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“In 2010, the first Baby Boomers turned 65. By 2030, 20 percent of America’s population will be over 65. As the Baby Boom generation moves into later life, the proportion of American elders who are divorced is skyrocketing,” says researcher and author Elizabeth Marquardt. “The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2015, 46 percent of boomers will live in divorced or unmarried households. These trends raise concerns for Baby Boomers as they age – and challenges for their grown children – as they become caregivers for their aging parents.”

Marquardt and Amy Ziettlow are co-researchers in a 3-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment to investigate aging, death and dying in an era of high family fragmentation.

Marquardt and Ziettlow are asking Gen Xers about things like:

  • How does your generation care for parents who may live far apart?
  • Is there an obligation to care for stepparents?
  • How do you grieve the loss of a parent when you have grieved the loss at the time of the divorce?
  • How do you honor your father and mother when a parent abandons their child?

During an interview, one man said, “My parent’s cold war lasted until my dad died. Then my mom wanted me to mourn the loss of my dad with her. I had already mourned the loss of my father.”

“Married parents will do their best to protect their kids from the worst of a dying parents’ illness,” Marquardt says. “Fragmented families don’t have that luxury. In fact, many of the people interviewed talked about stepparents who don’t communicate anymore once the biological parent has passed away. Family change is not the only stressor. Longer life span, smaller family size and rapid economic changes have a ripple effect on family breakdown.

“We have never thought forward to the impact of divorce on an aging nation,” Marquardt says. “Marriage used to be ‘until death do us part.’ Now it is ‘until it doesn’t feel good anymore.’ There are people who will die a lonely death due to family fragmentation. Leaders are asking who will be taking care of the old people.”

Marquardt and Ziettlow have found there is a lot of hope with Generation X.

“There is something about telling your story,” Marquardt says. “Out of sharing tears, raw memories and family craziness there is a hope that seems to emerge. They take a deep breath and at the end seem to feel a sense of relief.”

Many of those interviewed said they agreed to do it because they wanted to honor their parent.

“The golden rule doesn’t say, ‘Do unto others as they have done to you,’” Marquardt says. “Of the Gen Xers we have interviewed, many say their only hope is to rise above what has happened to them and to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Who will be there to take care of you when you can’t take care of yourself?

Image from Unsplash.com

“When I go out with a woman I can always tell on the first date if she’s from a divorced family,” says a young man. “The women from divorced families are over-anxious, eager to please. They’re exhausting.” (The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce)

“My parents have been married thirty-five years and I want a long marriage like they’ve had. I love my boyfriend, but he’s from a divorced family and, I don’t know, it just seems like he had to be a lot more independent growing up than I ever was. Frankly, it worries me.” (Between Two Worlds)

As a researcher and an adult child of divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt is all too familiar with statements like these.

“I will never forget a conversation I had with my ex-stepfather about the possibility of marrying the man I was dating at the time,” says Marquardt. “He suggested that because of my parents’ track record on marriage, that I might not make great marriage material. I was devastated, angry and scared.”

Ask a group of people what their chances are of making it in a lasting marriage.

Practically everyone will say they have a 50/50 chance of making it. Additionally, many have heard that coming from a divorced home puts you at an even higher risk for divorce.

“For a new generation of children of divorce leaving home and looking for love, I know the anxieties are there,” Marquardt says. “It is really hard to do a dance you have never seen before. But I don’t think it is totally fair to look at adult children of divorce as ‘damaged goods.’ I am 14 years into marriage with two happy kids. I have definitely had to learn some things about building a healthy relationship, including the fact that some days the way you make your marriage successful is by putting one foot in front of the other.”

Marquardt agrees that divorce on average makes life much harder for kids and for the adults that they become. She cautions people, however, against making the children bear the burdens of their parents’ decisions.

She contends that:

  • Many adult children of divorce want to work extra hard at making a marriage work. They don’t want to go through what their parents went through.
  • Despite what you may hear in the media, 80-90 percent of Americans say they want to marry at some point.
  • There are approximately 40 percent of adult children of divorce ages 18-40. Research shows they can learn skills to help them be great marriage partners.

“To those who have married parents, hear this: We children of divorce value marriage because we know what life is like when it’s gone,” Marquardt says. “We grew up fast and we know how to take care of ourselves. Many of us are, frankly, quite wonderful. Marry us.”

Image from Unsplash.com

Adult Children of Divorce Speak Out

The impact of divorce has long-lasting effects.

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: 25 Years of Research, Dr. Judith Wallerstein contends that the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Instead, the effects of divorce on children are cumulative. They crescendo in adulthood with the emergence of potentially serious romantic relationships, like when it is time to choose a life mate.

Seventeen years after Wallerstein released her book, Lelia Miller posed a question on social media to adult children of divorce.

She was intrigued by a friend whose parents’ divorce still affected her, even though she is married and has children. So, she asked her Facebook community if anyone would be willing to share about growing up in the shadow of their parents’ divorce.

“Over the course of a few days, more than 100 people said they were willing,” says Miller. “I asked questions such as: What effect has your parents’ divorce had on you, and what is the difference in how you felt about the divorce as a child and how you feel about it as an adult? What do you want to say to people who say children are resilient? What do you want adults in our culture to know about how divorce affects children, and what would you want to say to children?

“Seventy people out of the 100 answered the questions,” Miller says. “Most of them wanted to remain anonymous. The youngest was 22 and the oldest was in her 60s. I was shocked at my ignorance about the complex effects of divorce on children. I never knew that world existed. Their simple yet poignant responses are difficult to read, but not hopeless.”

While Miller does not claim to be a scholar or a researcher, many of the stories in her book, Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, are very similar to what Wallerstein’s research found.

Divorce is a life-transforming experience, even for adults.

After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood – with the decision to marry or not and have children or not – is different.

Miller only identifies the storytellers by number. When reading the book, many contributors read someone else’s story thinking it was their own.

“They were shocked to find out that many others had similar issues and circumstances,” Miller says. “One participant in her 50s shared that her parents divorced when she was 9. She said, ‘I still don’t know who I am supposed to be. I am one way with my mom and her side of the family and another way with my father and his side of the family. How do you maintain that?’

“Another shared about being ‘that girl on the soccer field.’ She always had to think about who she would hug first when she came off the field for fear of making someone angry or upset. She recalled a time when she had to get an X-ray after a game. Only one person could go with her. She almost had a panic attack trying to decide who to ask. Her stepmother was offended when she asked her mother to go.”

After reading the book, one lady asked her 35-year-old male friend how he felt about his parents’ divorce. Stunned, he said nobody had ever asked him how he felt about it.

“That was a common theme for most of the respondents,” Miller asserts. “Many were told ‘it was for the best.’ In fact, one woman recalled jumping up and down in the front yard saying, ‘We’re getting a divorce!’ honestly believing it was something good. I was actually shocked at the number of adults who were scared their parents would learn they had participated in the book. Many of the 70 are still in turmoil even after being in a really good marriage for 20 years.”

Miller does not imply that someone should remain in an abusive situation, nor is she saying that if your parents divorced you’re automatically going to have issues. She knows that many who found themselves divorced did not want it and were doing their best to cope. That doesn’t negate the impact on the children, however.

“So many adults desperately want to believe their child will come through a divorce unscathed,” Miller shares. “Nobody who answered my questions was unscathed. They felt like they had to go along with the narrative or be silent. That was the unnerving part.”

Miller’s work is not a scholarly research piece, but it is an honest representation of personal stories from adult children of divorce. Readers will definitely get a sense of divorce’s impact on kids. These men and women have much to say about their experience after years of reflecting on a question no one ever thought to ask them – until now.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***