When Grandma and Grandpa Split Up

grandparents can have marital troubles and even get divorced
Marital discord and divorce does happen to grandparents. Stockbyte / Getty Images

In the UK it's known as "silver separation." In the US the most popular term is "gray divorce." If it seems to you that more older people are divorcing, you're on top of the latest trend. According to an article in the AARP Bulletin, the divorce rate for those over 50 has doubled since 1990. The UK has seen a precipitous rise in divorces among those even older, over 60, according to a report in the Telegraph. When couples divorce at such an advanced age, grandchildren are likely to be impacted, as well as adult children.

Why Do Grandparents Divorce?

To younger family members, the idea of grandparents divorcing may seem ludicrous. Why separate when you have a shared history of decades together, children and grandchildren may wonder. Several factors drive late-in-life divorce, including:

  • With the increase in healthy lifespans, those in their 50s and 60s realize that they probably have a lot of life left to live.
  • Those who are unhappy in their marriages sense that it is now or never.
  • Retirement may highlight a couple's basic incompatibility, which may not have been so obvious when they were occupied with wage-earning and raising a family.
  • Older couples often have enough financial resources that divorce will not impoverish either of them.

Of course, for every oldster who is seeking relief from the ties that bind, there is potentially one who is blindsided by the notion. And the sad truth is that divorce even at an advanced age often leaves poverty in its wake. Women are especially vulnerable to economic distress, according to an expert quoted in the AARP article. Heidi Hartmann of the Women's Institute for Policy Research estimates that 20% of women who are "older and alone" live in poverty.

What to Tell the Grandkids

Facts and figures don't ease one of the toughest passages for divorcing grandparents: telling the grandkids. Experts agree that what grandchildren need to hear is a variant of what parents have been told to say when they divorce: This is between Grandma and Grandpa. It's not about you. Your grandparents still love you, you'll always be their grandchild, and the divorce won't change your relationship. Quite possibly, however, that last thing may not be true.

How Divorce Changes Grandparents

Grandparents who have been through a divorce are likely to live farther away from their grandchildren and to have cooler relationships with their adult children, which affects their relationships with their grandchildren. Divorce has an especially powerful impact on grandfathers, according to a Penn State study. Divorced grandfathers are more likely to become long-distance grandparents than grandmothers are and are less likely to be involved grandfathers.

Advice for Divorcing Grandparents

First and foremost, grandparents should not stay away from family gatherings just because they may involve some level of discomfort. Many divorced grandparents attend events even if their former spouses will be in attendance, especially if the events are likely to be large and festive. Smaller, more intimate occasions are a bit more challenging. Sooner or later, a grandchild's wedding or other occasions will require the exes to either face each other or skip the event. Generally speaking, the sooner grandparents have the face-to-face, the better, not only for them but also for the rest of the family, who may have been holding their collective breaths.

Along with not forsaking family events, grandparents should also maintain other forms of contact. It's important to realize that every conversation with adult children doesn't have to revolve around the divorce, even in the early stages when it is on everyone's minds. Grandparents should do some brainstorming before they call their grandchildren. It's good to have a list of neutral topics for conversation in mind, to avoid both awkward silences and sensitive subjects. The grandkids' activities are usually a safe bet.

Challenges for Other Family Members

The adult children of divorcing parents will naturally be curious about what led to such a drastic step. This curiosity may lead them into encouraging "tell-all" conversations with their parents. Such conversations are likely to be a mistake. They are likely to include information that those outside the marriage do not need to know. In addition, the confiding parent probably has an ulterior motive, which is to get adult children on his or her side.

The children should resist taking sides at all costs. Having lived with their parents for many years, they may already have some ideas about where the fault may lie. Even if their instincts are correct, it's not about being right. It's about holding the family together. Adult children who encourage intimate confidences and align themselves with one parent or another are allowing a pattern to develop which can be destructive not only to family cohesiveness but ultimately to the parent, who can become stuck in a cycle of blame and recriminations.

Accepting Change

Because grandparents are the repositories of many family traditions, a grandparent divorce can feel as catastrophic as a grandparent death. Divorce, however, is not only an end but also a beginning for many individuals. Often they embark on new endeavors that they felt, rightly or wrongly, that they could not explore while married, sometimes becoming happier and more fulfilled as a result. New relationships also are a possibility for divorced grandparents. Although remarriage is less likely after late-in-life divorces, it does occur. When grandparents remarry, they often become step-grandparents, bringing new children and grandchildren into the family circle. All of these changes will be easier for everyone involved if they are regarded not as losses, but as new possibilities.

Although grandparent divorces are on the rise, statistically they still account for a small percentage of divorces. It's much more likely that grandparents will have to deal with the divorce of a child or grandchild. Still, when grandparent divorce does occur, all involved should strive to handle the consequences with as much grace as possible.