The divorce rate among couples who divorce after the age of fifty is soaring in the United States and abroad and predicted to triple by 2030. Researchers at Bowling Green State University have named this phenomenon the “Gray Divorce Revolution.” The prevailing myth is that because adult children are adults when their parent’s divorce, they won’t be affected.
Yet, many adult children report that the rupture of the familial bonds that ensue from their parents’ divorce shakes them to their core. They say they feel invisible, isolated, and alone. Since they are adults, their parents, family members, and friends expect them to simply “go along with it” and adapt to the family crisis churning in the wake of their parents’ divorce.
So, how can divorcing parents be supportive of and empathetic to their adult children while they start the next chapter of their lives?
Remember to nurture your relationship with your adult child.
Remember that you will always 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 is affecting their grown kids. Many parents focus more on their pain and fear, or their 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 they know that you value your relationship with them. Be mindful to avoid creating a situation like the one this adult child 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, so isolated, being here amid the trail of wreck and ruin of their relationship. I had become part of her “old life.” I thought, ‘Great, this is home?’ I was in shock and very sad.”
Keep the lines of communication with your adult child open.
Your adult child may have an idealized view of you that makes it difficult for him to integrate two conflicting views. For example, some adult children often maintain an idealized view of a parent as their “greater than life parent.” Or, due to the circumstances surrounding your divorce, such as affairs, financial impropriety, emotional, mental, physical, or sexual abuse, he may now have a diminished view of you. Remember that the reality of divorce may engender a belief that both you and his other parent are flawed.
If your relationship with your adult child is fractured, be the one to reach out to him and ask him to go to counseling to improve your communication and eventually heal and restore your relationship. Understand that it is not your adult child’s role to initiate this, though some adult children do. It is your role as the parent. Be the role model for change and healing.
Be patient with your adult child and understand that she is grieving.
Divorce brings with it many losses. The losses for your adult children are many – the loss of the constancy and continuity of their nuclear family; their parents’ love; their intact extended family and support systems of family friends and community; decades-long family togetherness and family memories; their own identity that grew from their formative years when their family was together; their dreams about future family celebrations, traditions, and rituals, including graduations, weddings, and births; their family home where they could bring their children and to share with them where they grew up; and, their parents united as grandparents.
Younger adult children often lose financial support from their parents. Both younger and older adult children may also lose emotional support from their parents when their parents become less available to them because they are experiencing their own life crises.
Grieving takes time, often a lot of time. Realize and accept this.
“You should be happy for me…You shouldn’t be sad. You shouldn’t be angry…” Feelings simply are. Likely, your adult children will not be as happy as you are about your new life. While your energy is focused on moving away from your past life with your adult child’s other parent and moving toward your future, your adult child is looking backward at what she is losing from her past and what will always be her past, not her future.
She is losing her family history, her family being together, and the future she thought she and her family would have. Expecting your adult child to be as happy for you in your new life disrespects her feelings and her journey on grief’s path.
Understand that your adult child may not be as happy about your new life as you are.
Divorce usually occurs when one parent has decided to have a new life. You are looking forward to your new life. Your adult child is looking backward at what he has lost and what will always be a loss. He is feeling pain and sadness while you are looking forward. You may have the unrealistic expectation that “everyone will get along and be one happy family.” This ignores your adult child’s grief process. Often adult children do not want to be part of a new family. Your adult child and your ideas of happiness may be in direct conflict.
Respect boundary lines between generations
Honor the parent-adult child relationship. Know that he or she may need you to say that you understand that you are still the parent and that your adult child is not your friend, your confidant, your therapist, your dating buddy, or your surrogate spouse. Maintain a firm boundary in this parent-child relationship, even if your adult child doesn’t.
Sometimes, adult children feel guilty and think that they should be their parent’s confidant, help-mate, or dating buddy. It may feel good to be close to your adult child in this way and to think that your adult child understands you. Nevertheless, resist allowing your adult child to slide into this role reversal.
Adult children report that, even if they think that they should be helping their parent, they feel caught in the middle between their parents when one parent rants about their other parent or shares the details about what went awry in their marriage, their sex life, their finances, and the legalities of their divorce process.
Avoid discussing these topics with your adult child because it assumes a peer relationship and can cause your adult child to feel unease and additional loss — the loss of you as the parent. When this occurs, your adult child can become overwhelmed by conflicting feelings and begin to wonder, “Was everything about our family unreal, a fantasy, like a movie set that is just a façade?” He may react with anger toward you or withdraw from you.
Be amicable with your adult child’s other parent and avoid conflict
In the United States and many other countries, the default divorce process is litigation, an adversarial process. It is a win-lose process. Research has found that interparental conflict is associated with feeling caught between parents in young adults aged 19-37 and indicates that these feelings are linked with weak parent-child relationships irrespective of the children’s ages. If you choose a family-focused, out of court divorce processes, like mediation or collaborative divorce, you have the opportunity to minimize the emotional and financial costs that so often accompany litigated divorces.
You and your adult child’s other parent will always be co-parents, with the emphasis on “co-.” Is your co-parenting relationship a positive one or a negative one? Some adult children of gray divorce say that their parents have no relationship. It is not possible for parents to have no relationship because they are always the parents. What they mean is that their parents have a negative co-parenting relationship. How would it benefit these adult children if their co-parents were able to create win-win solutions for themselves that would also benefit their adult children and extended family members?
Ensure that your adult children’s celebratory events are about them, not about you
Often divorcing or divorced parents who are still hurt and angry with each other ruin these celebrations for adult children. Even if your separation and divorce was 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 for both of you to eventually attend some of the family celebrations such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, and grandchildren’s performances. Dance together at your adult children’s weddings. Sit with the other family members, so that your adult children can still feel a sense of family. Giving your family such a gift can go a long way toward healing.
Adapted from HOME WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN by Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg with permission of Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright © 2020 by Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg.