Gray Divorce

Gray divorce. Silver divorce. Mature divorce. Regardless of the label, it’s happening. If you’re going through a gray divorce, your adult children will require unique processing and understanding that is different from young children whose parents divorce.

The divorce rate among couples over 50 is steadily increasing. People are living longer and better, and many people over 50 are no longer “hunkering down” for their golden years, but rather they’re looking ahead to an “extra” life stage, or towards discovering their “next chapter”. Many people over 50 want to redefine their lives and launch new, or even first, careers after decades of childrearing. 

Less widely discussed is the impact of late-in-life divorce on adult children: young adults in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s – often with their own families – who are suddenly confronted with the split of their parents and a dramatically changed family dynamic. 

If you’re 60-something and divorcing, much of the traditional “divorce talk” that couples are advised to have with their children is not geared toward what your adult children need.  “We both still love you, we just don’t love each other.” “You’ll be safe and loved and always have a place in both our homes.” “You’ll still get to go to soccer and stay at your same school.”  None of these are what your 30-something adult child needs to hear.

What is on the minds of your adult children? 

Consider the following excerpts from conversations reported by some of my gray divorce clients:

“Mom, just because we are both doing on-line dating, we are not peers… please talk to your friends, not me, about your dates.” 

Set, and respect, appropriate boundaries. Regardless of her age, your mature, successful daughter is still your child. She might not want to be involved with or know anything about your dating life.  

“(Sarcastically) Thanks for arranging a guest room for me in your new house – I can’t wait to be surrounded by random artifacts extracted from my childhood home.” 

Loss of their family structure of origin is real, and might be a source of pain for your adult child. Even though you got the favorite sofa and put it front and center in your new place, the family – and the marital home it occupied – is gone.  You might be excited about your new living arrangements post-divorce, you might feel relieved to take down old wedding photos and put up a new piece of art that you like, but your adult children might be grieving the loss of the space they knew as their family home. Try to listen to, validate and respect the loss your adult child feels as you move forward in creating your new life and living space.

“Your new spouse is not my ‘stepparent’. I am a fully grown adult, and do not want Hallmark cards from a ‘stepmother’ who didn’t raise me.”

Just because you are over the moon and remarried, remember that your adult child needs to embrace your new partner on his/her terms. While most adult children are happy to see their parents move on to a healthy relationship, it is best to let them establish their own boundaries and develop their own adult relationship with your new partner. 

“I don’t know who you are any more, you don’t seem like my Dad.” 

Growing up, you took your kids to soccer practice, fixed the leaky faucet, and played Santa Claus at Christmas. Now, you’re training for a marathon, wearing skinny jeans, and are out to dinner most evenings. You are entitled to your own adult life, as is your child. Explain to your children that you are still there for them and always will be. Communicate. Consider making time for a father/son or daughter breakfast without any significant others or kids in tow. Foster the adult child/parent relationship in present time. Share what’s appropriate and acknowledge that, while your life might look very different, you’re still “Mom” or “Dad”.

“I have two young children, and now you’re getting divorced? I don’t have the time or money to take care of my parents now, too!”

In many instances, divorcing parties live less well, and with less money, than they did when they were married. Adult children might see that their father is living in a sparsely furnished bachelor pad or mom has a walkup after selling the beautifully appointed marital home. Earning potential and income, despite how high it once was, is often diminished as people age, and this is exaggerated in divorce. 

This can cause anxiety, stress and resentment for adult children of divorce. Adult children can perceive that they are now “responsible” for their single parents – checking in, being the “emergency contact”, inviting them for dinner so they’re not alone, ministering to their health issues, supporting a parent who might be struggling. In addition, familial responsibilities can create increased demands on already busy lives: separate visits with each parent versus spending time with parents together. 

Additionally, adult children who might have hoped that their parents would help with down payments and nursery furniture now see mom re-entering the workforce and unavailable to babysit, dad not picking up the checks at dinners, and worrying about whether they will have to financially support their folks as they age. These concerns are real for adult children of divorce. Show compassion for their feelings and, wherever possible, be sensitive to any additional demands for money, caretaking or time your divorced situation is now placing on your adult children.

* * *

Older people divorcing is a growing cohort. If you are part of this group, try to walk in your children’s shoes and imagine where they might be. How might you have felt if your parents divorced just before your 30th birthday? If your parents did divorce, how did it feel? Listen closely and, if your child appears to be struggling, gently suggest that they speak to a professional to work through some of their feelings about your divorce.

Divorce is a challenge at any age, and gray divorce can be particularly complicated. While for many people over 50, it can feel wonderfully freeing and empowering to exit an unsatisfying marriage late in life, the impact of a divorce on your adult children should not be ignored. Offer your children understanding and compassion as they grieve their family’s transition. The support of a Certified Divorce Coach can be invaluable to both you and your adult children as you navigate this major transition and look to the future.

Michelle Fisher, MSW

CDC Certified Divorce Coach®

CDC Divorce Transition and Recovery Coach®

[email protected]

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