“Did I tell you my parents are getting a divorce?” my friend Sarah told me earlier this year.
Sarah (not her real name) recently turned 40. Her parents are both 68 years old.
In a year filled with milestones — a new marriage, a major move back to her home city, the birth of her first child — Sarah wasn’t expecting this.
“At the beginning, it was very hard. We were trying to get our own lives settled, I was pregnant and trying to set up our life here. Then having to deal with this!”
What isn’t often focused on is the impact the divorce has on the adult children.
Sarah admits she’s resentful. After years of unhappiness between them, she is annoyed her parents took so long to get a divorce. Adding to that is the stress of her mother’s recent health problems.
“At this stage, it’s frustrating because I feel like my mom is not in a good place for this. If this happened in her 40s, she could have started a career. She was stronger then,” she said.
Gray Divorce: A Growing Phenomenon
Sarah is witnessing a growing trend in the U.S. A study by Bowling Green State University in Ohio shows that in 2014, people over age 50 were twice as likely to divorce than in 1990. For those over 65, the increase was even higher. The phenomenon is known as “gray divorce.”
Why is there so much of this now?
There are a number of factors, the study says, including:
- Divorce has become a more acceptable norm.
- Marriages are harder to sustain in today’s society of individualism and longer life expectancies.
- Women now work more and can support themselves outside of marriage, compared to generations past.
But often forgotten is the impact the divorce has on adult children.
Four years ago, Donna (not her real name) received news that her parents were divorcing. She was 40 at the time, with a husband and two young sons.
While her 70-year-old father was on the West Coast building a retirement home, her mother was living on the East Coast. During the separation, her mother realized she didn’t want to move. She also didn’t want to be married anymore.
The impact of the divorce was hard on Donna at first. She worried about her parents’ financial futures; they had already taken a huge hit in the economic recession. She also worried about the impact it would have on her kids.
“It was a lot of stress for me with my two young children at home,” Donna said. “My biggest concern was that the boys might feel uncertainty about the stability of their own parents’ marriage, as in, ‘Does this mean you and Daddy will get a divorce?'”
Luckily, she said, they haven’t expressed those concerns.
Terry Gaspard, a licensed clinical social worker and Huffington Post contributor, counsels people who are dealing with divorce. She said two things often happen to an adult child of divorce. One, it may make them question whether relationships can work at all; and two, it can help the adult child recommit to his or her own marriage and family.
Often, she said, the experience of the divorcing parents can be a turning point in the adult child’s own relationships.
“Many adults who call me whose parents are divorced have to work on defining a new kind of marriage for themselves and make a commitment to resolve conflict and learn coping skills, because often they haven’t learned from their parents,” she said.
Gaspard recommends these useful tips for dealing with a gray divorce:
• Set boundaries with your parents. Avoid getting in the middle, especially if things are contentious. “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, tell them to stop,” she writes in her column.
This approach helped Donna through her parents’ split. “I reminded myself that my parents are adults,” she said. “It’s not my job to fix the problem. My job was to focus on my own children and my husband. That perspective helped me keep the stress in check.”
• Get counseling if the stress becomes unbearable. In some cases, adults even become estranged from their parents. Counseling is recommended for those who feel the situation is too difficult.
• Set the record straight with each parent. Many divorce cases put the adult children in the position of choosing sides. Talk to each parent and say something like: “I love you, Mom, but I’m always going to be close to my dad. That doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
• Schedule time with each grandparent. Face time with grandparents is important. And since children are best guided through schedules, Gaspard advises keeping the door open for kids to spend as much time with both grandparents — without the drama. Grandparents get very upset when they don’t see their grandchildren.
• Practice positivity and forgiveness. Focus on each parent’s good qualities rather than the negative. And forgive. Moving on is important and helps children and grandchildren have a more positive view of family.
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• Find other tools of support. While there are few support groups to help adult children of divorce, Gaspard recommends the works of Rosalind Sedacca, whose website childcentereddivorce.com includes a free e-book and other tools and advice, including how to talk to children about divorce. For women whose parents are divorcing, Gaspard wrote the book “Daughters of Divorce” with her daughter, Tracy, and offers other resources at movingpastdivorce.com.
• Look to the future. Once the dust settles, it is possible for all family members to recover from the experience of a divorce. Today, Donna’s parents are amicable. Both her parents see her children regularly.
“We’ve somehow all found that balance,” she said. “It has actually made me enjoy more where I am in life. My husband and I are very happy in our marriage, we have two happy and healthy children, and I try to focus on that and be grateful.”
As Sarah’s parents go through their breakup, she is working with a therapist and is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m hoping after the divorce, things can be good. Mom will have her own money. Maybe she can live her life with more freedom — maybe both of them can. There’s a silver lining.”