- People over age 50 are divorcing in high numbers, which can be difficult for their adult children.
- Common pitfalls for divorcing parents include failing to acknowledge their child's grief and creating an adversarial relationship with their ex.
- Acknowledging the impact of a later-life divorce on adult children can heal and enrich family relationships.
For more than three decades, gray divorce has created a seismic shift in families worldwide. Whether couples are splitting because divorce is now more acceptable, their children have left the nest, or they want different things out of life, later life divorce is an undeniable reality for couples.
But gray divorce doesn’t just affect the couple; it can impact three (or even four!) generations, extended family, and friends. And the adult children of the couple are often left reeling without the support, help, or empathy they need.
This post, and the one to follow, will describe common pitfalls and offer you solutions if you are divorcing and have adult children, so you can minimize the pain that accompanies divorce and preserve your valuable family relationships.
Pitfall #1: Failing to Understand How Your Divorce Affects Your Adult Children
Parents often underestimate how their divorce impacts their adult children because the prevailing myth is that their divorce won't affect them since their children are adults. Adult children tell a different story. They report that the rupture of the familial bonds that ensue from their parents’ divorce shakes them to their core, and they feel invisible, isolated, and alone. Since they are adults, their parents, family members, and friends expect them to “roll with it” and adapt to the family crisis churning in the wake of their parents’ divorce.
Listen without judgment to understand and acknowledge what your children tell you they are feeling and experiencing. Avoid telling them what you think they should feel.
Pitfall #2: Ignoring that Your Adult Children Are Grieving
Divorce brings with it many losses. Your adult children and the "younger children" inside of them may be in pain and grieving all that is lost — the loss of the constancy and continuity of their nuclear family; their parents' love; their intact extended family and support systems of family friends and community; decades-long family togetherness and family memories; their identity that grew from their formative years when their family was together; their dreams about future family celebrations, traditions, and rituals, such as graduations, weddings, and births; their family home that was the family's nest, a place to bring their children to share where they grew up; and their parents united as grandparents.
Expect and accept that your adult children are likely experiencing a range of feelings that are different from yours. Refrain from judging their feelings. Understand that their timeline for grieving, acceptance, and healing may be on a different trajectory and last longer than yours. Tell them you understand and respect their timeline.
Pitfall #3: Engaging in an Adversarial Relationship with Your Adult Children's Other Parent
Divorce is stressful for everyone involved. Adult children, like minor children, proclaim that their strongest wish is that their parents will be amicable during and after their divorce. Litigation is the default divorce process in the United States and other countries. It is an adversarial divorce process that can fuel interparental conflict, causing adult children to feel caught between parents, which leads to weak parent-child relationships and tenuous well-being. (Amato and Afifi, 2006, 232)
Choose a family-focused divorce process like mediation or collaborative divorce that can provide opportunities to solve conflict respectfully with dignity and minimize emotional and financial costs.
Pitfall #4: Failing to honor the “child” part of the parent-child relationship
Your children are in adult bodies, but they are likely in pain and grieving the losses. For decades, the family unit enwrapped their formative years and shaped their identity.
You are divorcing your spouse, not your children. Many divorcing parents forget this and move on with their lives, oblivious to how the divorce affects their adult children. Often parents focus more on their pain and fear, or happiness in their new lives and moving on or away. They forget to nurture their relationship with their adult children.
The parent-child relationship is forever. Assure your adult children that you want one-on-one time with them so they know that you value them. Keep the lines of communication open and positive.
Pitfall #5: Putting your Adult Child in the Middle of Your Divorce
Adult children report that they often feel caught in the middle between their parents even if they think they should be helping their parents. When one parent rants about their other parent or shares the details about what went awry in their marriage, sex life, finances, or the legalities of their divorce process.
Avoid such discussions because it assumes a peer relationship and can cause your children to feel unease and additional loss — losing you as the parent. When this occurs, your children can become overwhelmed by conflicting feelings and begin to wonder, “Was everything about our family unreal, a fantasy, like a movie set that is just a façade?” They may react with anger toward you or withdraw from you.
Divorce in later life presents many challenges. However, there is hope. Suppose you avoid these pitfalls and use the strategies. In that case, you can mitigate the negative impact on your adult children and facilitate healing that will enable you to navigate life's next chapter confidently.
Copyright Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT
Part Two of this series will describe additional pitfalls and offer solutions for avoiding them.
Amato, P. and Afifi, T. "Feeling Caught Between Parents: Adult Children's Relations with Parents and Subjective Well-Being," Journal of Marriage and Family 68 (2002): 232. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2006.00243.x.