Understanding Adult Children of Divorce

  • Gray divorce creates a new issue in the legal landscape: adult children of divorce.
  • Being a sounding board as a child of divorce, dealing with each individual parents can reverse parent-child roles.
  • Each adult sibling of divorce reacts differently.

"A marriage that one or more spouses did not want to participate in has ended, and while the adult children are left to pick up the pieces, they are able."

With the rise in no-fault divorce over the last 50 years, the divorce rates in older age groups find their divorce rate paralleled in its increase. This rate of change baffles many in society who have never seen lifestyle shifts at such a rapid rate. The term, ‘gray divorce’ was coined to describe divorces by people age 50 and older.

The statistics on gray divorces are not as extensive as divorce as a whole, due to its rapid growth and change, both from cultural and data-based perspective. Research from Bowling Green State University shows that between 1990 and 2009, the number of gray divorces doubled.

For these individuals, they’re looking for a new start later in life and a chance to live the rest of their lives in the exact way they want to. Their children are the ones who seem to dealing with the fallout of their parents’ decisions.

Breaking it down

By this point in their lives, these children are adults with their own lives and their own thoughts and feelings regarding life and relationships. For some, they’ve spent their whole lives watching their parents’ relationship as a pillar of stability. For others, they’ve seen their parents stay together for the sake of their children. Either way, the divorce of their parents has had an effect on adult children.

According to The Guardian, adult children of divorce, or ACODs, are a fast growing phenomenon. According to their data, the number of couples divorcing over the age of 60 has increased over a third during the course of the last decade.

Many law firms have seen a variety of reasons, such as husbands pursuing younger women, “empty-nest syndrome, and early retirement,” as reasons for pursuing a divorce after the age of 50. Many couples find that after retirement, the idea of spending all of that free time together is not as appealing as they had previously thought.

There also is a financial element at play here. Because of the build-up of wealth later in life, couples can afford to divorce and live comfortably on either their own income or their retirement funds. Additionally, the cultural perception of divorce as an institution as shifted, causing it to be no longer stigmatized. This gives many individuals the opportunity to live the lives that they want to live while they still can live it.

Dealing with individual parents

All of these various reasons as to why gray divorce happens do not factor in the adult children of the marriage. According to a study done at the School of Social Work at St. Catherine University, one of the major hurtles that adult children of divorce have to face is balancing contact with their parents, if they so choose to do so.

Because of the fact that adult children with divorced parents are not affected by custody, visitation, or child support, there is no legal issue that will affect the relationship between children and parents positively or negatively. It becomes the individual’s decision on the amount and type of contact one makes with each individual parent, creating possible animosity or conflict.

Some choose to take the side of one parent over another, due to feelings regarding who was responsible for the divorce in the first place. According to the study, the fathers tend to be the ones on the receiving end of the anger and are alienated by their adult children, as a result. Much of the evidence stems from the preconceived notions regarding fathers being less nurturing and offering less emotional support than mothers.

Other reasons for the created distance stem from an obligation that a child perceives coming from one parent. Sometimes, a child will gravitate toward one parent and distance themselves from another, out of a perceived obligation to the first parent.

Understanding the situation

Despite the issues that may arise for some, as adult children of divorce, there are positive aspects that do rarely draw attention. Some find a less difficult time dealing with divorce, due to an adult level of judgement, maturity, and skills to cope with a traumatic life event.

The level of understanding and ability to accept the situation are at a greater degree as an adult and that as an adult, one can promote a better understanding among siblings.

The risk of being an adult child of divorce is having your parents lean on you for emotional support. At first, their individual interest in seeing how their child is handling the drastic change might seem like a caring gesture, but there is a chance that the emotional support given back to the parent will unload an uncomfortable amount of baggage within your parents’ relationship, including information you never wanted to know.

Much of that need for emotional support creates a role-reversal that Robert Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, discusses when he says that your children are still your children, even when they are 30 years old. He also says that it is not the child’s job to help a family heal. It’s a parent’s job.

Beginning to heal

Healing is something necessary for an adult child of divorce, and that healing starts with processing the situation. If you have siblings, the trouble can often stem from a difference of feelings, regarding the situation. It can prevent a cohesive level of healing that everyone in the situation needs.

For some children, they can be crushed, due to the role model status being placed on the parents. This can translate into their own relationships, creating havoc in their personal lives and romantic relationships.

Sometimes, if they are younger, they can simply feel the devastation of the experience and find the uncertainty of the future as a great obstacle that they do not know how to overcome. This devastation can often lead to mental health issues and depression, if not properly helped.

Part of the issues that derive from being an adult during your parents’ divorce is you now know too much. The illusion of what you perceived as their perfect marriage is gone, and while not as bad as you could if you were younger, you still feel worse for the experience. The landscape of your life is forever different, and the small idiosyncrasies that you once appreciated about the family dynamics at home are broken in pieces.

That being said, as recently explained, a dysfunctional marriage is over. A marriage that one or more spouses did not want to participate in has ended, and while the adult children are left to pick up the pieces, they are able. Enduring a divorce, as an adult child, does not mean a custody fight or hearing about child support payments, like one as a young child. Being able to understand and comprehend every angle of the situation will give you better foresight as to how to pursue a relationship with you parents moving forward.

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