How To Move On from Your Parents’ “Grey Divorce”

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

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 – with few places to turn for advice and support.

In fact, adult children of divorced parents (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.

Some ACODS may feel devastated when they hear the news of their parents’ breakup and wonder why they stayed unhappily married for so many years. Kelly, a twenty-eight year old information technology specialist says, “I wish my parents would have split earlier, I lived through years of daily battles and now my mom is middle-aged and having a hard time being alone.”

Even if they are in favor of their parents’ breakup because of chronic unhappiness or abuse, adult kids may be blindsided and grieve the loss of their intact family. Over a sandwich a local café, Justin says “My parents were never happy so their divorce was somewhat expected, but it felt weird to spend holidays in two homes after they split and my mom needed more help with household chores.”

In spite of the fact that the so-called “grey divorce” rate more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, there are few guidelines for adult children dealing with their changing family.  Many ACODS experience loyalty conflicts because they feel that they have to pick sides. Even if they don’t take sides, they may feel stressed trying to maintain appropriate boundaries – especially if their parents are angry foes.

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.

Let’s look at Alexis, whose parents divorced when she was twenty-four years old, getting ready to launch into a teaching career and deciding whether to take the next step and get engaged to her partner Tim. She says, “I don’t feel entitled to grieve publically because my mom is having such a tough time and I feel uncomfortable hearing about her feelings about my dad leaving.”

In a recent movie A.C.O.D., actor Adam Scott plays Carter, a content and successful man who decides to revisit a former counselor to make sense of his brother’s wedding and his parents’ extremely messy divorce. When he decides to confront his family about their dysfunctional communication, we witness Carter’s fear of commitment coming to a head with his girlfriend Lauren, played by Mary Elisabeth Winstead. While comedy may exaggerate real-life, this film does an amazing job of highlighting how a high-conflict divorce can result in an ACOD becoming cynical about love and commitment.

According to researcher Paul Amato ACODS have double the risk of divorce, compared to counterparts raised in intact homes.  However, 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. 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.

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.

Here are some guidelines for adult children who have dealt with their parents separating or divorcing:

  • 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 being in the middle between your parents. You can be sympathetic if one or both parents ask you to settle a dispute or expects 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 calmly and clearly. 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.
  • Strive to not let your parents’ divorce define your relationship with your parents. Enjoy pleasurable activities together and during those times you might say “Let’s not talk about the divorce right now.”
  • Maintain contact 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 have strong bonds with extended family members because it provides them a sense of family and closeness.
  • Stop comparing your romantic relationships with your parents.’ Attempt to see yourself as capable of learning from the past, rather than repeating it.
  • Face your fear of commitment if it exists and embrace the notion that commitment has to be made 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.

If you are an adult child of divorce, it’s no longer up to others to help you bounce back from your parents’ divorce. But in order to heal and adjust, you must move out of the place of being a victim and take responsibility for your recovery. It can no longer be about your parents’ attitude or behavior. It’s time for you to create change in your life and move forward.

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and where you can order her award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship.

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was  published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and you can pre-order it here.

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