When Grandparents Divorce, Everyone Hurts

When Grandparents Divorce, Everyone Hurts

This summer, I experienced a painful and somewhat unexpected experience while visiting my recently-divorced mother’s house for the first time in three years with my wife and four children. It was quickly evident that my oldest two children had a strong recollection of some of the happy memories that we had experienced in this home while their grandparents were still married. This was where we had enjoyed large family dinners during holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and where fireworks were lit for the Fourth of July. In this house, engagements had been announced, babies had crawled on the floor, and cousins had formed lifelong friendships. Interestingly, my mother has kept many of the pictures featuring these memories in frames throughout the house: a reminder of the way things were. This was emotionally overwhelming for my 11-year-old son who sobbed on my shoulder as we sat and talked together on the couch. When I asked him about that moment recently, he explained, “I remembered how things used to be, and that I will never see them [grandpa and grandma] together again.”

My 14-year-old daughter has also struggled with this difficult transition. It came as a surprise to me when she shared: “I felt depressed for a few months after I learned that [our grandparents] had divorced. It’s not the same when you see them. It’s not as special.” My 9-year-old son was probably the most emotionally shaken when he first heard the news, requiring additional support for several weeks after he learned about the split. Although it is difficult for him to verbalize, my 6-year old son can also become sad when we talk about my mother and father, or when he looks at an old family photograph. And I will always remember the difficult conversation we had together driving home in our van when I tearfully promised that we were going to work hard to stay strong as a family. My wife and I have done our best to provide an emotional buffer for our children by reassuring them that we are not going to divorce. Unfortunately, I imagine that not all children are provided with this type of reassurance from their parents when their grandparents decide to divorce.

I have long understood from educational, research, and clinical experience that parental divorce has a substantial impact on children. What I had not considered to the same extent was how grandparental divorce can also be detrimental. As I have written previously on this blog, my parent’s divorce has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. The month of September is in many ways a sad reminder of what could have been and probably should have been for my family of origin. This very month three years ago, my mother made the decision to leave my father. And two years ago, they finalized their divorce, signing and submitting their divorce papers on what would have been their 39th wedding anniversary.

The Overlooked Effects of Grandparental Divorce

Although a variety of different media outlets have written about gray divorce— such as here and here—the research specifically on grandparental divorce is rather sparse compared to the substantial literature on parental divorce. For instance, in a 2004 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Valerie King investigated grandparent-grandchild relationships. King’s results indicated that the negative effects of divorce were stronger for grandfathers as well as paternal grandparents. Also, the negative effects of grandparental divorce were influenced by the strength of the grandparent-parent relationship.

Paul Amato and Jacob Cradle studied the long reach of divorce across three generations using longitudinal data during a 20-year timespan. This study by Amato and Cradle is unique since it was able to explore how grandparental divorce specifically impacts grandchildren across a variety of variables (education, marital discord, divorce, relations with parents, and well-being). Interestingly, fewer than 10% of grandchildren in the study had been born during the time that their grandparents divorced, and yet the effects of the divorce still seemed to have a significant impact on this generation.

Excellent research on the intergenerational transmission of divorce has been provided by researchers such as Paul AmatoAndreas DiekmannNicholas Wolfinger, and many others (for a thorough and comprehensive look at this issue, I would recommend Dr. Wolfinger’s book, Understanding the Divorce Cycle, about how the divorce cycle impacts children of divorce in their own marriages).

We should not assume that grandparental divorce does not negatively impact grandchildren and the way they view marriage and the sustainability of relationships. As I wrote earlier this year in a blog post for Institute for Family Studies:

“While we may be finally seeing a decrease in gray divorce, I think the mistaken assumption often made by parents in their 50s, 60s, and 70s is now that their children are grown and have left the nest, divorce simply won’t be as hurtful or disruptive. Having experienced this myself, I would encourage older couples considering divorce to slow down, seek therapy, and consider the long-term consequences to their adult children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. The greatest gift parents can give their children and their grandchildren is a loving and committed marriage.”

As a parent of children who have experienced the divorce of their grandparents, and as marriage and family therapist, I would recommend the following in a situation where grandparents decide to divorce:

  1. Reassure children about the strength of your own marriage and your personal commitment to their mother or father. If your marriage is feeling flat, then work on making it vibrant again. After all, most marriages do not decline over time.
  2. Listen to your children and learn to recognize their perspectives. Your children are observant and may be feeling anxious about relationships, especially if they recognize how much emotional pain you have experienced from parental divorce.
  3. Finally, be willing to talk to your children about your parent’s marriage and what went wrong. Each of us can become more resilient when we recognize what not to do in relationships.

A Word to Older Couples Headed for Divorce

Not all marriages can be saved, and abuse, addiction, or serial infidelity are certainly reasons when divorce can be the best option. However, many studies indicate that most divorces actually occur in low conflict marriages in which spouses have become emotionally distant, with a tendency to blame their former spouse, not themselves, for the problems they faced. Any relationship, if it is not nurtured and cared for, can dwindle and die. However, when partners are dedicated and united in making their marriage work, problems that once seemed insurmountable can be overcome.

For those contemplating a potential divorce now that the children are grown, it is important to carefully consider the short and long-term consequences of that decision. Talk with your spouse about the relational legacy that you want to leave with your children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. If you choose to get divorced today, how might this impact their lives?

So many of the couples I have worked with in therapy that have chosen to divorce later regret that decision. Oh, how I wish that my divorced parents had taken the steps to overcome and repair the issues they faced as a married couple. It is worth the effort to protect the investment you have made in your marriage. There is hope: according to new research from Paul Amato and Spencer James, for most couples who stay the course, marriage tends to get better over time.

For the future of marriage and the strength of family relationships, each of us should be consciously aware of how our actions can impact future generations. May we stay committed to our own relationships and have the courage and foresight to strengthen our children so they are prepared for their own marriages.

*This article was first posted at the blog for The Institute for Family Studies on September 20, 2018.


References

I am an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University in Human Development and Family Sciences, and also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. As a researcher I am specifically interested in commitment in couple relationships, romantic relationship formation, marriage, and decision-making in the emerging adult (18-29 year-old) population.


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