role reversal. It is much healthier for your parents and you if they develop their support system of friends and professionals to discuss more intimate topics.
4. Ask Your Parents to Tell Family and Friends That There Will Be No Battle Lines
When couples divorce, both have some responsibility for the deterioration in their relationship that contributed to divorce. They likely ignored underlying problems or were unsuccessful in dealing with them. Even if there was a particular offense, like a recent or ongoing affair, everyone must understand that requiring children to take sides against their other parent is harmful to children, including adult children. If your extended family, friends, and community members now despise one of your parents after decades of good relations, ask your parents if they are willing to create their "divorce story" to share with them. A divorce story acknowledges the positives in their decades-long marriage, establishes that they intend to proceed in their divorce being amicable and respectful, and asks that everyone do the same.
If your parents are currently unwilling or unable to create their divorce story, and others invite you to join in a “bashing your other parent” conversation, know that you do not have to participate. Instead, you can say that you appreciate their concern, it is your parents’ business, and you prefer not to discuss it.
5. Request That Your Parents Keep Their Personal Issues Out of Celebratory Events
Often, divorcing or divorced parents who are still hurt and angry with each other ruin celebrations for their adult children. Even if your parents’ separation and divorce were rancorous, remind them they once fell in love and created a family together. That family still exists, even though they are divorced.
Tell them that rather than allowing tension, resentment, and anger to become your family’s landscape, you want them to be able to attend family celebrations, like graduations, birthdays, weddings, and grandchildren’s performances so that everyone can still feel a sense of family. Share with them that such gifts can promote healing for everyone.
If one parent continues to turn family celebrations into traumas by expressing his negative thoughts and feelings toward your other parent, explain that while you empathize that he is still hurting, you will not join in bashing your other parent. You can also ask a parent not to attend if they make family gatherings toxic.
6. Remind Your Parents That You Are Grieving and Need Time to Process the Losses
Divorce brings with it many losses for adult children: their identity that grew from their formative years when their family was together; their dreams about future family celebrations, traditions, and rituals, such as holidays, graduations, weddings, and births; their family home that was the family nest, a place to bring their children to share where they grew up; and their parents united as grandparents. In addition, younger adult children often lose financial support from their parents. When their parents are experiencing life crises replete with pain and losses, adult children may also lose emotional support from their parents.
Stress to your parents that you are grieving the losses. Ask them to realize and accept this. Request that they not judge you but understand and respect that you need time to mourn the losses, accept their divorce, and heal. Grieving takes time, often a lot of time. If your parents can support you in this way, you can avoid taking sides and being in the middle of their divorce.
Copyright Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT