An only child, Kim Weir said ever since she was born, she was all that her parents had in common. “I was their favorite thing on the planet,” she said.
When her parents decided to divorce in 2015 after 46 years of marriage, it began a nearly four year legal battle that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and took a significant toll on Weir emotionally.
“It has been exhausting and it has been frustrating. I still believe they should be divorced. I just wish they could have done it sooner and faster,” she said.
A near doubling in divorce among those ages 50 and older since the 1990s means it’s becoming increasingly more common for adults to suffer as they see their parents split after many years of marriage.
Jacqueline Newman, a matrimonial law attorney in New York, said parents often will wait until their children are in college to divorce, presuming that they’ll be in a better position to handle it when they’re older.
But she and other experts say these divorces can have huge impacts on adults. “Even adult children still have these ideas of their family always being together. They’ve grown up with that,” she said.”
So when a late-in-life divorce occurs, “a lot of adult children feel they’ve been lied to throughout their childhood.”
Michael Spellman, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of The National Cooperative Parenting Center in Sarasota, Florida, said he sees many clients in distress over the demise of their parents’ marriage.
Concerns often mirror those that younger children have, like whether parents stayed together unhappily for the sake of the children and if they may have been responsible for the divorce.
There are also worries — often legitimate — about the financial impact as divorce proceedings can be pricey and it costs more to support two households than one.
A huge issue is the impact on caregiving, since parents will no longer be together to care for each other when one of them becomes ill; those responsibilities are more likely to fall to the children. “It’s such a different ball game when they’re not together,” said Amy Goyer, AARP’s family and caregiving expert.
Karen Covy, a divorce lawyer in Chicago, Illinois, says that parents of adult children lean on their kids for emotional support during and after their divorce in a way they wouldn’t do when their children were young.
They also tend to overshare intimate details of their marriage. Goyer said the adult children struggle with how to “be Switzerland” and not choose sides. “You don’t expect to be that sounding board in that way at that time in your life,” she said.
Still, there are ways that young adults can mitigate the harsh impacts of their parents late-in-life divorce. Here are some tips.
Set boundaries to ensure your parents are not involving you in persistent negative conversations about their spouse.
Goyer suggests language like, “I’m willing to listen to this for the first six months and then we have to cut back on it,” or “I can’t hear this anymore. We need to change the tenor of our conversation.”
Covy said setting boundaries can be tough, but “they’ve got to get the message that you’re not their therapist.”
Develop a plan for family gatherings, like holidays and other celebrations. Ask your parents whether they feel comfortable being together and if not, come to an agreement on how to split the time.
Goyer suggests asking them to negotiate the situation “in a way that benefits everyone,” including adult children as well as grandchildren.
Life beyond divorce
Focus on helping your parent find a life beyond divorce. Support should be around building a life that diminishes the ill effects of the divorce, said Spellman.
If one parent is withdrawing and not making friends, he says it’s fine to help them find a way to connect with others.
LeslieBeth Wish, a social worker in Sarasota, Florida, said the best kind of assistance doesn’t disrespect or harm the other spouse. “There’s nothing wrong with helping a parent move furniture or look at a condo,” she said.
Urge your parents to consider mediation or a collaborative divorce. This involves working with a neutral, trained attorney to enter into an agreement and avoid going to court.
This results in a far less litigious and less expensive divorce. Newman said adult children could argue to their parents that money saved by not each paying their own lawyer could instead go toward their children’s inheritance or a grandchild’s college education.
While it can be challenging, Weir’s advice is to be empathetic if possible and treat your parents like you would your best friend. “They’re humans first and parents second,” she said.
With her parents’ divorce final in September, 2018, “it’s so much better. The tension is gone.”