'Grey Divorce' - being an adult 'child' during a family separation.

There is a relatively new phenomenon affecting the lives of many young professionals. In 2012, a study in the Journals of Gerontology (source) analysed data between 1990-2010, determining divorce rates among adults aged 50 years and older had doubled. Whilst divorce rates were steadily increasing (45% of marriages in the United States of America), at least a quarter were now in the 50+ bracket.

While divorce at any age is generally a traumatic experience for the children of, or belonging to, the relationship; the new phenomenon of ‘grey divorce’ is silently affecting the lives of many adults. Many now adult-children may feel disinclination to confide in others the internal turmoil of witnessing a family unit disintegrate, which may have been a foundation in their lives until that time. Indeed, Austin-based attorney and author, Janice Green, in her book “Divorce after 50”, comments: “… adult kids have longer established family rituals and home memories than the younger ones, so in some sense the divorce can cause more of an impact”.

Having a family unit disintegrate after thirty-something years has a number of imperceptible impacts. In many cases, adult-children are suddenly comforting and commiserating either one or both of the parents through a situation they did not author. Adult-children become the pillars of the parents’ lives whilst in many cases their own emotional support and needs are not addressed. Children become pseudo-parents.

This is not to say that the divorce wasn't warranted or necessary in the many varying personal circumstances.

Parents may be divulging in their adult-children stories of infidelity, possibly bad-mouthing and accusing the other parent whilst seeking emotional support and advice. These ‘over-share’ conversations, in many cases, are tolerated from a perceived or actual obligation to their parents. In many cases these conversations are without regard to the emotional toll upon the adult-children listening.

Many adult children describe being told by family, friends, and disturbingly therapists, to simply “get over it” (source). This negative messaging is further reinforced by comments of acquaintances who perhaps had parents who divorced when they were very young. Comments range from: “you’re old and mature enough to handle this”, to “you should feel lucky that you had your family as long as you did”. 

Such flippant comments may cause many adult-children to question their own legitimateemotions and responses.

With so much of the psychological research on divorce addressing the effects upon pre-adolescents, it is hardly unsurprising many adult-children feel wholly unsupported. Many internalise feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. This is can be compounded by declining performance in work environments.

Adult-children themselves may lose faith in relationships, shun commitment and cultivate an unhealthy level of cynicism of people and love. Their own relationships may irrepressibly suffer due to a perceived ‘expiry date’ that surely must occur in every relationship.

Family homes are sold, which may feel like a betrayal to the memories adult-children held so dear. Conversations about happy childhood memories are contrasted against the hurt and anguish now experienced. Photos are moved, replaced or destroyed, and with them the familiarity and comfort they once brought. 

Playing counsellor may have cost you extra time in your studies, perhaps you missed that promotion, or you otherwise just feel a general fogginess in your mind’s eye. Tragically, the joy of a graduation, new home or job is offset by the necessitation to organise the logistics of your parents’ interaction – if you don’t celebrate twice.

Huffington Post author, Kasey Edwards, (source) accurately surmises: “Watching the family home and assets being packed up and fought over shatters your world, no matter how old you are. It was as if my safety net in life had gone”. 

So, why am I writing about this on a ‘professional association’ website?

Foremost, I am writing this as an adult-child of grey hair divorce. My family unit disintegrated when I was 29 years old. By this stage in my professional life I had been a Police Officer, Lawyer and Military Officer. I had wide exposure to trauma, violence and human emotion through each of these jobs. I did what many males do – I shut shop. When I did confide in a supervisor and friends, I received many of the flippant responses described above. I stopped talking, but never stopped hurting. It took me two years to finally seek the support I needed from day 1, by that stage it had affected my health, socialisation and work performance – don’t be like me!

Second, as a student of management and leadership, I implore those readers in positions of authority, responsibility and command to care for your people when they choose to confide in you. You can never be quite sure how long your colleague has been contemplating to confide in you and you must never take for granted that they have. Listen with compassion and empathy. Offer support. And please, never dismiss their concerns in a flippant manner.

Finally, to open the channel to those who haven’t yet sought support and may be struggling through their situation as an adult-child in a ‘grey divorce’. If even one person is encouraged to seek support, my message would have been a success.