Although almost 50 percent of all marriages in the United States dissolve, that percentage has actually been declining slightly. At the same time the percentage of splits in longer-term marriages has been increasing. Researchers at Bowling Green State University found that the divorce rate among adults 50 and older more than doubled between 1990 and 2008; those married more than 15 years now account for 20% of all divorces in the country.
A number of reasons are cited for this new wave of “Silver Splitters,” everything from people living longer, individuals wanting more out of life, greater economic freedom, empty nest syndrome, early retirement, less social stigma, and that old stand-by, adultery. But no matter what the cause, adult children often find themselves shocked and grieving when their parents’ long-term marriage falls apart. Unfortunately, they have few places to go with their emotions. Unlike younger children of divorce, for whom concern and support are widespread, grown offspring are usually just expected to “deal with it.” These adult children of divorce or ACOD’s, as they are increasingly called, are finding their voice, and they have a lot to say about their parents’ uncoupling.
Many decry the loss of boundaries. As one 33-year-old said, “I had my dad crying on one shoulder and my mom on the other.” Others start to question all their assumptions about marriage. As a 28-year-old said, “All that togetherness that I’ve taken for granted for nearly three decades has disappeared. It’s very upsetting.” And still others wish their parents would not confide in them. They view their parents’ stories of their sex life, infidelities, and marital disputes as Too Much Information.
Not only does “Gray Divorce” often have long-term, negative ramifications for the adult children’s personal lives (including the greater likelihood of their own divorce), it can also sour their relationship with one or both of their parents, sometime for all time. A case in point is that of Sarah Perkins (pseudonym) who spoke with me by telephone from her home in a small town outside Des Moines. Sarah was married at the age of 19 and stay married for 35 years even though she had stopped loving her husband long before. Although she had a successful career, she nevertheless feared being a woman on her own and wanted to see her two daughters established before she left. A series of disastrous investments on her husband’s part left them broke, which gave her the courage to finally call it quits.
After the divorce announcement, Sarah’s daughters immediately took sides, and the side they chose was their father’s. They were joined in battle by his extended family. “So,” as Sarah puts it, “in one stroke I lost not only my husband, but my children and whole family.” As is so often the case, the one who leaves is portrayed as the bad guy, and Sarah went from being a garden-variety mom to the devil incarnate. She wanted desperately for the whole family to go into therapy to repair the relationship, but the girls flatly refused and her husband only went twice. So she set to work by herself to repair the psychic fallout, and she worked hard at it. As part of one workshop, for example, she wrote a letter to the girls explaining the divorce from her point of view and asking for their understanding. The second step was calling them to right any perceived wrongs. Both daughters told her, “Never contact me again.”
Many years after her divorce, Sarah has found love, enjoys a good relationship with the grandchildren, and leads a busy, productive life. She is convinced that she did the right thing in divorcing her husband (although she wishes she had done it sooner), and she knows she has to let go of the residual guilt and self-recrimination. Yet there’s still a pocket of sadness in her heart that she can’t seem to get rid of. “I care about people and these people didn’t allow me to care about or for them,” she says of her daughters. “That’s my biggest loss.”
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