By now it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that there has been a dramatic increase in the divorce rate for older couples and empty nesters. According to NPR, nearly 1 in 4 divorces is happening in couples over 50. The Baby Boom generation has become the Grey Divorce generation. What is going on? I have a few theories, but that is another article altogether and one we’ll revisit. Bottom line, grey divorce is on the rise and a primary driver of delayed separation has been this pervasive cultural concept of “staying together for the kids.”
While I completely understand why parents make this decision and choose to remain in an unhappy marriage rather than break up the family structure, I have to ask – is this really as good for the kids as people claim? There are books and columns out there that urge “STAY TOGETHER FOR THE KIDS AT ALL COSTS!!” They demand parents to fake it ’til they make it, and force themselves to be happy because it’s best for the kids. To me, this argument holds about as much water as staying on a sinking ship because you built it and have a lot invested. I’ve personally been through divorce from a couple different perspectives – as both an ACOD (adult child of divorce) and as a new partner to a divorced dad with teens. I am not a professional advice giver, but I can tell you this….in many cases, waiting until your kids are grown up is NOT helping anyone but your own guilty conscience. Some troubling things happen to your adult children when you wait to get divorced. A few of these effects are well known, and some are insights from my own personal experience and the experiences of other ACODs like me…here they are in no particular order:
- Your adult child becomes your divorce mediator, financial advisor, sounding board, emotional support human, dating counselor, gossip go-between, and moving crew. When family drama goes down, upset parents are most likely to reach out to someone inside the immediate family for support. In a grey divorce, by default this usually ends up being the adult children. Can you imagine talking to an 8 year old about your dating life, or a 14 year old about your financial concerns or the dirty details of an infidelity. NOPE NOPE NOPE. A parent would never do that to their kids. But for some reason when the kids are grown it seems totally acceptable to dump all of that unwanted drama and marriage dirt on them. I’ve read a thousand advice columns telling ACODs to politely decline to discuss these matters and remove yourself from the situation. That’s great advice. But when your Mom is crying and upset over something your Dad did, how realistic is it to say “ok Mom, please stop I don’t want to be involved.” Easier said than done. A child will try to comfort their parent, and will let them vent, even if it breaks their heart. Parents, if this is you – PLEASE find someone else you can talk to and don’t dump everything on your kids. They’re suffering too, but silently because they’re trying to be strong for you.
- Even though they’re likely no longer living at home, they just had home ripped out from under them. Along with a lifetime’s worth of traditions, expectations and emotional attachments. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, Family reunions, decades of tradition out the window and expectations up in the air. How will the new family dynamic shake out and what is their part to play in it? Maybe every 4th of July, Dad grilled up steaks and Mom made Apple Pie, and your adult kids were eager to carry on these traditions with their own kids. Suddenly Mom and Dad are no more and your adult children are left with the pressure of trying to continue these traditions themselves or abandoning them. It’s in these situations where you often hear ACODs say “Sometimes I wonder if my entire childhood was a lie.” Was the happiness all for show? They question if these traditions are worth carrying on or if they were merely a charade. Traditions are an important part of how a family relates to one another, and your adult kids will question their authenticity as part of adjusting to their new normal.
- They don’t know what happy, healthy relationships look like and they’re subconsciously carrying your baggage and behavior into their relationships now too. We all turn into our parents eventually. For kids who watched their parents fight, ignore, avoid, disrespect and generally hurt each other, this is what we learned. There are exceptions to every rule, but your kids have been mimicking your behavior since they were born. If you don’t stick up for yourself, chances are neither will they. If you don’t make personal happiness a priority, neither will they. If you’ve neglected or disrespected their Mom, they may grow up thinking that kind of treatment is normal. Even if you’re not actively fighting and there’s no abuse (both of which are good reasons to call it quits, btw), your kids will be acutely aware of your unhappiness. Unless you were academy award winning actors, they saw a failing marriage play out in front of them every single day, and trust me, it affected them and it still is.
- There’s no custody agreement for ACODs and every holiday will now be an exercise in avoiding guilt. ACODs dread holidays, it’s just a fact. First you have to navigate the invitation dilemma. How do you choose which parent to spend time with? Do you alternate every year or split the day? Your grown kids are smart enough to know that spending holidays alone is going to be tough on their newly single parents, and they don’t want you to feel lonely, or hurt. Unless you’re friendly enough with your ex to spend holidays together, your kids are going to have to figure out how to navigate this lose-lose situation while dealing with their own partner or spouse’s competing priorities. Thinking about how to deal with Christmas gives me anxiety in April. I think I speak for most ACODs when I say, holidays are the worst.
- They don’t get the level of support they need because society expects adult children of divorce to deal with it gracefully and continue adulting as if nothing happened. Our culture approaches divorce with children under 18 very delicately, as they should. Kids are left out of the conflict as much as parents can manage. They structure their new lives around making sure things aren’t disrupted for their children. Family therapists are often involved in helping to monitor the kids to make sure they’re coping well and healing. Friends and family rally around the children to make sure they know they’re loved and supported. As an ACOD, I can tell you that your kids will be almost entirely overlooked in a late in life divorce. Parents become more self-focused and interested in pursuing “my time” and “making the most of what’s left.” Friends and family rally around the divorcees to help them transition into their next stage of life. Your kids will be suffering in silence and have no one to talk to but other ACODs. Most will bury their feelings entirely to put on a brave, supportive front.
If you have children of any age and are contemplating divorce the best thing you can do is try to fight harder. Get couples therapy, read books, talk as much as you can; only once you’ve exhausted all your options, should you consider divorce. If you’ve given it everything you have and you know it’s time to walk away, then do so without regret. But don’t prolong the pain for everyone. If divorce is inevitable, don’t wait another 20 years. Life is too short, and your kids need role models now. As an ACOD I’ve talked to many other ACODs about their experiences – some of which are reflected in the points you just read. And many of whom have echoed the same sentiment of “Gosh, I wish my parents had done this sooner.” While divorce is a very personal decision, it affects everyone involved and there’s no one right answer for every situation. Staying together for the kids is certainly an option you can choose, but think long and hard about what you may be taking away from them both now, and later if you do. By Lauren Nelson ~ Marketing Director @ Truece