After Gray Divorce: Maintaining Emotional Connection to Adult Children

adult son kissing elderly momGray divorce refers to baby-boomer couples who uncouple. After years of marriage, a couple who decide to call it quits begin the formidable task of separating from their lives together while also beginning the process of building a new, independent life.

Two weeks before she passed away, Judith Wallerstein, along with Julia Lewis and Sherrin Packer Rosenthal, published an article titled Mothers and their Children after Divorce (2013). The authors conducted a unique study of mother-child relationships among participants in a 25-year longitudinal study outlined in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee, 2000). Among the findings from the 2013 study was a “challenge to the view of divorce as a time-limited crisis from which children with continued access to both parents will recover in under a year after the litigation is completed” (Wallerstein et al., p. 167, 2013). Rather, the authors report “an extended period of transition and rebuilding during which mothers and children often struggle for years to gain or regain economic and emotional stability” (Wallerstein et. al, p. 179, 2013).

An assumption that, with the passage of time, the children of divorce will be fine is persistent. Rather, all children adjust in their own, unique way, no matter their age at the time of parental divorce. And the aftermath is different for each person, parents as well as offspring. The prospect of a healthy adjustment is generally good. But it is not predictable. And rebuilding is not time-limited. The memories of the intact family of early childhood continue into adulthood. “As adults, the photos several carried wherever they wandered were photos of the intact family, including themselves as young children” (Wallerstein, et. al, p. 179, 2013). The attachment to family and its past, no matter how good or bad, runs deep.

There is often a tendency to rely on the adult side of adult children when parents announce their divorce (Fintushel and Hillard, 1991). If the adult child reacts with sadness, anger, fear, abandonment, confusion, or hurt, parents, already in their own turmoil, may feel their adult children aren’t there for them, especially if they have waited until the children are grown to divorce. This adds guilt to the turbulent emotions that are swirling about. Equanimity is lost for everyone.

There is a way to approach the dissolution of an intact family that can pave the way to positive outcomes and allow for healthy rebuilding over time: expand the focus in resolving conflict to include the children. The parents will need to resolve financial and legal matters, but it could make an enormous difference for parents prior to the final breakup “to prepare for new responsibilities and portending changes in their relationships and available time with their children” (Wallerstein et. al, p.182, 2013). Emotionally, this may seem daunting to parents in the divorce process.

Finding the emotional strength and willingness to listen to the children will reap prospects of ongoing and deepening emotional connection in parent and child relationships after divorce. Prospects for growth and healthy adjustment increase exponentially as years go by when parents and children are able to talk and listen to each other during the crisis of divorce. Many adult children ultimately develop some clarity about their parents’ divorce. Fintushel and Hillard (1991) report that many respondents in their study believed their mother had “achieved a degree of confidence and autonomy undreamed of before” (p. 298).

Working with a therapist who can safely facilitate difficult family dialogue is an option if a family is uncertain about communicating in the crisis of divorce. Letting go of assumptions and holding on to the possibility of listening and talking is an act of love for every member of the dissolving family. And the lifetime benefits cannot be quantified.


  1. Fintushel, N., and Hillard, N. (1991). A grief out of season. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co.
  2. Wallerstein, J.S., Lewis, J. M., and Blakeslee S. (2000). The unexpected legacy of divorce. New York, NY: Hyperion.
  3. Wallerstein, J., Lewis, J., and Rosenthal, S. P. (2013). Mothers and their children after divorce: Report from a 25-year longitudinal study. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 30, 2, 167-187.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mary Murphy, EdD, LICSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • laine

    October 2nd, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    I tell you what, had I known that my adult children would make me feel so guilty about deciding to leave my husband when I finally did I think that I would have just gone ahead and done it when they were younger.
    I tried to hold out in the marriage as long as I could thinking that I would be doing them a huge disservice leaving when they were in their formative years. So naturally I feel like I gave up some of the best years of my own life for them. Now I did this willingly as a parent and really as far as I could tell with very few complaints.
    When they all had their own families I decided it was time for a do over and I wanted a life again, so I left. You would have thought that this was the worst act ever and that I was commiting a criminal act for leaving their father.
    While I have tried to explain to them that I feel like I deserve a life now too they don’t want to hear that and all they want is for us to reconcile. I don’t want that and have tried to tell them that but they won’t listen. What can I do now?

  • Lisa

    May 9th, 2017 at 2:33 PM

    I too waited til my kids were out of college and had lives of their own when I left my husband. I thought too that they would adjust to it eventually, I was wrong. Almost three years later, 3 out of 4 of my kids still don’t talk to me. I feel like I am the only mom in the whole wide world that doesn’t deserve to be happy. Until I read your post anyway. I used to be so close to my kids while they were growing up. I guess its always suppose to be about them and I should never have thought that I deserve to be happy. I should have always put their feelings first.

  • Jackson

    October 3rd, 2013 at 3:46 AM

    If the children are going through things of their own then it could be that the breakdown of their parents’ marriage will be enough to put them over the top.

    This isn’t something that any child of any age would wnat to see, young or old, as this was something that they probably came to depend on as steady and true throughout the years. So you can kind of understand their issues from that point of view.

  • samantha

    October 4th, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    I remember watching my parents go thru this a few years ago and I have to say that this was a very hard time for the whole family. You have to remember that they were always like the glue that held all of us together so to speak so watching their marriage unravel was kind of like having a death in the family. I know that there were times that we were all selfish, all of us, but I think that they would look back and say that this would include them too. Now looking back I know that this was probably the best decision for everyone but was it hard to se it happen? Of course it was, these are your parents and after a certain point in time this isn’t something that you think is ever going to happen. I hope that in the end everyone going through this will be able to find their own peace with it the way that our family eventually has but it does take some time and there will be lots of anger and tears to get you there.

  • Jayme

    October 7th, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    I feel embarassed for adult children who act so spoiled and ridiculous when things still don’t go their way. These are the kinds of things that make me want to tell them to grow up and get a life, that this is what their parents are trying to do and after a certain point it really isn’t any of their business anymore.

    I understand that this has to be painful, as divorce almost always is, but you have to be thankful for them that now they will hopefully have years of happiness ahead of them. Why wouldn’t I want that if it was available to them?

  • J Law

    July 17th, 2019 at 4:34 AM

    I can understand why children do not wish to speak to their parents. My marriage disintegrated at a terrible time for all of us, and I have been a disaster to be around, whilst the ex is permanently on holiday with his new lady, and does nothing but talk about his holidays. He tries to communicate with the children like they are his pals, and they should be interested in his love life and holidays. I am just as toxic for being upset. Seems to me that by keeping out the the way the adult children have the right idea.

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