If your parents divorce when you are an adult, you will likely contend with several challenges that many others do not understand. Friends or family members may say to you, “Aren’t you glad they didn’t divorce when you were six years old?” or “Come on, you’re an adult. You can roll with it, right?” The expectation is that you should not be so affected by your parents’ separation because you are not a child.
Of course, this is not true at all. Adult children of divorcing parents report feeling fear, anger, worry, confusion, and grief after learning about their parents’ split. They question the very foundation of their identity, and if their parents waited to separate just until they were out of the house, many wonder if their entire lives were based on a lie.
Unfortunately, parents also underestimate the impact their divorce has on their adult children. Many may have waited until their kids were grown so that the split would be “easier” on them. But, when divorcing parents of adult children think this way, they completely disregard how their kids feel, which, in turn, creates even more stress.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and alienated by your parents’ gray divorce:
1. Know that you are not alone.
Every year in the U.S., 300,000 married couples over the age of 50 file for divorce—and they have an average of two children. Research finds that about half of the adult children of gray divorce report negative feelings and experiences, and about half withdraw from their parents due to conflicted feelings. The good news is that within about five years, the majority reconcile with their parents. This is encouraging and a tribute to the power of the parent-child attachment bond.
2. Understand that your feelings and experiences are valid.
Despite what well-meaning friends and family may say, your feelings of dismay and anger are typical of adult children of gray divorce. After their parents split later in life, many say things such as:
- “It shook me to my foundation.”
- “My entire life, past and present, changed in an instant.”
- “I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
- “I felt homeless.”
- “It hit me really hard.”
- “I questioned my ability to have a good relationship.”
- “I start crying out of nowhere. Then I remember. My family is dead.”
“My parents stayed together for the sake of the children. When the children were grown and settled, my parents divorced… My brother was 25; I was 27… Because Mom and Dad had decided to tough it out (29 years in all), we faced their breakup not as vulnerable kids but as self-sufficient adults. You’d think it would have been easier that way… You’d think I’d thank my parents for their decision. Here’s what I learned, though: when the rug is pulled out from under you emotionally, it isn’t necessarily an advantage to be standing on your own two feet. Nothing is quite so shocking… In fact, six years afterward, my parents’ breakup still gnaws at me. No more holiday feasts… And the question of whether I’m thankful they held on long enough to undermine me as a man rather than wound me as a boy seems insoluble.”
3. Acknowledge you are grieving all the losses.
When your parents divorce, you lose so many things, including the loss of your intact extended family; your shared support systems of family, friends, and community; your dreams about future family celebrations, traditions, and rituals, such as holidays, graduations, weddings, and births; your family home where you could bring your children to share where you grew up; and your parents united as grandparents.
Stress to your family and friends that you are grieving the losses. Request that they refrain from judging you and understand that you need time to mourn, accept the divorce, and heal. Grieving takes time—often a lot of time.
4. Set healthy boundaries.
To keep yourself out of the battle lines people often draw in divorce, tell your parents, extended family, and friends that you are unwilling to participate in “good-guy parent” and “bad-guy parent” discussions. Make it clear that you love both parents and want to have a relationship with each of them, if true.
Ask your parents to honor your parent-child relationship. Tell them you want them to understand that they are still your parents, and you are their child. Maintain a firm boundary in this parent-child relationship. Adult children often feel guilty and think they should be their parent’s confidant, therapist, surrogate spouse, helpmate, secret keeper, or even dating buddy. And while it is tempting to adopt one of these roles, insist that your parents get these needs met elsewhere. It is best for everyone involved if your parents develop their own support system of friends and professionals.
5. Request that your parents keep their personal issues out of celebratory events.
Divorced parents who are still hurt and angry with each other can ruin celebrations for their adult children. If your parents’ divorce was rancorous, remind them they once fell in love and created a family together. That family still exists, even though they are divorced. Tell them that, rather than allowing tension, resentment, and anger to become your family’s landscape, you want them to amicably attend family celebrations so that everyone can still feel a sense of family. Share with them that such gifts can promote healing for everyone.
If one parent continues to turn family celebrations into traumas by expressing their negative thoughts and feelings toward your other parent, explain that while you empathize they are still hurting, you will not join in tearing down your other parent. You can also ask a parent not to attend if they make these gatherings toxic.
Remember that divorce is difficult for everyone involved, no matter the circumstances. But, if you can be gentle with yourself while also making it clear to others how they can respect your needs and boundaries, you can better navigate a challenging situation that often leaves many feeling lost and unmoored.