Parent-Child Disconnectedness Can Harm Gray Divorce Parents

6 min read

Gray divorce, which refers to divorce after age 50, has been on the rise in the U.S. and abroad since 1990. Researchers at Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research studied the divorce rates in the U.S. population. They found that the divorce rate of those 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010. They predict that by 2030, the divorce rate for this population will grow by another third. In 1990, 9 percent of persons getting divorced were aged 50 and older. By 2019, more than 36 percent of people getting divorced were at least age 50.

More than two decades of research found that divorce is a stressful life event that undermines individual well-being. Research also indicates that most people are distressed long before the divorce begins and remain so several years after divorce. Research about adult children of divorce found that some adult children avoid parental conflict by reducing contact with their parents.

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Estranged gray divorce mother and adult son.

The Mental Health Impacts of Gray Divorce

Recent research studying the impact on gray divorcees’ who had no contact with at least one adult child found significant symptoms of depression in these parents.

Peter,* a fit, 55-year-old successful businessman, sat in my (Carol’s) office on the loveseat diagonal to me. Both his hands gently stroked the ears and head of my white Labrador therapy dog Friede, whose name means “peace” in German. Friede sat with her body snuggled against Peter’s right leg for about five minutes, giving him warmth and attention while Peter focused on her ears and head. Finally, his gaze shifted to me, and he began. “I can’t believe I am sitting in a therapist’s office! My best friend said I needed to see you. So here I am.”

His gaze dropped back to Friede’s head. Continuing to stroke her ears, he said, “About two years ago, my wife and I began our divorce process. Yeah, we’re one of those ‘gray divorce’ couples you hear about.” He pursed his lips tightly, perhaps cringing at the moniker. “We chose a collaborative divorce process because it is family-focused. We thought it would give us the best chance for our kids to see us being friendly and help them feel like they still had a family.”

He paused as tears filled his eyes. “After my wife and I had been separated for about 18 months, I started dating someone, even though we hadn’t completed our divorce. The woman I was dating was in the running club where my wife and I were members. When my wife found out I was dating this woman, she was convinced I wanted a divorce because I had been having an affair with her. It wasn’t true, but I couldn’t convince my wife. She was so upset that one day, she told our adult son and adult daughter that I wanted a divorce because I had been dating the woman during our marriage.

“Our daughter has been estranged from me since then. It’s been over a year. I text her and leave her voice messages, but she doesn’t reply. She tells her mother, and her mother then tells me that I have sexist values, so she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I’m so sad about this.” His eyes filled with tears. “My best friend, who has known me since high school, says I am depressed. He may be right, although I am unsure what depression is. Not having a connection with my daughter is killing me. I’m not sleeping well, barely have an appetite, and have little interest in doing well at work or anything fun.

Another client, Natalie, a 52-year-old teacher and mother of two adult children, shares a similar story. “When I told our children I was filing for divorce, they seemed to take it well. My daughter understood how unhappy I had been in the marriage because she was a woman and noticed how their father was either putting me down or being distant from me. His career was his mistress, as the saying goes.

“My son Jacob and I have always had a close relationship. He took his dad’s side in the divorce and blamed me for breaking up the family. I’m still in shock and can’t believe it has been almost two years since we have had any interaction! He and his girlfriend spend time at his dad’s but not with me. Our daughter tells me she thinks I am depressed and need to see someone. She found you through a friend who said you had helped her and her parents during her parents’ divorce. It’s true that I feel sad, maybe even depressed, most of the time. Even though I have a good relationship with my daughter, I feel such a heart-breaking loss about my son.”

Until recently, the parent-adult-child relationship’s role in parents’ adjustment to gray divorce was largely unknown. Newly published research explained what Peter and Natalie may be experiencing. Researchers Brown and Lin tracked depressive symptoms before, during, and after gray divorce. They found the lack of any contact with at least one adult child in the past 12 months significantly exacerbated the negative impact of gray divorce on parental well-being for both mothers and fathers.

Although Natalie and Peter initiated their divorces and envisioned a happier life ahead, they were unprepared for the shock and grief that arose from their estrangement from an adult child. When I explained they were likely experiencing profound grief from losing their relationship with their estranged adult child, each of them said that made sense to them.

Shock, sadness, and even depression are part of the grieving process. Peter’s sleep disturbance, lack of appetite, disinterest in doing well at work and fun activities could be symptoms of grief. Natalie was aware of her shock, sadness, and maybe even depression, which could also be symptoms of grief.

If you are a parent of gray divorce and having difficulty coping with disconnectedness from your adult child, consider contacting a therapist, clergy member, or medical doctor for assistance.

© 2023 Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D.

*Names and details changed to protect patient confidentiality.

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