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“Grey” Divorce Is on the Rise. And It’s Changing the American Family

What happens when grandma and grandpa get divorced.

If the week had gone as planned, Sarah’s family would’ve been dramatically different by its end. Pregnant and with her due date tantalizingly close, Sarah would be a mom and make her parents first-time grandparents.

But the week’s change wasn’t merely dramatic; it was seismic. As Sarah prepared to go into labor, her mother announced she planned to tell her father she wanted a divorce after the baby was born. While her parent’s relationship had been rocky for years, the divorce announcement — and the timing — shocked her. And in addition to having a kid, she also had a gigantic secret.

“When my dad came for Christmas and to meet his grandchild for the first time, everyone but he knew they were going to get divorced,” she said.

While the timing was exquisitely awful, Sarah is by no way alone raising kids in the shadow of an older parents’ divorce. While the overall divorce rate is slightly down from the ‘70s, ’80s, and ’90s, divorce for couples aged 50 or older — or “gray divorce” as it’s called — doubled between 1990 and 2010. Now, roughly one in four divorces is gray. The amount of baby boomers in the U.S. (74.6 million), increased life expectance, and shifting ideas of marriage have all contributed to the uptick. Whatever the reasons, when their parents divorce late in life, adult children have to navigate financial and other practical considerations while dealing with surprisingly devastating emotional strain.

Austin, Texas divorce attorney Janice Green and author of the legal guide Divorce After 50 said the average age of her clients rose gradually — she noticed more gray hair each year.

“I have had clients into their 90s,” Green said.”This issue doesn’t vanish at any magic age.”

Eva Sachs, a Canadian divorce financial consultant and the co-author of the book When Harry Left Sally: Finding Your Way Through Grey Divorce, said that most grey divorces are initiated by the wife, thanks to the increasing presence of women over 50 in the workplace. “With financial independence, women are not feeling that they have to stay in the marriage because they’re not working,” Sachs said.

Older women gained economic independence while lifespans rose and online dating flourished. Those conditions coalesced into a storm of gray divorce. “They see that in gray divorce they’re not necessarily going to be alone,” Sachs said.

Despite their jobs, women over 50 often face daunting financial problems after divorce. Slightly more than half of all married women leave their financial planning to their husbands. Divorce can entail financial discovery and panic. As people age, they realize that their opportunities to restart their lives are dwindling. “There’s less time to recover financially, emotionally, socially, from a late life divorce than an earlier divorce,” Green said.

With the realization of their limited recovery times, elder divorcing parents are prone to renege on financial commitments they made to their kids when money was easier. “Adult kids might have expected their folks would help with school, college tuition, or graduate school,” Green said. “They may have promised to pay for weddings or fund a down payment for a first house.”

While they can fall short of providing hoped-for financial assistance in the short term, divorced older parents can also lead to economic strain down the road. When aging parents suffer injuries or debilitating illnesses they rely on their adult children to care for them. The cost of providing care jumps when adult children support divorced parents living separately.

The divorce of grandparents also changes family dynamic. As adults cope with difficult financial questions that arise during a parents’ gray divorce, they may struggle with emotional anguish they didn’t anticipate. People generally assume that adults won’t suffer when their parents’ divorce. That’s not always the case.

“It goes to two extremes,” Sachs said. “Some adult children say ‘Yes, of course, it’s very obvious that my parents are going to divorce; we knew that was going to happen and they should be divorcing.’ They’re very supportive because they see both parents are very miserable. The other extreme is when adult children have never seen their parents fight. When their parents announce to them that they are divorcing, they’re more shocked, probably, than the couple.”

Granted, adults with divorcing parents don’t face the same problems as kids whose parents split. They don’t have to shuffle between homes or fret over visitation agreements and they have far more maturity, perspective, and independence than a child. Nonetheless, a parent’s divorce can have profound, long-lasting influence on an adult, especially when they’re a parent.

“I very much came through that experience feeling like I was responsible for everything and everybody and that I had to hold everything together,” says Illinois mother of two Jennifer, who learned her dad was leaving her mom two weeks after her son was born.

As she struggled with a newborn and tried to make a relationship she had doubts about work, her mother leaned on her for support during the divorce.

“I felt like I was a pie that was just cut up into a million pieces and passed out,” she said.

“Before my parents split, I was already at a point of very intense difficulty,” she said. “I really, really needed my parents then. And I did not get them and honestly, I think that really contributed to me thinking that I needed to make that relationship that I was in, work no matter what.”

She knew the father of her kids wasn’t the right person for her. But thanks to the need to impose order in her life that was instilled in her by her parents divorce, she stuck with the relationship for over a decade.  

Adults undergoing a parent’s divorce are often disappointed by the lack of structured support available to them. When Krista Mischo’s parents divorced after 45 years of marriage, she found support groups for adults getting divorced and young children whose parents were divorcing but nothing for adults whose parents were splitting.

Grandchildren unite families, which is great when families want to be close. However, closeness isn’t something for which divorcing grandparents often strive. In fact, the opposite is likely true. After decades of marriage, they’ve spent enough time together to know they’re more comfortable apart. While that might be the best for the grandparents, it can make other family members uncomfortable.

Emma, a mom who lives in New York, noticed that when she’d share photos of her infant son with her divorced in-laws, group text chats would become one-on-one conversations.

“They would reply to me separately and it dawned on me that they didn’t want the other person to see their response,” she said. Emma knows the one-on-one responses might be an accident but suspects otherwise. “It made me realize it might be an awkward time for them to be forced into this when the last thing they want is to be reminded of each other,” she says.

Even when divorced grandparents get along for the sake of the family, their split creates parenting hurdles. California mom of two Amy’s parents ended their 30-year-plus marriage when her first son was one year old. Her parents stayed on good terms with each other and often celebrate holidays together with Amy’s family. This was good. But it also made their relationship all the more complicated to talk about with her kids.

“I had to explain to my then six-year-old daughter that, even though grandma and grandpa are divorced now, when I was her age we all lived together,” Amy said, adding that her kids didn’t understand why they wouldn’t stay together in the guest room during visits. “I think my kids are old enough now that they are starting to get it, but it’s still a major source of frustration and pain for me,” she said.

While Amy’s mom seems content living alone, her dad has run through a series of post-divorce girlfriends, with each relationship lasting an average of three years. It’s become a familiar enough routine for Amy that’s she’s imposed a rule: the girlfriends can’t meet the grandkids unless the relationship lasts a year.

“He swears the current one is the last stop on the relationship merry-go-round, but they are just now approaching two years together, and I’m unwilling to invest much in her until they get past that three-year mark,” Amy said. “I feel like an asshole for not being more accepting of my father’s girlfriends, but this is literally the fifth time he’s sworn up and down that ‘this is it! I’m totally committed to this relationship’ only to break up with her a short time later.” 

Parents. Will they ever learn?