Photo by: Joe Houghton

Facing Your Parents’ Late-life Divorce

by Janice Green
Photo by: Joe Houghton

Having your parents divorce is mind-bending, especially for an adult child. Your childhood memories may be challenged (was it all a facade?), family traditions are uprooted, and education or career plans may be threatened — all because your folks are calling it quits. During my 30-year divorce practice I’ve seen both the impact of parental divorce on adult children and the impact of adult children on their parents’ divorce process. After reading related questions and commentary from other moms on this site, I thought I’d offer a few ideas to ponder:

1. If you go with a parent to meet with an attorney, remember that the attorney-client confidentiality privilege is just between the client and attorney. Give your parent a chance to be alone with the attorney to cover sensitive topics. Yes, parents have secrets, too. Writing down questions beforehand and taking notes during the meeting will free up your parent to listen to, and form opinions about, the attorney.

2. If your parents are fighting in your presence, ask them to be civil when you are in the vicinity. You have no idea how often older clients report (and respect) adult children putting their foot down, and drawing boundaries, during their parents’ divorce.

3. 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. And your help can be a welcomed relief for a parent who was not the marital bookkeeper.

4. If your parents are not capable of communicating with each other, 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.

5. Don’t find yourself being a Super Sleuth. Spying on the other parent can backfire and is best left to investigation specialists. If testimony is needed later, you do not want to be the one on the witness stand describing your mother’s tryst escapade.

6. Try to understand your own agenda- fearing the loss of financial support or the disruption of life as you once knew it? Concerned about a parent’s financial or emotional dependency on you? Anger at the initiating parent? Remember that alliances can shift. For example: Daughter is mom’s confidante and echoes mom’s disdain toward dad for “dumping” the family. Later, daughter’s alliance shifts when she tires of mom’s continuing derisiveness toward dad.

7. 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.

8. 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. In one case, my client faced the likelihood that she could not afford to keep the marital home- until she and her daughter had a creative moment. Mom ended up renting the home to her daughter and son-in-law and redecorating her ex-husband’s workshop and garage into a really cozy efficiency apartment- big enough to suit her needs and desires. The arrangement has worked beautifully for everyone concerned.

9. Telling grandchildren that Grandma and Grandpa are splitting can definitely be a challenge. So much depends on the age of the children, their degree of closeness to the grandparents, and how much acrimony is flying. I have been told by grandparent-clients that they struggled with this situation, but those very close to the grandchildren often wanted to be involved in the explanation and give reassurance that both grandparents would continue to adore them.

10. Involvement of adult children can be helpful to an attorney. In one case I met with my new client and her daughter. Mom had to leave the room for a few minutes, and the daughter whispered, “You know, my mother has been diagnosed with early stage dementia.” No, I did NOT know! People are always nervous and forgetful in our initial meeting. This was obviously a crucial piece of information.

The best gift a child can receive after a parental divorce is to see both parents thrive and bounce back from one of life’s most challenging upheavals. This applies to adult children as well.

Janice Green practices family law in Austin,TX, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, is a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and her recently published book, Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges, includes a discussion about the roles adult children play in their parents’ divorce later in life.

Editor’s Note: Add your thoughts below, and you may win a copy of Janice’s new book, Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges.

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A dear friend of mine recently went through a divorce after a life time with her husband. It was actually a peaceful parting of ways and her children were understanding. They had been friends for so many years that after the children grew up and moved on to their own lives they realized that is all they were... Just friends. This is a great post. I enjoyed the advice given... hoping of course to never have to use them.

My parents divorced when I was in my middle 30's. It was tough! At the time I remember thinking, "How hard this must be on little kids, if I'm having this much trouble as an adult!" I was really angry with my father, as were most of us kids. It took me 10 years to figure out that he divorced my mom, not us. And yes, it was weird to have mom complain about him to me. I did my best to comfort without really taking it all in...

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As a child of parents who divorced long after I was gone and married I will tell you it is hard. My parents had broken up before with out divorcing and my sisters and my mom had lived with us and we supported them for a time. That was hard. What was harder was when they got back together...

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Wow - my parents divorced when i was 21 - i am now 43 and it is tougher today than yesterday and so on .... my mom doesn't speak to my dad - he owes her money ... i think she is resentful that he left her - she talks bad about him whenever she has an opportunity ......

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I have been through divorce after a 10 year relationship and it was a breeze compared to the experience of my parents divorcing after 37+ years of marriage. It probably should have happened much sooner. We still all get together for holidays and birthdays and everyone is civil. The hardest part is that my mother is bitter and has never gotten over it. I am just so tired of the negative...

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I have been divorced for 2 1/2 years after 32 years of marriage. I have 3 grown sons and a few grandchildren. Even though my children were aware of the troubled marriage, the announcement of a divorce still was very difficult for them. My ex husband and I agreed to keep things as amiable as possible. We were lucky in that way. Today we talk often and get along quite well. My children have accepted the divorce and love us both...

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Divorce is tough for children at any age. As an adult, you may wonder how secure your own marriage is, especially in a marriage with young kids. If you'd like to strengthen your marriage, take advantage of the special offer of free videos to dramatically improve your marriage just for Mamapedia members. Check out the link:

I am facing a divorce after 35 years of marriage and 40 years husband wants his freedom.
It is very difficult to realize that there is nothing I can do to repair my marriage. Let's face it, it is unhealthy for the whole family to remain in a chronically unhappy marriage but I also can't see my husband and me "rebuilding" our relationship and be
"friends" again. Our kids are adults but it does not mean that they are unaffected by it...

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I read this post with great interest, since I am just beginning the process of divorcing my husband after 36 years of marriage. Ours is a different situation than the "norm," since my husband has been arrested on a very serious charge and will probably spend the rest of his life in prison. Our adult children will most likely never be his "ally," but he is still their father. Even tho his crimes affected them directly, they still love and are concerned for him.

It is great to read all these comments. Divorce is always a painful thing to go through; even though I am with the same man of 13 years, there are so many people close to me who are get divorce and there separations affect (in) directly my relation with them, no matter how neutral I try to stay. I see how some are unfcomfortable in my house or around me when they happen to notice that I have not divorced their ex-partner...

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My parents divorced right after I graduated high school. It was traumatic. It has been 20 years and I'm still affected.

My parents should have divorced years ago, but they are still in an unhealthy relationship, and the resentments are all in every conversation, and is expressed in other outward behaivors.
It is also showing up in my mothers health which is now very poor. Anger will do that to one's body...

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I just had this discussion with my mom this weekend! What a great post! As an "adult" child of divorced parents - they split after 30 years together about 3 years ago, it has not been easy. I often wonder if it's easier as an adult or as a child. I figured that as a child, it changes your entire life path from that point forward. The long-term damage is far greater, but the emotional turmoil may not be a long-lasting...

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Divorce is painful but it must be done for the unhealthy marriage. I am married for 39 years and been engaged for 2 years with the same man and had good relationship with him,until he had been unfaithful. After waiting for 3 years for him to stop his womanizing, I opted to divorce him because it is not good to everyone, mostly my family, what they are observing - that he can get away with it...

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My parents are currently divorcing after 34 years of marriage but I think they should have separated a long time ago. My dad said that they stayed together for us. They have been the best parents but they never had a happy marriage and we, the children, knew it. There was no infidelity or abuse involved but not much affection either.

I am the youngest of three, in my early 30's, and married with very young children...

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