The Melinda and Bill Gates’ divorce is currently making headlines, with some speculation as to
“why,” but mostly because of the complexity of the division of their enormous wealth within
their foundations. Our attention as divorce professionals however is riveted more than ever to
the phenomenon of divorcing over the age of 50. The Gates’ divorce is considered part of the
newly minted term by sociologists called a “gray divorce revolution” which has seen rates in the
U.S. alone doubling, and even higher for those over 65. This phenomenon is affecting families
up to three or four generations.
For the sake of this discussion (which seem to be eluding headlines), nevertheless what is
needing our attention is as to how the adult children of divorce experience their middle-age
and older parents’ divorces. Little attention has been paid in the literature to the psychological
effects on and needs of adult children of divorce, since they are considered “launched,” that
they are not considered at risk; relegated to the proverbial back burner. And thanks to the
recent publication of “Home is Not the Same Again,” by Carol Hughes and Bruce Fredenburg,
our antennae can now pivot with a deeper understanding. As Bill Eddy, LCSW, writes, “I hadn’t
really considered the depth of emotional dislocation that the other unseen adult children were
going through when their parents divorced.”
Divorce professionals have inadvertently overlooked adult children of divorce as we address the
myriad financial, legal and emotional needs of the parents divorcing, not just during the
negotiations, but also in our educational public workshops.
“My kids are grown now and out of the house,” many starting their divorce say as if we don’t
need to talk or worry about them.
As this tide slowly turns the spotlight on adult children of divorce, we as divorce coaches can
offer to help them manage their deep sense of loss and grief; the shift from their own
developmental needs and drives (reluctantly) to their family of origin; and their reactions of
shock, anger, confusion, disappointment and fear.
“How will we celebrate our usual traditions: birthdays, graduations, holidays, anniversaries, let
alone milestones?” “Do I need to take sides?” “Home will never be the same anymore.”
The psychic upheaval is real between the ages 18 to 50. Understanding and validating the
feelings of these adult children of divorce are essential as they struggle toward finding hope
and healing. Often the older adult child will reevaluate their family history. What was real in the
parents’ relationship? What wasn’t?
“Did they stay together for our sake?
Divorce is the death of a marriage, and as such, grieving is an essential part of any loss,
especially of hopes, dreams and plans for the future. Yet, grieving is often lost in discussing
divorce; it’s been said “it’s an invisible companion of divorce.” Deeply felt, and difficult to
acknowledge, let alone process.
Some think of their family as their “rock.” Now think of that rock falling into a lake. Think of the
rippling effects of that rock. On and on, on and on, until you can no longer see the ripples. Think
of the generations that will follow. The parents who divorce, their adult children, their children,
and onward. The questions of the grandchildren of their parents, or of the grandparents whose
divorce they are inquiring about, perhaps even before they were born.
There will be questions because most of us really do want to understand our history/ the family
story. And they will come (just as grief does) unbidden, out of the blue, when one will least
expect. How will those questions about “why did you leave grandpa” be answered? How will
one answer the curious grandchild who loves both his/her grandparents though s/he may have
never known them together as married. The adult child of divorce may be asked such questions
if they have their own children. Will those questions bring up unresolved feelings? Sadness,
anger? Or will their answers contain a more metabolized understanding of their own
experience so as not to cause their own child confusion or worse, sorrow?
A client related a year into her divorce process:
“My daughter-in-law was sharing some feelings regarding my son’s behavior: ‘I think M is
having a harder time with the divorce than he realizes.’ I had no idea.”
Helping adult children of divorce deal with their grief ultimately has the potential to help the
generations that follow. It’s time to look at that back burner and bring them into focus since
their healing matters probably more than we have ever acknowledged before.
And speaking of generations that follow, another client told me:
“My grandson who is 9 years old asked me while we were driving, he only visible through my
rear view mirror: ‘why did you leave grandpa?’ This inquiry came out of the blue while driving to
the park, my mind racing to come up with a cogent response. I knew full well I did not want to
do any damage to either of our relationships, his and his granddad’s, nor mine and his. I was
stunned and realized how ill-prepared I was to answer his question. I ultimately cobbled my
words about the sadness of this decision and our commitment to our family though we would
And so it goes, the rippling effects of a “gray divorce” through the generations of a family
touched and changed by divorce. How it is handled … with kindness, soothing, and antennae
that reach beyond the two who are uncoupling after their many years of marriage, is what will
be digested and remembered. The opportunity it presents during what is very much a crisis in a
family to heal the rupture, can also be a time to reestablish the binds that tie us all in the
framework called “family.”
“Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce,” Carol R.
Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenberg, Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.
Tina Chase, MS, MFT is a divorce coach practicing in Marin and Sonoma Counties. More information in her bio on the “Find A Professional” page.