In the past few decades, gray divorces – or divorces among those over 50 – have doubled. Many couples who are unhappy after years of marriage no longer feel the need to stay together until death-do-us-part, instead choosing to end their partnerships and start new chapters of their lives. But while this can sometimes be liberating for the newly divorced, the adult children of these partnerships often struggle emotionally for years, with many reporting strained relationships with one or both parents or siblings during the divorce process.
Older couples who opt to divorce may not recognize the toll that their split takes on their adult children. With their kids grown, these parents are eager to finally focus on their own needs and often expect that their adult children will not be affected by their decisions. Unfortunately, this misconception leads many gray divorcees to unknowingly stumble into conflicts and hurtful confrontations with their children, making their divorce process more painful than necessary for everyone involved.
Fortunately, there are several things they can do to avoid these pitfalls. Once they announce their decision to separate, here are six things it is essential that they try to do.
1. Understand that the news will be a shock
While couples may have seen the breakup coming for years, their adult children may be completely unaware. This news is dumbfounding. The family unit they grew up with — that they assumed would exist until the end — is about to fall apart. The reality of split holidays and celebrations, the loss of the family home, and visits with divorced grandparents is a lot to take. For this reason, parents must be sensitive to their adult children’s intense feelings and reactions to this news.
2. Validate how their adult children say they feel.
Rather than dismiss their feelings, it’s important to recognize the impact of their decisions and let their adult children know they empathize with them by:
- Listening to what their adult children say they are feeling and experiencing.
- Repeating in their own words what their children tell them.
- Avoiding judging, blaming, criticizing, or trying to convince them to see things differently.
- Refraining from saying anything that minimizes their children’s distress.
By affirming their feelings, parents address their children’s stress and resentment, which reduces the chances of encountering unforeseen, angry confrontations.
3. Proactively ensure that the divorce does not turn into a family civil war.
With emotions running high, it is easy for family members to take sides. To avoid this, divorcing couples should promptly tell their adult children, extended family, and friends that they do not want them to take sides and pit one parent against the other. There is no “good guy” or “bad guy” parent. Instead, the divorcing couple can give each adult child “permission” to love both parents and spend time with each parent separately. They can get in front of potential problems by making this clear to all extended family members, who might also try to tempt adult children to speak disparagingly of their other parent. When parents state this clearly at the onset of the split, families can avoid a scenario that can potentially damage the parent-child relationship.
4. Confide in a therapist, not adult children.
If a parent wants to discuss dissatisfaction with a spouse, sex life, finances, or dating tips, that conversation should occur only with a therapist, clergy member, or another divorce professional. Many adult children report that they feel uncomfortable and burdened when parents come to them with these topics. And it makes sense that they would be, as these topics are inappropriate for parents to discuss with their children (even when they are adults). Parents must respect parent-child boundaries at all ages.
5. Avoid asking adult children to keep secrets
When one parent asks their children to keep confidences from the other parent, they may feel like they are betraying the other parent. For example, some parents want to share their secret plans for a post-divorce life with their adult children – and then ask them not to tell the other parent. This can make their adult children feel guilty and resentful. Although it may be tempting to create an alliance, this behavior further alienates adult children from both of their parents.
6. Keep in mind that everyone involved will make mistakes.
Divorce is challenging, and the stress that it creates causes many to act out. But, when parents understand it is normal that their divorce will likely be a shocking experience for their loved ones, they can avoid common pitfalls and support their adult children as they navigate through an incredibly challenging transition.
Carol Hughes, PhD, LMFT, and Bruce Fredenburg, MS, LMFT are the authors of Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce. Each has more than 30 years of experience as a marriage and family therapist in California.