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Gray Divorce Can Impact Adult Children in Surprising Ways

Part 3: Tips to help you and your adult children heal your pain and losses.

Key points

  • Having an amicable and supportive parental unit can help adult children maintain a sense of family.
  • Keeping the focus on the adult children during celebratory events helps family members continue to feel connected.
  • Nurturing the parent-adult child relationship after a gray divorce can help the adult child and parent preserve this significant relationship.

Adult children often continue to view their parents as a unit. When their divorcing parents are 50 and older, called "gray divorce," this unit can rupture and be gone forever. Adult children say they feel the burden of the changing roles, family traditions, and rituals. They must plan vacations and holidays differently. Will they need to schedule two different times to see each of you? Will both of you be able to participate in family events and celebrations, or will your adult children feel their family divided forever?

Suppose you and your adult children's other parent can be an amicable and supportive parental unit in your adult children's lives. In that case, you can help mitigate the pain and losses all of you are experiencing, and everyone can enjoy family events.

Make your adult children's celebratory events about them, not you

Often divorcing or divorced parents who are still hurt and angry with each other ruin celebrations for their adult children. Jerome (not his real name) shared his story with me. He graduated from college two years before his parents' acrimonious divorce began. He was worried about his brother Malik's upcoming graduation from college.

Jerome sat erect on the sofa in my office and flailed his arms like a drowning man. He was crying and shouting at the same time. "Why can't our parents just be civil this one day? But, no! They are complaining about where each will sit and asking why it was necessary to have photos taken of my brother and them together. They even asked, 'Doesn't Malik know how much we dislike each other?' Like Malik's graduation was about them and not about Malik! Why can't they put their anger and hatred aside and celebrate their son's accomplishment?"

Imagine sharing a future happy event with your adult children

Constance Ahrons writes that it can be a powerful intervention to ask co-parents to imagine some years ahead and envision a future event like a graduation or a wedding of their children and ask them how they will participate in that shared happy occasion. Her research found that even 20 years after the divorce, when children were grown and many had their own children, they still wanted their parents to get along. Most wanted to share special family occasions with both parents and extended kin.

Ahrons writes that when parents continue battling or denigrating each other, children are likely to withdraw from relationships with one or both parents. It's not the divorce per se, but the behavior and the quality of the co-parenting relationship that continues to echo throughout the family system.

Parents fall in love and create a family together. The family still exists.
Source: RWMC95HRC0/StockSnap

Even if your separation and divorce were rancorous, remember that you once fell in love and created a family together. That family still exists, even though you are divorced. Rather than allowing tension, resentment, and anger to harden like drying cement and become the landscape of your family, set a goal that you will both attend family celebrations like graduations, birthdays, weddings, and grandchildren's performances. Dance together at your adult children's weddings. Sit with the other family members, so your adult children can feel a sense of family. Giving your family this gift can contribute to everyone's enjoyment and healing.

Nurture your parent-adult child relationship

Remember, you will always be the parent, and your adult child will always be your child. You are divorcing your spouse, not your adult child. During and after divorce, many parents forget this. They move on with their lives, oblivious to how the divorce affects their adult children. Many parents focus more on their pain and fear or happiness in their new lives, starting new relationships, and moving away. They forget to nurture their relationship with their adult children.

The parent-child relationship is forever. Assure your adult children that you still want one-on-one time with them so that they know that you value your relationship with them. Avoid creating a situation like the one Amelia (not her real name) shares.

"I was 24 and working at my first job after college when Mom and Dad divorced. Mom left New York and moved 60 miles away, saying that she needed to start her new life and get far away from Dad and her old life here. She was completely focused on herself. I felt kicked to the curb, invisible, and unimportant to her! She never even acknowledged that I still existed! I felt so alone, isolated, amid the trail of wreck and ruin of their 25-year marriage. I had become part of her 'old life.' I thought, 'Great, this is home?' I was in shock and very sad. I remember reading a poem by the American poet Robert Frost where he said, 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.' I sure didn't feel like she would welcome me in her new home! I felt alone."

Family therapy can help

When family members feel pain and loss, they often don't know what to do and disconnect from each other. The losses can continue growing for everyone—for you, your adult children, and your entire extended family—grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Healing and positive familial connections feel better than pain. Offer to attend family therapy with your adult children and extended family before, during, or after your divorce, which will provide a setting for everyone to hear others' concerns and for your family to begin healing.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

ⓒ Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT, 2022


Ahrons, C.R."Family Ties After Divorce: Long-Term Implications for Children," Family Process 46 (2007): 62, doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2006.00191.x.

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