- Parent-child relationships are significant from the cradle to the grave.
- Later-life parental divorce can destabilize adult children.
- Adult children’s feelings and experiences of their parent’s divorce are valid.
- Parents, family members, and friends should acknowledge them.
When you hear the word “relationship,” what comes to mind? Many of us think about the feelings we associate with romantic partnerships, whether warm and loving or painful and heartbreaking.
Yet as Pepperdine University’s Dr. Louis Cozolino writes, the field of interpersonal neurobiology understands humans as individuals born into relationships. Through myriad relationships from birth to death, we develop and live our lives. Being in all types of caring and meaningful relationships with family, friends, marriage partners, co-workers, and others can alter the structures and biochemistry of the brain.
Gray Divorce Can Strain Parent-Adult Child Bonds
The term “gray divorce” refers to divorcing couples aged 50 and older.
Thirty years of research about families of later life indicates that parent-child relationships are important to both parents and children throughout their lifespan, and that the quality of relationships between parents and their adult children is associated with the psychological functioning of both generations.
Here’s an example of how this might play out in real life:
It was a day like any other day in my psychotherapy practice. I entered the waiting area of my office and saw a lone young woman sitting on the couch. She was nestled deep into the corner of the couch, supported on one side by the high arm of the couch, and on the other side by a large pillow she had snuggled against her side. Her hands lay lightly in her lap. Her fingers entwined like a supplicants, and her head tilted slightly downward.
My Labrador therapy dog Friede accompanied me and greeted Maria, offering her unconditional friendship and her favorite soft toy in her mouth. Her tail wagged in amicable acceptance of Maria. Feelings such as anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, and worry are often clients’ companions on their first visits to a therapist’s office. For most people, Friede’s presence allays these feelings somewhat.
I watched as Maria raised her head slightly, smiled at Friede, and scratched her head. Her ice- blue, fiercely intelligent eyes snuck a quick peek at me. Then, she followed Friede into my office. I followed Maria. For several minutes, Maria and I sat in silence. Friede had instinctively placed her head on Maria’s lap. Absently stroking Friede’s velvety ears, Maria sat stiffly on the couch. Her face was frozen in the wide-eyed stare that portrays shock and pain.
Tears gently rolled down each cheek and dropped into her lap. Maria seemed oblivious to her tears. At twenty years old, she was already quite an accomplished and mature young woman, attending college 3,000 miles away on an academic scholarship. Yet I could see her devastation from pain.
After several minutes, she took a slow, deep breath. After several minutes, she took a slow, deep breath. The kind of deep breath that presages immeasurable agony from the psyche’s depths. She paused after exhaling a final, deep breath. Then, one shallow breath, as if steeling herself, and the words cascaded out.
“I’m truly in shock. I can’t believe this is happening. I feel like I am living someone else’s life.”
She inhaled another shallow breath as though gasping for air. Her eyes drifted slowly downward. Her fingers stroked Friede’s soft ears as tears spilled down her cheeks.
“We weren’t the perfect family, but we always had each other. I always thought the three of us were the perfect family. We called ourselves the three musketeers. All for one and one for all!”
Divorce Creates Relational Change with Others and with One’s Identity
Maria continued, “They seem like such different people now, only focused on themselves. I feel guilty wondering how or if they will still be able to help and support me when they are both going through so much pain themselves. I feel overwhelmed, with no one to turn to. I feel alone. This is so sad. My life is so sad.
“I’m questioning everything I thought our family was. I’m questioning everything, period. Is nothing stable or constant? What else in this life isn’t real? What else can’t I count on? They are… well, they were my rock, my foundation for my entire life! And it’s gone! They are gone! We are gone! My family is gone!
“I can remember all we have been as a family, yet all those memories feel entirely out of my reach. What we were is gone forever! I feel like I don’t know who they are anymore. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
She continued, “I can’t imagine our relationships, our closeness, will ever be the same again. I feel like I need to be the strong one for them, but I just can’t. I’m angry that I am expected to support them! I was not prepared for this. I don’t know how to deal with all of this. I’ve lost my home base, my grounding. I’m sorry. I am so all over the place!”
Adult Children Experience a Range of Emotions
I assured Maria what she described was common for adult children whose parents are divorcing. Maria’s gaze was now locked on me. Her red, watery eyes were barely blinking. “Really?” she asked incredulously. “You mean what I’ve been going through is normal, and I’m not crazy? I sure feel crazy!”
Then, her face flushed red, and she shouted, “I don’t feel prepared to deal with all of this. I feel like I am supposed to be the parent for them now!” Maria’s voice grew stronger and louder. “I’m so angry! How can I be expected to support them? I’m still in college! I don’t feel like a grown-up!”
I told Maria that when parents first tell them they are divorcing, adult children often report instantaneously feeling shock, disbelief, and sadness. Everything feels surreal. They describe that their world begins to spin; they feel lightheaded. It is like they can see their parents’ lips moving, but they cannot hear their voices. They say that it feels like the entire foundation of their lives is crumbling around them.
“That’s… exactly… how… I… feel,” she said. Long, silent pauses lingered between her words, laden with the pain of grief. “This is the first time I feel understood and not completely alone. Now I have hope that I can get through this overwhelming situation.”
Gray Divorce Can Be Traumatic for Adult Children
Parents’ gray divorces can be a shock and trauma for adult children. Often, adult children never expected the divorce to occur and become overwhelmed by what they are experiencing and feeling. When divorcing parents, family members, and friends listen deeply to understand and acknowledge adult children’s feelings and experiences, all relationships can benefit.
How Collaborative Divorce Helps
The Collaborative Divorce process helps divorcing parents understand their adult children’s concerns and how to explain to them that while some things will change, not everything will. Parents need to reassure their adult children that they, the parents, will not put them in the middle of their problems. They will not share their problems with the children and ask them to take sides.
Collaborative Divorce is a family-focused process that emphasizes that you are still a family.
It is a family apart, but still a family. It is an opportunity for you to minimize the emotional damage to your family, including your adult children. We help you recognize the importance of supporting your adult children through the divorce process and the value of ensuring them that you will always be a family.
We help you schedule holidays and other family events in a way that is best for everyone. We also assist you to get your adult children’s input about how they would like you to be involved in their daily lives and the lives of your grandchildren.
Your divorce will be respectful and amicable. You will have the opportunity to create your legacy about this time in your family’s lives–a legacy that will include what will be best for all family members because you are always a family.
Conzolino, L (2014). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Umberson, D. (1992) Relationships between Adult Children and Their Parents: Psychological Consequences for Both Generations. Journal of Marriage and Family. 54: 664-674. https:// doi:10.2307/353252.
Adapted from my original article on https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/home-will-never-be-the-same-again/202108/how-gray-divorce-affects-family-relationships