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How Gray Divorce Affects Adult Children

Adverse childhood experiences affect children even into adulthood.

Key points

  • Adult children of gray divorce may feel a wide range of emotions, depending on whether their parent-child relationship is positive or negative.
  • Adult children of gray divorce may feel sad, afraid, happy, unsafe, relieved, worried, anxious, depressed, unloved, lonely, and angry.
  • Some adult children of gray divorce who have painful relationships with their parents may feel relieved and want to begin healing their trauma.
Source: Alex Green/Pexels
Laina feels a wide range of emotions.
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

This post is the third in a series about why some adult children of gray divorce may be sad, relieved, and happy when their parents divorce. Read parts 1 and 2.

For the past three decades, a worldwide phenomenon has been occurring. It is called "gray divorce." The divorce rate for couples 50 and older has doubled, and researchers predict it will triple by 2030. The children of these divorcing couples are the adult children of gray divorce.

Laina's Story

Laina is an intelligent, articulate, and athletic 20-year-old first-generation American of Haitian descent. She sat on the loveseat across from me, gently stroking the silky ears of my yellow Labrador therapy dog, Friede, whose head lay in her lap. Laina turned her gaze to me. Her intense brown eyes connected with mine, and she began.

"I love my parents. I am a college sophomore majoring in biology because I want to be a pediatrician. I have a partial scholarship to play soccer and have a part-time job at the college bookstore. I live at home to save money for medical school. Dad is the kindest person I know. He is a senior vice president at a company in the outdoor industry, who worked his way up from the bottom, you know. My sister is 24, has a 2-year-old son, and works as a bank teller. Mom is a high school physical education teacher.

"When I was growing up, I heard Mom constantly berating Dad for not earning enough money. She's the type who always wants the designer this and that. Only the best for her! We are middle- or upper-middle-class, but it's never enough for her. For years, I have overheard Dad begging her to curtail her spending, but she doesn't.

"I remember Mom saying cruel things to my cousins at family gatherings. I always felt bad for them. None of the family members ever said anything to Mom when she did that. The room would just go quiet. Later, I often heard Dad talking with her in private, trying to get her to have empathy for them, but she never changed. She belittled my sister, too, and sometimes said things that made me feel like I was a disappointment to her. Growing up, I often felt nauseous, had no appetite, had trouble sleeping, and I still do when she hurts me. She has a mean streak, you know. "

She paused and politely asked, "Should I keep going?"

"Of course," I replied. "You're doing great."

"Several months ago, Dad told her he wanted a divorce. He's 56, and I think he had had enough of her criticizing him. It just seemed like he could never do enough to please her, no matter how hard he tried. He moved into an apartment. I love my dad, so, of course, I spend time with him. Mom is furious that I see Dad. She wants me to be as mean to him as she has been. The other day, I came home to find my stuff in the front yard. She said, 'Since you are siding with him, I'm kicking you out.' Then she said, 'By the way, you can forget me paying anything toward your college. And your father won't pay either.'"

Laina began to sob. Friede, who had been snuggling against one of Laina's feet, stood and put her head in Laina's lap again. Between wiping away her tears, Laina stroked Friede's head.

She continued between sobs, "It felt like a cannonball blew a hole through me, and I was scared! How would I be able to finish college and medical school? I'm not siding with anyone. I love both parents, but I'm afraid of Mom and don't feel as close to her as to Dad. How could she be so cruel? I called Dad, crying, and told him what had happened. He assured me he would continue to pay for my college. He said I could move into the apartment with him, which I did. I feel safe with him, like I can breathe again. I'm not worried about the next mean thing Mom will say or do."

She fell silent. I thought she needed a break after recounting such painful experiences. She and I sat quietly.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

In my last post, I wrote about adverse childhood experiences, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as "potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood." ACEs can impact childhood health and development in childhood and subsequently negatively affect health and well-being throughout the lifespan.

During childhood and adolescence, Laina experienced emotional and mental abuse. Her mother belittled, ridiculed, and blamed her and spoke angrily, aggressively, and cruelly to her, her father, her sister, and extended family members. Her mom's ultimate cruelty was throwing Laina and her possessions out of the family residence.

Laina begins her healing journey.

After a few minutes, Laina's breathing became slow and calm. She continued, "I've read about how children view themselves through the interaction with their parents. I know that growing up with a parent like Mom has affected me. I'm almost addicted to overachieving because I could never please her. Even though I am a straight-A student, I feel inferior and insecure because that's how I feel with her, and I have trouble trusting people.

"After all these years, I've finally talked with Dad about this. He was shocked. He traveled a lot for his job and said he assumed because Mom was a teacher, she treated me well. I want to be able to change the things about me that came from how Mom treated me, but I don't know where to start. Can you help me?"

I replied, "I would be honored to help you."

Therapy can help.

If you experienced adverse childhood experiences and want to begin therapy to heal, find a therapist who offers trauma-focused approaches like EMDR and Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

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

Copyright 2022 Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D.


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