Adult children often mourn their parents’ divorce
When he was young, Bruce Fredenburg observed his parents’ unhappy marriage and thought they should probably get a divorce. When her mother finally told her that she was going to divorce her father, Fredenburg was 31 years old and had married.
His reaction ? “I felt shocked and almost guilty for wishing this to happen,” he says.
As Fredenburg and his co-author Carol Hughes write in their new book, Home Will Never Be the Same: A Guide for Adult Children to Gray Divorce, Shock is a common reaction to news of parents’ divorce, regardless of whether the child is 18 or 50 years old.
In the opening of the book, the authors include quotes from adult children of divorce whom they interviewed as part of their research. The profound impact of a parent’s divorce is revealed in comments such as: “My whole life past and present has changed in an instant. “It rocked me to my foundations.” “Was our whole family life together smoke and mirrors?”
The likelihood is high that there are a lot of adult sons and daughters experiencing these same emotions. According to statistics, between 1990 and 2015, the divorce rate for adults aged 50 and over doubled. By 2030, it is expected to triple.
“Even though the grown children knew the marriage was not happy, in their minds it didn’t make sense that the parents weren’t together.”
In a recent conversation with Next Avenue, Fredenburg and Hughes, longtime marriage and family therapists based in Laguna Hills, Calif., Said that sometimes the older the child, the deeper the sense of loss.
“For the youngest, they see that life at home is changing. But for adults, they see it as a disintegration of their family history, ”says Fredenburg.
Next Avenue: Today there are a lot of older couples who get divorced and who never experienced a divorce in their own family when they were growing up. How could this affect the empathy they have for their adult children who are struggling with divorce?
Bruce Fredenburg: In my experience with clients, most of the time they are overwhelmed with their own emotions and unless it is brought to their attention they may not realize that this is a problem.
Carol Hughes: There is this mythology in our culture that because their children are adults, it shouldn’t affect them. But why wouldn’t they be affected? Their lives are changing too.
Looking to blame after divorce
Is there a difference in the way adult children react to their parents’ divorce depending on the circumstances? For example, which parent initiated the divorce or whether it was infidelity?
Hugues: It is human nature to want to blame someone. If either parent has had an affair, that’s an easy target, but it really depends on the emotional maturity of the adult child in terms of their reaction.
Fredenburg: Even if adult children have been the victims of infidelity in their own relationships, it may be more offensive for them to find out about their parents’ infidelity. There is usually more anger towards this parent.
Hugues: When parents divorce, it shakes the foundations of the family. Even though the adult children knew that the marriage was not happy, in their minds it did not make sense that the parents were not together.
Fredenburg: Because the family has always existed as it has existed. You don’t know how precious oxygen is until your head is underwater.
Healing from a fault
Despite the current pandemic, there will always be family reunions and events to navigate. What are the best ways for everyone involved to handle these events with respect?
Fredenburg: There should be good communication and a clear understanding of the boundaries before the event. If people take sides or if a parent is angry, it distracts from those being celebrated. And a family celebration turns into a family trauma.
If parental divorce causes a real rift between a parent and child, what are the best steps you can take to help mend the relationship?
Fredenburg: Divorce proceedings people choose is the most important. If litigation is involved, there may be more damage as people might end up taking sides. If the process is more family-oriented and more collaborative, this is less likely to happen. [You can learn more about divorce mediation in the Friends Talk Money podcast’s episode, “Divorce After 50.”]
If a breakup develops, it may be helpful to speak to a family therapist or a member of the clergy.
Hugues: Research shows that within five to ten years of divorce, most families have been able to heal from the pain of divorce. Often the adult child will take the first step, especially if he has children of his own. They don’t want their children to lose their relationship with their grandparents. They want them to vacation together.
“People are very stressed; we will probably see divorce in general increase, not just gray divorces.”
And the older their parents, the more adult children can see mortality on the horizon. You can’t mend relationships after someone leaves.
The impact of the pandemic on divorce
Will the pandemic lead to an increase in the number of “gray divorces” and will the additional stressors of the time have a greater impact on families?
Hugues: If we look at what happened in China and Italy [during the pandemic], the divorce rate has skyrocketed in both countries. According to research, the rate of anxiety and depression is up 38% from where it was around the same time last year. People are under a lot of stress; we will probably see divorce in general increase, not just gray divorces.
Fredenburg: In a study conducted at the University of Washington, researchers determined that an intimate relationship requires a five-to-one ratio of positive and negative interactions. for each negative exchange there must be five positive exchanges for balance. In a pandemic climate, with people spending more time together and with fewer opportunities to spend time away from each other, you’re less likely to have so many positive interactions.
Hugues: Adult children are also put on leave and they can experience additional financial stress. The virus is an invisible enemy; it puts a lot of stress on families in general.
Of all the adult children you interviewed about their parents’ divorce, are there many who fully supported the decision?
Hugues: In my experience working with adult children, even though they thought divorce was for the best, they still experience loss. Our identity comes from our family of origin. Some begin to question their own relationship and their ability to maintain a marriage.
Fredenburg: When parents divorce, adult children feel the loss of their own childhood. They look back and think that “our family was not like other families”. Everyone wants to have a happy family.