Fifty-plus has always been a classic time to split. Now, as rising divorce statistics for our age group indicate, parents are keener than ever to seize the hour once the kids are off their hands. And that can mean ditching a relationship that’s past its sell-by date.
But parents are wrong to assume that their grown-up offspring aren’t affected. Sure, they don’t face the same disruption to their daily routines, and they don’t require ferrying from one household to the other but it doesn’t mean they don’t feel a whole range of confusing emotions: shock, grief, guilt, insecurity, anger, loss. They may become anxious or depressed.
Relate counsellor Denise Knowles says it helps if parents can acknowledge and anticipate the impact of divorce on offspring, whatever their age.
“One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to think that now the children are independent, divorce isn’t going to bother them in the way it would have when they were younger,” she says. “But just because they’re older doesn’t mean they aren’t going to feel the loss and the change any less than when they were toddlers or adolescents. So as parents you have to make sure you are able to explain that it isn’t anything to do with them.”
Jamie was in his second term at university when his parents announced they were getting divorced after 25 years of marriage. He says: “It was a total shock. I was surprised by how upset I was, because I felt grown-up. It turns all your reality upside down. You think, ‘If that’s gone, anything could go.’
“It made me question a lot of things about my childhood and family life.”
While most parents feel they have acted in the offspring’s best interests by staying together, the young ’uns themselves may well not.
Jamie says, “I felt quite guilty that my parents waited to separate until I went to university, particularly when I found out that my mum had been unhappy for years. I found it hard not to take sides, and for a long time I found it hard to get on with my dad, even though we still did things like go to football together.”
It doesn’t help that 50-plus divorce is more likely to be triggered by an affair than a mutual acceptance of differences. Because emotions run so high, it is tempting for parents to lean on their offspring emotionally, and to expect them to understand their point of view in the way a friend would. But that is unfair: they are still your kids, and you are still more of a grown-up, even if it’s hard to behave like one.
Claire remembers taking her mother’s side when her father left for another woman after nearly 30 years. She says: “I felt he’d betrayed her after she had given him the best years of her life. It all seemed so tacky. Mum was very upset a lot of the time and that was really horrible to watch.
“Suddenly I had to look after her, rather than her looking after me. For a long time I was very angry with Dad – there was this feeling that he was ruining everything.”
Despite the strength of her emotions, Claire feels she would have found the whole thing harder to bear when she was a teenager. Similarly, Sofia, who was in her late twenties when her parents divorced, feels that in many ways it is easier because she has her own young children to think about. For her, the divorce came as a relief after years of bad feeling.
She says: “It has brought me even closer to my mum. Before, I was stuck between the two. I was always the mediator and that was quite stressful. Every time we met, Mum would be moaning about Dad and the latest problem. Now we can go straight to talking about the nice things.”
So how do you break the news to adult offspring who aren’t living at home? The general consensus among the experts is that it’s important to tell them face to face, not in an email or on the phone. If you can bear to be in the same room as your soon-to-be-ex, tell them together and agree beforehand what you’re going to say.
This underlines the message that you are both still there for them as parents, that you still love them, and that the reasons for the divorce have nothing to do with them. It really doesn’t matter if they’re three or 23; when their parents’ marriage ends, reassurance is the key.
Consider the kids: top five tips
1. You’re bound to be preoccupied with your own issues, but don’t let it sidetrack you from thinking about your children’s lives.
2. Don’t underestimate the impact on your kids, even if they don’t want to talk about it.
3. Don’t have mysteries. They will only imagine the worst.
4. But equally, spare them the gory details. They don’t need – or want – too much information.
5. Don’t expect them to take sides. This may demand behaviour of saintly proportions but it will pay off in years to come.