Lifestyle & Culture

Late Dates #16: Gray Divorce and Adult Children


By Grace Cooper

Suggested listening while reading: Shop Around by The Miracles

DATING LATER in life is full of choices and decisions. Do I like this person? Are we compatible on all the levels that are meaningful to each of us? Do I see myself wanting to label this relationship as exclusive, or even to marry this person? Late-life relationships are special in that you finally have the personal freedom to be casual companions, soul mates or anything in between. The script you once followed earlier in life—marriage, then the baby carriage—is in the rear view mirror once kids are grown and launched into lives of their own . . . or is it? 

Consider this shocking statistic: The single greatest predictor that a remarriage will fail is the presence of children from a previous marriage or relationship. Children have very little say in whether their parents remarry and form new families, but they have tremendous power to break it up. It’s common for younger children to create friction and express hostility towards the new spouse, presumably out of a sense of loyalty to the displaced parent. But guess what? Adult children are just as culpable, acting out post-divorce hostilities just as younger kids often do.

British researcher Sarah Corrie found that adult stepchildren face the very same feelings that younger ones do. These include not liking to see the parent and stepparent be affectionate with one another, feeling in a loyalty bind (“If I like stepmom, I’m betraying mom”), feeling competitive with the stepparent, and feeling pressured to have a relationship with him or her. Adult stepchildren can be very unreconciled to a parent’s divorce, hostile to the idea of getting a stepparent, and resentful of the step parent him or herself. As the kids get older, issues like estate planning and inheritance can come into play, adding an extra layer of anxiety and resentment.

Stepmothers fare worse than stepfathers. Longitudinal studies of stepfamily life by psychologists James Bray and Mavis Hetherington and sociologist Constance Ahrons show that:

Kids of all ages resent getting a stepmother more than getting a stepfather and that they resent her for longer. In Hetherington’s study, less than 20% of adult stepchildren said they felt close to their stepmothers. And while more than half of adult stepkids told Ahrons they were happy about mom remarrying, less than 30% were happy that daddy had.

And according to a study cited in the book Stepmonster, you don’t have to be a “homewrecker” to be resented: Regardless of how the previous union ended, a stepmother is likely to be the lightning rod for his kids’ unhappiness and anger that their parents broke up.

Statistically the first two years after which a couple marry are the roughest, as children of all ages adjust to the new reality. The fear of parental estrangement is real, and any lingering post-divorce parental guilt adds fuel to the smoldering resentment many children feel years after their parents divorce. However, life goes on, and with any luck divorcés will find new love. But those sparkly new couples who hope to make it to the finish line need to reassure their children they still love them and can’t force them to love a new partner. But for heaven’s sake, refuse to stand idly by if your kids treat your beloved like furniture. 

When my ex-husband remarried after our split, I’m proud to say my own children supported him and their new stepmother. (She’s lovely and he doesn’t deserve her, but that’s another story . . .  .)

As I began to date again, they treated each man I introduced to them with respect and kindness. However, that has not been my experience with the adult children of men I’ve dated. Let’s just say the distinctly chilly reception I’ve experienced on several occasions put the kibosh on any such romantic notions on my part. I’d rather stay free and single than endure hostility from any adult child who can’t appreciate the happiness I bring to his father. I’ll never ask any beau to choose between his child and me, but unless he chooses to prioritize his relationship with me, why in the world would I want to hitch my wagon to his? Dinner and a movie is one thing. Signing up to be the target of undeserved hostility is quite another. 

My advice would be to look out for your own happiness always and model healthy behaviors for your children at any age. I think we parents who once made bad choices in mates can still be good role models for our adult children. Change is inevitable, and the courage to change is admirable. Painful mistakes are simply the motivation to learn that important life lesson. 

But just in case that message falls flat, consider this—who wants to leave the next big late-life decision up to adult kids still angry with their parents for splitting up? This quote from comedian Steven Wright gives me chills . . .

“Be nice to your children. After all, they are going to choose your nursing home.”

With that as motivation, my new beau and I are working out a contingency plan to avoid leaving our future home and health care up to our kids—we are calling it the “Not Dead Yet” (NDY) community. It’s a proactive plan to create a healthy, happy, social and independent community for this last phase of life. I’ll tell you more in my next installment of Late Dates.

—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage more than a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 68, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.


4 thoughts on “Late Dates #16: Gray Divorce and Adult Children

  1. Nancy G says:

    Thank you, Grace. I’ll pass this along. BTW, the 25 years was a typo. I practiced law for 45 years, and actually can’t believe I stayed at it so long.

  2. Grace Cooper says:

    Most widowed men in the 55-64 year-old group remarry within 2 years. Women tend to wait 3-5 years according to a 2022 Pew research study. The statistics for failure of all second marriages hovers around 60%. The reasons vary, but the issue of stepchildren applies here, too. “Women may mourn, and men replace,” but inserting anyone new into an extended family unit is seldom without a difficult adjustment period.
    I recommend your friends check out Dr. John Gottman’s website and books on the subject of the dynamics for creating healthy marriages.

  3. Nancy G says:

    Interesting, and in line with my observations over a 25-year career as a family law attorney. Second marriages are tricky, but stepmoms get the short end of the stick. I wonder if there’s similar research on remarriage after losing your spouse. I have friends in that situation.

  4. Janet says:

    Thank you for that interesting info about stepmothers!

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