• What's it like when your parents divorce when you yourself are grown up and out of the house?

  • Therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen explores the impacts this can have

  • If you are coming to terms with a separation or divorce, you can find a therapist here

There has been a great deal written about divorce and its impact on the children. 

The common assumption has been that if the children are older it is less damaging. From my clinical experience of working with clients of divorced parents, I would argue that the damage is different but not necessarily less painful. 

Very little is written about the impact of divorce of older couples on their adult children and given the rise of divorces of couples in their 50's and 60's this is an important omission. 

Divorces are not all the same. Women are now more financially independent and it is not as rare as it was to have a mutually agreed separation once the children have left home. However what is also not uncommon is when one partner, normally the man, hits a mid-life crisis and leaves for another perhaps younger woman.

If your children are grown up, you are no longer young.

When children leave home to live independent lives it is a major transition for parents

Suddenly, they are facing old age and mortality. If your children are grown up, you are no longer young. Women in our society rarely have the option of running off with a younger man but men can and often do. Falling in love and starting over is a powerful aphrodisiac and an irresistible illusion of youth. 

It can be particularly shocking to friends and family because this can happen even when couples have not been especially unhappy. To the adult children it can shatter their belief in the reality of their family memories and make them question if the parents were ever really happy. Was their 'stable' childhood a pretence? 

When children leave home and go out into the world they don't want what they leave behind to disappear. Home is something you leave but don't like having taken away from you. When parents divorce the safety of the parental home goes too.

If the divorce is mutual the transition can be painful for the above reasons but if is far more difficult if one of the parents is left against their will. It feels like an abandonment of the cruelest kind. Marital breakup is hard whatever your age but as you enter your fifties and sixties you are facing fears of a lonely old age. 

The children not only have their own feelings to cope with but they have a shattered parent in deep pain caused by the actions of the other parent. It can feel impossible to believe that one parent whom you love can hurt the other so badly. 

Trust in committed relationships can also take a battering and raise questions about whether any relationship can endure long term.

When parents divorce the safety of the parental home goes too.

One of the most difficult aspects of divorcing older parents is that there is little understanding of its impact on the grown up children. The assumption is that because you are grown up and have your own life it can't be that bad. But initially at least it can be that bad; the grief can be enormous. 

An assumed family future is gone. Mum and Dad will now grandparent separately. Family holidays a thing of the past. Christmas and birthdays will be a challenge. How do you manage feelings around the abandoning parent and potential new step-parent? 

Of course many of these issues arise with any divorce but there is an assumption that younger children need as much protection as possible from the parental conflict. There is less of this assumption with older children and a degree of role-reversal is inevitable if one parent is left bereft. The pressure to take sides is great and can be difficult to resist. In many ways it can feel like a deprivation of both parents simultaneously. 

The adult children of divorce need allowances too for their sense of loss, anger and grief. If these feelings are recognised and understood as normal then the rocky road to recovery is easier. Life does go on and families do adapt to a different reality sometimes better than anyone could have imagined.

Further reading

Your parents' divorce is always painful

Minimising the Destructive Impact of Divorce

How does divorce affect young children?

Depression took me by surprise after my parents divorced