In spite of the fact that the so-called “grey divorce” rate more than doubled over the last two decades among people over 50, there are few guidelines for adult children dealing with their changing family. Many adult children of divorce (ACODs) experience loyalty conflicts because they feel they have to take sides. Even if they don’t pick sides, they may feel stressed trying to maintain appropriate boundaries – especially if their parents are angry foes.
In fact, ACODS tend to be the forgotten ones because common wisdom tells us they won’t be as impacted as children by parental divorce. However, ACODS may find themselves in plenty of tricky situations that younger children are spared, such as hearing about their parents dating life or feeling burdened by a parent who is overwhelmed and may ask him or her for support.
8 Ways for Adult Children to Deal with Grey Divorce:
- Set and maintain healthy boundaries: If one or both of your parents is sharing too much personal information or relying too much on you for support they need to know how you feel. Or, if one parent badmouths the other one, you need to tell them to stop.
- Resist playing mediator, parent or friend to your parents: You can be sympathetic if one or both parents ask you to settle a dispute or expect you to be their counselor or mediator. But saying something like, “I’m sorry you’re hurting but I need to stay out of this,” will hopefully communicate the message you desire.
- Express your feelings to your parents honestly and calmly: Daughters in particular may find themselves feeling emotionally upset by the news of their parents’ split. According to Louann Brizendine M.D., women value emotional expression more than men do and their memory is better for emotional memories due to their amygdala being more activated by emotional nuance.
- Share enjoyable activities with your parents: Don’t let your parents’ divorce define your relationship with him or her. Enjoy pleasurable activities together and during those times you might say, “let’s not talk about the divorce right now.”
- Maintain bonds with both extended families: If you want to keep your relationship with both of your parents’ families, be clear with your parents that this is your goal. Gary Neuman, author of “The Long Way Home: The Powerful 4-step Plan for Adult Children of Divorce” says that ACODS may want to maintain strong bonds with extended family members because it provides them with a sense of family and closeness.
- Face your fear of intimacy and commitment if it exists: Embrace the notion that all relationships come with some degree of uncertainty. If you wait to make a commitment when you are free of doubts, it will never happen.
- Take your time dating someone and make sure that you’ve known them for at least two years to make a life-long commitment to reduce your risk of divorce. According to researcher Paul Amato, ACODS have double the risk of divorce, compared to counterparts raised in intact homes.
- Respect your grief: Grieving the loss of your parents’ marriage can be a long, complicated process. Don’t let anyone dismiss it or minimize the impact it can have on you. On the other hand, if you feel ambivalence or relief because your parents were very unhappy, be accepting of those feelings and don’t judge yourself in a harsh way.
Some adult children of divorce feel devastated when they hear the news of their parents’ breakup and wonder why they stayed unhappily married for so many years. Katie, a 28-year-old speech therapist says, “I wish my parents would have split earlier, I lived through years of daily battles and now my mom is middle-aged and dating after she left my dad for another man. This is very awkward for me since I am close to my dad.”
Further, many ACODs feel pressured to take sides and it can be especially volatile and painful when infidelity factors into the divorce. If your parent confides in you about negative feelings toward your other parent, you may feel torn between them. It’s a good idea to set a boundary and to say something like,” I love you and I’m sad this happened to all of us, but I can’t take sides.”
Even if you are in favor of your parents’ breakup because of chronic unhappiness or abuse, you may be blindsided and grieve the loss of their intact family. Over a coffee at a local café, Matthew, age 32, says “my parents were unhappy so their divorce was expected, but it felt strange to spend holidays in two homes after they split and my mom needed more help with home repairs. This was hard for me because I work long hours and have my own family and home.”
Kendra put it like this, “I don’t feel it’s OK to grieve because my mom is having such a tough time and I need to be there for her.” Kendra’s parents divorced when she was 26 years old, getting ready to launch into a nursing career and deciding whether to take the next step and get engaged to her partner Conner. It took her some time to adjust to her changing family.
Another common concern voiced by the hundreds of ACODS I’ve interviewed for my research is role reversal. They might feel burdened by being their parent’s confidant and feel uncomfortable if they are given too many details about their parents’ feelings about their other parent.
Is There a Silver Lining for ACODs Experiencing Grey Divorce?
The good news is that experiencing your parents’ divorce can make you more careful about whom you choose as a partner as an adult. This can emerge as your signature strength. You understand the fragility of love, yet maintain a healthy respect for commitment in your own life.
If you pay attention to the multiple factors that impacted your parent’s sense of happiness and make good choices in romantic partners, you can build healthier relationships for yourself. In fact, author Elisabeth Joy LaMotte believes that experiencing parental divorce can make you a clear-eyed realist and can enhance your chances of achieving, a successful, long-term relationship.
That being said, as divorce rates among adults over 50 continue to climb, many adult children of long-time married parents may have difficulty dealing with feelings of bewilderment and loss for a while – with few places to turn for advice and support. Talking it through with friends, a therapist, and seeking blogs and chat rooms where adult children of divorce can get advice and support can be beneficial.