(Originally published in The Federalist)
Children are made for a daily relationship with their mothers and fathers, which is best achieved within the life-long union of marriage. As the phenomenon known as “gray divorce,” or divorce over the age of 50, increases (34.9 percent of all divorces in the U.S. in 2020 were among those aged 55 or older), we are learning that the effects of divorce are not unique to young children.
The instability, confusion, and questions of parental loyalty don’t simply disappear when one is an adult child of divorce. This is why when we allow victims of gray divorce to speak out, we learn that even adults don’t simply “get over” their parents’ separations. In a recent Twitter post, several adult children of divorce commented and privately messaged us at Them Before Us, sharing their experiences such as, “My parents’ divorce was literally one [of] the most traumatic and destabilizing things I’ve ever been through,” and, “My parents’ divorce when I was in my mid 20s was one of the worst things that ever happened to me; it broke me nearly beyond repair.”
Loss of Parental Connection
Studies on the effects of gray divorce on adult children tell us that mothers and fathers differ in their reactions to divorce. Mothers are twice as likely to have more frequent contact with their adult children after a late divorce than they did before, whereas fathers are only half as likely to maintain frequent contact with their children.
As Kyle, who was 27 when his father left his mother, shared with us:
I wrote [my father] a letter and he blew it off. After the divorce was final, I reached out to tell him to stop continuing to jerk my mother around. He referenced the letter and said, “I’m not sorry for what I did.” Around when my grandfather passed away, my dad reached out to me telling me I was his “heart and soul.” I was hopeful that he was turning a corner. The first phone call I had in nearly two years. Since then I have heard nothing from my father and that is where it stands … my dad in essence cut me out of his life and my mother was put into such a horrible mental state, I really only feel like recently she is becoming her old self again.
It was found that divorced fathers are more likely to remarry than mothers, but even if mothers remarry, they are more likely to maintain their relationships with their children than remarried fathers. As Catalina states, “After 32 yrs of marriage my dad just left and married another lady. Haven’t heard from him in over 5 yrs. The last thing he said to me was ‘You’re an adult, you will adapt just fine.’ He was totally wrong. My siblings and I are still suffering the consequences of my dad’s decision. So I totally agree that kids or adults don’t get over divorce.”
Divorce creates a “matrilineal tilt” in families because mothers tend to be the “nerve center” of families and are the ones more attuned to children’s moods and needs, such as social obligations and schoolwork. While there are certainly loving fathers who remain in their children’s lives, when divorce occurs, the father, upon losing his wife, also loses the channel connecting him with his children, which can often switch his focus to a new wife and family or even put him at risk of being kinless in old age.
Children Acting as Parents
Moreso, studies show that adult children of divorce are often burdened by extra caregiving responsibilities, managing parents in different households, and filling other roles for which they were not prepared. All of this is in addition to the stress they bear in navigating their own careers and family lives. As Abigail shares, “After 35 years of marriage, my Dad left my Mom and married another woman. My Mom subsequently became sick and died. I was my Mom’s caregiver during her illness, in addition to parenting my own children.”
Adult children of divorce take on being their parents’ emotional and social support, financial helpers, and middlemen to avoid discord between parents, all the while experiencing manipulation regarding holidays and vacations. As Doug wrote, “[M]y parents divorced while I was in college … our families got to do the dance of who to visit, who to do things with, who to stay with. It was a mess. No one was ever really happy.”
They often do all of this in the face of societal assumptions that they should be unaffected by the divorce, or even celebrate it, because they aren’t children anymore. As Sage shared with Them Before Us:
I was 29 years-old. No reasons were given. … My devastated mother asked me to be her representative during the divorce. … They had long since stopped communicating directly so I had to determine how best to convey comments like, ‘Tell that f-cking b-tch…’ from my father to my mother. … [A]fter a bout of depression, [I] spent my days checking in on my mother, managing her finances and listening to her lament her situation ad nauseam. It is a role that I continue to perform to this day. … It’s been 20 years since that phone call and it’s only recently become clear just how much of an impact it had on me. It left me scarred and deeply traumatised and I suffer the effects to this day. My parents, on the other hand, are oblivious to any consequences their divorce had beyond themselves.
Long-Term Effect on Relationships
In addition to altering parental relationships, gray divorce often leads adult children to question their own relationships. As Kyle further shared with us about the effects of his parents’ divorce on his own marriage, “During this time I was married, and was focusing very deeply on getting my mom through this. In my mind, I was going to step up and be there for her. In reality this wasn’t my role, but something I was forced into. However, I painfully learned I have no power over my mother or my father. This entire thing was extremely difficult on my young marriage.”
Some experience issues with trust and commitment, feelings of insecurity, and an overall negative outlook on marriage. As Libby shared, “My parents are both divorced multiple times. My grandparents are divorced. My great grandmothers were widowed before I was born. The only legacy I’ve seen of marriage are broken ones.”
Parental separation is an adverse childhood experience that can have a life-long effect on children. The natural right of children to their mothers and fathers is why Them Before Us opposes no-fault divorce, which denies children, no matter their age, the ongoing contact with both parents that they need, crave, and from which they should have the opportunity to benefit.