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How to Navigate a Later-Life Divorce With Grown Children

The 6 essentials that can make it easier on adult kids.

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gif animation of man caught between too marriage rings that are squeezing him, divorce, family
Sam Island
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As gray divorces escalate, adult children experiencing their parents’ split escalate, too.

However, there is scant discussion about the wallop adult offspring undergo when older parents uncouple. What’s clear are two paradoxical parenting pitfalls: underestimating your gray divorce’s impact on your children and overestimating your gray divorce’s impact on your children.

I know this from personal experience. Divorce obliterated our family when I was 23. In a panic to recreate what I’d lost, I married quickly and unwisely. Over time, my parents’ divorce allowed me to understand their strengths and weaknesses. When my mother died at 75, my father skipped her funeral, although we kids needed him to honor her and comfort us. His decision crystalized my appreciation for my mother and helped me see my father with clarity. Both insights would have been elusive had they stayed married, and I’m a more grounded adult for knowing their full characters.

Bruce Fredenburg, a California marriage and family psychotherapist for 30 years, understands the seductive assumption that a post-50 divorce has little effect on adult children. However, divorce is always hard on children — and adults face challenges distinct from 10-year-olds shuttling between two households.

Gray divorce can trigger profound psychological reassessment of family memories and self-identity. In Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce, Fredenburg underscores that complex economic, health care and inheritance issues can arise once new partners and stepsiblings enter the family ecosystem.

Elisabeth LaMotte, author of Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce, treats young adults at the (Washington) DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center. When it comes to gray divorce, she sees the challenges, as well as the silver linings. “The assumption is that divorce traumatizes children, even adult children, to such an extent that they fear commitment,” she explains. “What I see, over and over, is that divorce can deepen children’s empathy, skepticism of romantic infatuation, and understanding of the compatibility and commitment essential to long-term unions.”

Six essentials can make a gray divorce easier on adult children.

Timing Matters

Tell your children together, in person, or at least on the same day, so the news hits everyone at the same time, directly from you. Before this talk, craft what therapists’ call your “divorce narrative” — the logic behind the split — that clarifies the mutuality of the unhappiness you experienced. Own that this is your divorce — not theirs — to set an emotional boundary that minimizes the unavoidable anxiety and uncertainty.

Don’t Overshare

Emphasize the commonality you maintain with your ex, without sugarcoating the decision that you are both better off apart. Let go of facts and blame — who cheated, who tried hardest, who’s getting the beach house, yada yada. Wait for questions, rather than spewing explanations. Assess their body language. Listen without interruption. Don’t confide in your adult children. They are not our peers; seek comfort elsewhere and remain a guiding light.

Encourage the Village

LaMotte highlights that divorce can spur adult children to broaden other relationships — never a fruitless quest — with grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts, and friends. Support your adult children in forging healthy relationships with your ex and his/her extended family, including future partners and stepsiblings. Even grown children need to hear, repeatedly, that you do not ever expect them to take sides in the divorce. “No one has the right to tell anyone they can’t have a relationship with a parent,” emphasizes Fredenburg.

Accept Reactions

If children need distance, including a period of estrangement, don’t lose hope or get angry. “You cannot expect adult children to be as happy about your divorce as you are,” Fredenburg notes. Mourning the holiday traditions is normal, as are overreactions to new family dynamics. He adds that roughly half of estrangements with offspring after divorce resolve within five years. Usually it’s children who initiate, and end, the alienation. Let them. They didn’t choose the divorce. They do get to choose how they deal with it.

Don’t Rush New Relationships

Expecting adult children to embrace your new partners is another common landmine. Your kids love you, but they may not be happy that you finally found someone who appreciates you better than dear old dad. They may see your bright shiny new object as another painful reminder of all they’ve lost. They may also, understandably, worry that a new love interest threatens their private access to you. Don’t automatically include a new partner in phone calls, vacations or holidays. Make sure your children have consistent one-on-one contact with you. Let them pick a comfortable pace for getting to know the important person in your postdivorce life.

Play the Long Game

Divorce is not a competition or power struggle. There are no winners or losers. Divorce is about letting go of the past and re-creating a better life for yourself. This includes the opportunity to have even stronger relationships with your adult children.

Parenthood demands we aim high. That once meant forgoing sleep and showers. Now, it requires modeling healthy, enduring, imperfect relationships. We can show our children how to love, even when we are still learning ourselves.

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