Children are made for a daily relationship with their mother and father, 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:
…My parents’ divorce was literally one [of] the most traumatic and destabilizing things I’ve ever been through. I’m still not over it. They divorced 10ish years ago.
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.
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. It was found that divorced fathers are more likely to marry than mothers, but even if mothers remarry, they are more likely to maintain their relationships with their children than remarried fathers. Divorce creates a “matrilineal tilt” in families, as mothers tend to be the “nerve center” of families since they’re 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 his new wife and family or even put him at risk of being kinless in old age.
We asked TBU followers to share their experiences of gray divorce with Us. One woman shared how her father disappeared following the divorce of her parents when she was an adult:
I experienced my parents divorce as an adult and it was extremely hard. 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, you don’t need me anymore because you have your own family, you’re a strong woman.” He was totally wrong. My siblings and I are still suffering the consequences of my dad’s decision. Two of my sisters (27 and 31 yr old’s) developed strong anxiety after the divorce. So I totally agree that kids or adults don’t get over divorce. –Catalina
Moreso, studies show that adult children of divorce are often burdened by extra caregiving responsibilities, managing parents in different households, and other roles for which they were not prepared. Adult children of divorce take on being their parents’ confidante and emotional/social support, providing financial support, being middlemen to avoid discord between parents, and experiencing manipulation regarding holidays and vacations. All of this is in addition to the stress of navigating their own careers and family lives. They often do so in the face of societal assumptions that they should be unaffected by the divorce, or even celebrate it, because they aren’t children anymore.
Other followers shared the burden of providing support to their divorced parents while navigating their own lives:
I’m the youngest of three and my parents divorced while I was in college. My dad remarried…The kids and 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.
My parents were married 26 yrs. Divorced after I left for college…I now help both parents individually if needed when ideally they would be helping one another as they age. Also every holiday is awkward.
Parents divorced when I was 17. Everyone said it was lucky I was in college. It was horribly destabilizing…My mom turned into a very unstable friend I had to support…
My parents divorced not long after my wife and I married, my youngest siblings went through the broken home drama, dads now a drunk, moms co-dependent, nothing is better than it was when they were together.
I was heartbroken when my parents divorced. I was living on my own and a mother myself. While I adore both of my stepparents (each of my parents remarried), I still tear up nearly 20 years later for the loss and pain.
My parents divorced after my sister & I both finished high school…There were a lot of complicated emotions through it all and long after. Many betrayals felt along the way. It was really weird when my sister & I were at the hospital when my dad was dying and my mom (in another state) wasn’t there to support us. Divorce is betrayal on many levels.
Was in my thirties when my parents divorced. So began my role as advisor, confidant, therapist, financial advisor, shoulder-to-cry-on etc for my mother and guilt-sponge for my father who now regrets having initiated the proceedings. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
[I] ended up being responsible for mediating between them and taking care of my grandmother as my mom went traveling right after. horrible experience that significantly impacted my 20s.
Mom left when I was 18. No contact with me. Dad fell apart…Had to parent mom and dad through lots of dumb drama…
My parents divorced when I was in graduate school, the consequent turmoil, selfishness, strife, and constant emotional neediness by both ended up in me dropping out. The same dynamic continues to this day almost 15 years later. I often wonder what my life would have been…
My parents divorced when I was 19… I tried to parent my whole family, and had a quarter-life breakdown. When my father remarried (someone about my age), hurts deepened.
I am a wife and mom of 4 kids. 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.
My dad walked out on my mom and younger sisters right after the birth of my first child… It created such an unfair burden on my husband and me and also greatly interfered with what should have otherwise been a happy and exciting time in our life.
My parents were married 31 years before getting divorced… My dad left my mom for a woman he met on the internet. It’s so, so terrible. Easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through.
In addition to altering parental relationships, gray divorce can often lead to the adult child questioning their own relationships. Some experience issues with trust and commitment, feelings of insecurity, and an overall negative outlook on marriage.
Parental separation is an adverse childhood experience that can have life-long impacts on children. The natural right of children to their mother and father is why Them Before Us opposes no-fault divorce, which denies children the on-going contact with both parents that they need, crave and benefit from, no matter their age.