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Adult Children: Stakeholders in Their Parent's Gray Divorce?

Parents may be oblivious to the roles their adult children play.

Key points

  • The "fog of war" that divorce causes can blind parents to the impact their divorce may have on their family members.
  • What divorcing parents fail to anticipate can surprise and shock them.
  • Adult children of gray divorce can be major influencers "in the room" during their parent's divorce.

Almost two decades ago, I (Carol) was chatting with Bart J. Carey, a collaborative divorce family lawyer, mediator, and adjunct law school professor. He said to me, "You know, adult children are stakeholders in their parents' divorce." This one sentence became the seminal concept for my future work with and writing about adult children experiencing their parents' divorce.

Ron Lach/Pexels
Adult children often want to protect their divorcing parents.
Source: Ron Lach/Pexels

Bart continued, "It began like any other consult. A woman in her late 50s called to make an appointment to inquire about mediation services. We asked if her husband would be able to join us. She would ask but doubted it. At the appointed time, she appeared alone. However, as she was filling out the information sheet, in trouped two young men with the determination that spoke of a sense of mission. They were her sons. One was 24 years old, and the other was 31. They had followed her to our office.

"One of the sons was married and the father of the only grandchild. The other was a recent college graduate still living in the family home as he attempted to launch his career and pay down student loans. They were adamant about speaking with me.

"First, they wanted to be sure I wasn't a shark who was going to influence their mother to get into litigation that would devastate the family finances. They were sure she would need money because, secondly, their father was to blame for all this and would abandon her in mid-life, leaving her destitute. She needed protection, and they were going to do everything they could to protect her from their father.

"While their mother remained in the waiting room, I brought the sons into the mediation room to hear their concerns. I reframed the concerns about their mother’s future and the family's, removing the judgment and blame they were expressing for their father. I focused instead on the uncertainties and questions that their mother and father would have to answer for the entire family while developing a statement for their hopes for everyone to make the transition through divorce with a financial safety net and the family intact. I assured them that I would share their concerns and hopes if I were privileged enough to be their parents' mediator.

"This was a bit more dramatic than we typically see but serves as an example to illuminate the concerns that their parents’ divorce can raise for adult children—concerns they harbor, sometimes quietly, sometimes not, but which infect the whole family. After all, every major life transition that parents experience affects adult children. When their parents divorce, they are not in control, not decision-makers, but they have a stake in the journey and the outcomes.

"Adult children are stakeholders. Parents mostly recognize this, but in the fog of war, they may still lose sight of the impacts on the family. As former Secretary McNamara reflected, perspective may be lost in the fog of war, affecting our perceptions and judgments."

I asked Bart to tell me more. "On occasion, we get referrals from attorneys and judges. These can be the most challenging cases because the couple may have been battling over rights and entitlements through the court system for one or more years and may be entrenched in the war.

"One such referral brought a couple to our office on the eve of trial. Both were in their early 60s, married for 30 years, bread-winner father and homemaker mother, with little more than their cars, family home, and husband’s retirement. The realities they were facing supported their shared mentality of scarcity. They sat in my waiting room in unhappy silence.

"I invited them to join me in the mediation room. The wife was the first to speak. She informed me that her husband didn’t feel the need to negotiate anything because he would win at trial, so we’d be out of there very quickly. I asked her husband if this was true. He confirmed her statement and went further, saying he would ‘win everything’ at trial. Asked what ‘everything’ means, he informed me it was his car, all ‘his’ house, his social security, and ‘all’ of his retirement. Asked what his wife would have, he said her car and her social security check. How could he be so sure? His attorney assured him of these outcomes, so there was no point in continuing our meeting. I asked him if he'd give me five minutes. He agreed.

"At this point, I asked his wife to kindly allow us to speak alone for five minutes. She returned to the waiting room.

Alena Darmel/Pexels
Divorcing parents often overlook the affects of their choices on all family members.
Source: Alena Darmel/Pexels

"A couple of questions confirmed that husband was certain, despite my skepticism, his attorney had assured him of the outcomes at trial. So, instead of discussing rights and entitlements and the uncertainties of trial and community property acquired during a 30-year marriage, I asked him if they had any adult children. They had a single daughter up north and a son [clearly a favorite child] living nearby. He had a five-year-old grandson, who was his fishing buddy. His retirement plan was to spend a lot of time fishing with his grandson and being involved, as he grew up, in other sports, camping, and other activities with him. We bonded over how great it is to be a grandparent. We were coming up to the end of our five minutes, so I asked him, before his wife came back into the room, to again confirm that she would only have her car and social security. I observed it didn't seem possible she could live on that. 'Her problem,' he said.

“One more question, I said. 'Assuming you get ‘everything’ as your attorney has assured you, it seems improbable your son would not step up to help his mother. So, how’s that going to work when you show up at his house to hang with your grandson or take him fishing, and she answers the door?'

"In the fog of war, he had forgotten to consider how ‘getting everything’ would impact his son and perhaps his plans with his grandson. He quickly became open to ‘some flexibility,’ and our five minutes became a much longer joint session."

These two examples speak to the impact of parental divorce on adult children and the power of bringing their voices and concerns into the process as parents make decisions about their future and the future of the family.

I adapted this piece with permission from my chat with Bart.

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