The Seattle Times
7 July 2011
Divorce is a big deal even for adult kids
When a long-running marriage abruptly ends, childhood memories may be questioned.
By Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times
Walnut Creek, Calif. - It was a bombshell of mind-boggling magnitude. In February, Kelly received a phone call from her mother, who tearfully delivered the grim news that Kelly's father was leaving her for another woman.
A marriage that produced four kids and lasted 42 years was about to die.
Kelly, who asked that her real name be withheld to protect her family's privacy, recalls being in a state of shock as she relayed the news to her sister and two brothers. Then she rushed to her childhood home in Oakland, where she found her mother sobbing and her father packing up to leave.
"I tried to comfort her, and I just yelled at him," she recalls. "It was so surreal, so terrible, so ugly. " I was just completely blindsided by it all."
Through the years, a great deal of attention and research has been focused on the corrosive impact divorce has upon young children. Conversely, it's often assumed that adult offspring, because they're mature and independent, are better equipped to take their parents' divorce in stride.
But often, that isn't the case. According to experts and those with firsthand knowledge, a late-life breakup between Mum and Dad can take a devastating toll on their adult offspring.
"For all those years, they've had a family structure and a reality that they could count on," says Audrey Silverman-Foote, a marriage and family therapist in Pleasant Hill, Calif. "Now, all of a sudden, that ground has been ripped out from under their feet. It can be incredibly distressing."
When a long-running marriage abruptly ends, childhood memories may be questioned (Was it all a facade?) and family customs thrown into disarray. In some cases, education or career plans may be threatened by financial issues. Moreover, adult children are often dragged into the mediation process.
And, in the coming years, more may experience the shock of it all. A 2009 survey conducted by Bowling Green State University researchers found that the divorce rate among older adults had doubled since 1980. They also predicted that, as baby boomers age, there will be "further growth" in the divorce rate for older adults.
Four months after learning about her parents' breakup, Kelly, a 35-year-old corporate retailer, is struggling to make sense of it. She sees her mother wracked with pain and feels helpless to do anything about it. Meanwhile, her "best friend" of a father, who used to call her nearly every day, has seen her only three times since February. And she fears that the home she grew up in will have to be sold.
"I honestly think that, in some ways, it's worse for someone my age to go through this than a young child," she says. "Little kids are resilient. They adapt as they grow up. I've had 34 years of Mom and Dad being together. I thought I had this perfect family, and it's all been shattered."
Kelly is also learning that a divorce at this stage of life can produce a dramatically different kind of fallout. When a split occurs in a home involving young children, conscientious parents generally try to present a united front and/or shield the kids from the brutal details of their breakup.
But older parents often expect, or demand, their adult offspring to take sides. And they tend to want to confide in them - sometimes to an uncomfortable extent.
"On the night my dad left, my mom told me some things about him I'd never heard before - things that made me even more mad," Kelly says. "It's awkward. My mom had always been a private person. Now, it's like she wants to act like a friend and tell me everything. It's a lot to handle."
Judy W. of Walnut Creek can relate. In the years after her parents' 35-year marriage crumbled, Judy's mom continually disparaged her father and revealed tawdry details about the relationship.
"She'd talk about what a rotten (person) he was and how he'd cheat on her with trashy women. And she'd talk about their sexual encounters - how he wouldn't touch her," recalls Judy, 64, who asked to withhold her full name. "It was disgusting. Time and time again, I told her, 'If you don't shut up, I'm not coming to visit."'
Richmond's Dawn Munson, who was 26 when her parents ended their 32-year marriage in 2000, had a similar problem as both her mother and father filled her in on the graphic details of their sex lives, arguments and other issues.
"If I had been 15 or younger, they wouldn't have told me a lot of that stuff," she says. "At one point, I got them both on the phone and set some ground rules. I drew a line in the sand. It was a weird kind of role reversal."
In the months following her parents' divorce, Munson often resented having to behave as the "grown-up" in certain circumstances.
"There was this expectation that my brother and I behave and react as adults rather than their children," she says. "But no matter how mature one is or how prepared you think you are, they're still your parents. My gut instinct was to throw a tantrum. I wanted to be sad and mad. I wanted to be treated with kid gloves."
That's a natural reaction, according to Janice Green, a veteran divorce attorney practicing in Austin, Texas, and author of "Divorce Over 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges."
"It's the kind of rock-your world psychological punch that is hard to fathom if you haven't been through it yourself," she says.
In her more than 30 years on the job, Green has been privy to a number of messy divorce scenarios involving adult children. She has seen situations in which an offspring's role - and stake - in the family business becomes imperiled, and others in which parents battle over assets set aside for student loans or a down payment on a house for the son or daughter.
And once, she worked a case in which an adult daughter became a "super sleuth" who spied on her wayward father, hoping to catch him in an affair. The case was settled out of court, so the daughter didn't have to testify and her father didn't learn of her actions.
"Think about how that might have ripped the family apart," Green says. "You can imagine the kind of scars it would have left behind."
As for Kelly, she's hopeful that her scars will heal over time. But for now, the sense of loss is overwhelming. It doesn't help that, in the middle of it all, she's planning her own wedding for the fall.
"I always imagined that my dad would walk me down the aisle," she says. "But right now, I feel like I don't even know him."
SURVIVING THE SPLIT
Janice Green is an Austin, Texas, divorce attorney with more than 30 years of experience and is the author of "Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges." She offers some practical advice to adult children struggling with the divorce of their parents:
- If you go with a parent to meet with an attorney, keep in mind that the confidentiality privilege is just between the client and attorney. Give your parent a chance to be alone with the attorney to cover sensitive topics.
- If your parents are fighting in your presence, ask them to be civil. Parents tend to respect adult children who draw boundaries.
- Offer to help with time-consuming tasks, such as culling through financial records, especially when it is time to estimate living expenses, both current and future. Sorting through records and running calculations is overwhelming to anyone of any age going through a divorce. Your help can be a welcome relief for a parent who was not the marital bookkeeper.
- If your parents aren't communicating, consider the risks of acting as a messenger or an interpreter. There are times when they may need your help, but think twice before diving into their drama.
- Don't try to be a "super sleuth." Spying on a parent can backfire and is best left to investigation specialists. If testimony is needed, you do not want to be the one on the witness stand describing your mother's tryst escapade.
- Personal weaknesses and foibles are magnified during divorce. Taking sides is tempting and sometimes appropriate. But "divorcing" a parent can put you in a difficult position if reconciliation occurs. Also, alliances sometimes shift during a divorce.
- Help your parents design a new future. If your family home has to be sold, take photos, hold the memories and adapt with an adventuresome spirit.
- Telling grandchildren that grandma and grandpa are splitting can be a challenge. So much depends on the age of the children, their degree of closeness to the grandparents and how much acrimony is involved. Those very close to the grandchildren often want to be involved in the explanation and give reassurance that both grandparents will continue to adore them.