The Gray Divorce Podcast: Episode 16 Adult Children of Gray Divorce with Dr. Carol Hughes

Andrew Hatherley |

Announcement:  Welcome to The Gray Divorce Podcast, hosted by divorce financial analyst and retirement planning counselor Andrew Hatherley. Join Andrew and guest experts as they help late-life divorcees build the financial and mental foundation for a meaningful future. There is life after divorce. Now on to the show.

Andrew Hatherley: Hello everyone. Welcome to episode 16 of the Gray Divorce Podcast. My guest today is Dr. Carol Hughes. Dr. Hughes holds her doctoral degree in clinical psychology achieving both summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors. She's also a two-time Fulbright scholar, a California licensed marriage and family therapist, and a family-focused divorce professional.

She works with children, adolescents, and adults in her private practice in Laguna Hills, California as a therapist, co-parenting and child specialist, divorce coach, and mediator. She has assisted hundreds of families experiencing separation and divorce. In addition to publishing numerous divorce-related articles and blogs that are available on her family-focused divorce website,, she's the co-author of Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce

She also authors a popular guest blog for Psychology Today called Home Will Never Be the Same Again: Guidance for the Families of Gray Divorce, which has over 450,000 views. Carol, welcome to the Gray Divorce Podcast. 

Carol Hughes: Thank you very much, Andrew. I'm happy to be here.

Andrew Hatherley: Very happy to have you with us today. I really enjoyed your book. Home Will Never Be The Same Again: A Guide for Adult  Children of Gray Divorce. What I really appreciate is that you are shedding light on an area of gray divorce that's really been overlooked or even minimized. The impact of gray divorce on adult children.

I'm curious what inspired you to write this? 

Carol Hughes: I've always wanted to write books. I've written a number of articles over the years and I had not really intended to write this book. I wrote several blog articles about adult children of gray divorce and how their parents' divorce affects them.

And several years ago a reporter from the New York Times was doing a series on this very topic. So as the internet is she found me, found the blog and reached out to me and asked if I'd be willing to be interviewed for her article. Of course, I said yes. And then a number of months later, a literary agent from New York, from one of the top literary firms reached out to me and said, “There are no books on this topic. Would you be willing to write a book?” 

And so when something comes to me like that, I say yes. Which I did. And I asked a colleague of mine and a friend if he wanted to work on the book with me, and the rest is history, as they say. 

Andrew Hatherley: Terrific when an opportunity to write a book comes at you like that on a silver platter, 

Carol Hughes: Isn't it?

Exactly. Exactly. And the more I've worked in the divorce field for about 20 years as you mentioned in the introduction as a divorce coach, child specialist, and our practice group of professionals that work as teams helping parents go through divorce. The attorneys immediately embraced the idea of an adult child specialist working with the adult children going through divorce.

And so I began to see more and more how their parents' divorce was affecting these adult children of all ages from such young ages. 18 all the way up to 60, 65 years old? Their parents are 80 and 85, 90 years old, right? Some of them were getting divorced, so it spans many decades.

And I wanted to give a voice to these adult children because the myth in our culture, really in the industrialized world, is that because these children are now adults, it should not affect them. Their parents' divorce should not affect them. And I don't know about you Andrew, but for me, I have yet to meet an adult going through a divorce, a married couple who didn't have some very painful feelings, even if they wanted the divorce.

So why do we have the myth that it will not affect the adult children in some painful ways as well? 

Andrew Hatherley: That's so true. As a matter of fact, I know one of the chapters of your book is all about relationships. And so many studies have been done showing that what truly brings contentment and satisfaction in one's life is the quality of one's relationships.

And so much is being thrown into turmoil when your parents are getting divorced, whether you're 10 years old or 40 years old. Relationships are being challenged and upended. It's interesting what you said, I think you referenced a more enlightened attorney who was interested in the subject of adult children of gray divorce.

I didn't experience such enlightenment, and I don't see it very often in my world, working with divorced couples. Inevitably an attorney will ask the question at the outset do you have children? And this happened in my divorce when I was 52. 

Do you have children? 


How old are they?

23 and 27 or whatever the exact ages were. And his immediate response was, oh, good. Move on. Move along. 

And I didn't, just to give you, to the ignorance out there. I've said, okay, let's move along. But people ignore the impact on adult children. So why do you think this is, why do you think we dismiss or overlook the effect of gray divorce on adult children?

Carol Hughes: I think the primary reason, honestly, and this is not to throw any negative aspersions toward our current legal system, but our current family law legal system is designed to focus on the best interest of the minor children. That's the law in all those 50 states in the US and other countries throughout the industrialized world, and so they're more than happy to say, as you said, move along the adult children, quote, “don't matter”.

I've had family law attorneys tell me those words that when they were just, as your attorney said, they didn't even think about the adult children because they're thinking through the legal lens, which again is nothing negative towards them or the legal system. That's their training. And then I think the second reason is what parent doesn't want to feel relief that their children are going to be okay? And so it's very easy to be seduced into thinking that my children are adults. They're on with their lives now. They'll be okay without giving it any further thought, as you said you did. 

Andrew Hatherley: Perhaps we could get into the unique challenges that adult children contend with that don't necessarily affect younger children of divorce.

Can you give us an overview of the key issues that you see adult children of divorce facing? 

Carol Hughes: Sure. And some of them are similar to the minor children. And there's been research starting in about 1989. A few forward-thinking researchers did do some research with adult children of divorce.

And one of the themes that came about, and I've certainly heard this in my practice, is adult children saying I'm not minimizing what minor children go through, but frankly, I think I'm dealing with more than they are because I've been in this family for a lot longer and I have all these relationships, as you mentioned a few minutes ago, Andrew.

Family relationships, extended family, community, all of that. And so it's more of a loss because I have more years of loss. One common refrain that we hear in research indicates adult children saying “It felt like my whole world ended in an instant. When I heard my parents saying they were getting divorced for whatever reasons”.

Even if I thought they were going to get divorced one day as I was growing up, there was contention between them. Or if they seemed like a happy marriage, it's still a shock. They use phrases like it felt like an earthquake happened and my family was sucked into earthquake faults. A tsunami hit my family hit me.

And then the loneliness that adult children report because of our cultural myth that they should be fine. And even their own peer group telling them aren't you glad you weren’t five or six? You're a lot older now, so just roll with it. Then also there are, depending on the developmental stages that the adult children are in, there are unique issues for each of those developmental stages. And what I'm sharing is not exclusive, of course. The younger adult children, the 18-20s, a lot of them are still financially and even emotionally dependent on their parents in many ways. A lot of them fear and it actually happens that they have to drop out if they're in college or some trade school.

Or even get a second job to help their parents if there were financial issues with the parents. Most adult children want to help their parents as they think their parents helped them growing up. That's a really big issue a lot of times, the financial and emotional support with the younger adult children, the middle age, what we call emerging adults to middle-aged. Adult children may have their own career going, starting at least they may be mid-career, they may have families of their own and the stress of parents needing to lean on them, which would not be unusual for the parents to need support from them emotionally.

Certainly, even sometimes financially, they help their parents find attorneys, financial specialists such as you, and so forth. A lot of the middle-aged adult children start to as actually the younger adult children do too. They start to question their ability to remain in a long-term relationship.

Saying things like the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. If my parents couldn't make this relationship happen lifelong. Why do I think I can, they raised me after all. And then the pressures of maybe the parents pulling on them. Sometimes there are siblings. One supports mom, one supports dad or dad and dad, mom, and mom, whatever the gender.

Maybe then they start to have difficulty focusing and concentrating at work. They're pulled to maybe focus on their own children if they have children, versus how can I balance all my time with mom, with my wife, the children, their needs, et cetera. 

Andrew Hatherley: Yeah. No, it's obviously minors are legally defined as zero, zero to 18.

But the adult children of gray divorce can be from 19 to 60 something really? Or above that. So you've got this wide variety of people in various stages of life. And you're right. For the 19-year-old, the question may be who's gonna pay my college bills now? Whereas for someone perhaps in their fifties, sixties, maybe even younger, they're looking at a potential role reversal in relationship to their parents. Where they thought mom's gonna take care of dad when his memory fails. Now mom's gone and she's not there to take care of him.

And the issue is, that puts additional pressure on the adult children and additional pressure on their marriage as well. You can see for a long-lasting adult marriage of their parents and then it ends. You can see adult children perhaps saying “What's the point? If their marriage fails, this could happen to us too.”

Carol Hughes: Exactly. And a real key issue is that at all ages for the adult children to find a support system, because so often parents have been the support system, even for adult children at all ages. And there are a lot of support systems out there to help the adult children help their parents if their parents are ill or aging.

If their 50-year-old parents and hopefully they have better health, then it's not as big a concern for health issues, but even a lot of adult children have concerns that one or both of their parents would be an easy mark for a con person. If there's money from the divorce or during the divorce or there's a larger estate.

And we know from the research and personal stories too, anecdotal stories that these do happen. These situations do happen where the vulnerable parent. Emotionally is also vulnerable financially, right? And so that's a big concern in talking with people like you, or their attorneys to realize that there are people who can help older adult parents as well, caregivers, things like that.

But it's a big load for an adult child to take on even when they want to do it. So remembering that a support system is really important to find. 

Andrew Hatherley: It's a big load for them to take on, and the divorcing parent should re really be aware of how to help their children through this situation.

But of course, many times they may be looking at it as their new experience, their new position as an opportunity to rebuild a new life, and they're looking forward. And they're not really appreciating the effect on their children. You mentioned from a financial perspective, I think there are many areas where parents of gray divorcing parents can help their adult children with respect to, estate planning.

Yes, changing the beneficiaries on their various retirement accounts or insurance policies, prenuptial agreements for new marriages if there are new marriages happening here. And elder care issues, these are all important issues. Carol, is there a distinction between how gray divorce affects adult female children versus adult male children? 

Carol Hughes: Yes, there are a lot of anecdotal experiences that those of us who work in this field can report. There's a little bit of research that is typically in industrialized countries and even nonindustrialized, but women tend to be what we call the kinship keepers in relationships. 

And so when the family bonds break apart often the mother is not in such a strong role to keep that going for various reasons. And so often it falls on the daughters, if they're willing, to try to organize the holidays and, maybe even family get-togethers, things like that versus the sons.

And again, the research in marriage shows that typically sons, when they marry become more involved in general with the wife's family than his own family. And so let's say the son is going through his parents' gray divorce, he would be, in general, this is a generalization, less likely to step in and try to keep the relationships, the familial relationships going.

If they're grandchildren, then his children could be losing that contact with the grandparents more than if he has a sister, because again, in general, women are more the kinship keepers and caretaking tends to default to the sisters more than it does to the brothers. And so that would be another issue to know about for the differences.

Andrew Hatherley: That's fascinating what you said about the male adult children of gray divorce transitioning towards their wife's family. And I think what we're seeing there, I'm interested in your opinion, is that the wife often takes the role of the social networker. As the person who makes the plans.

And it's funny that's happening to the adult children, but that also is an issue, and I've mentioned this many times on, on various podcast episodes and blogs, et cetera, is that for the parents going through gray divorce, there's often two types of penalties. There are lots of things going on, but there are two key penalties, and typically women face what's known as the economic penalty.

Recent research shows a 45% decline in the standard of living after gray divorce versus a 21% decline for men. But what men tend to experience is the social penalty. And they've lost that, for lack of a better term, social coordinator in their lives.

That's one thing. I think it's accepted that men find it a little bit more difficult to make male friends than women do making female friends. And they may be a little less willing to share their emotions about how they're experiencing the divorce.

So it's fascinating how both ends of the spectrum. The male personality can tend to lead to his social isolation from his children. 

Carol Hughes: Yes. And that there is research to support that during and after gray divorce, the fathers suffer more from loss of the family members than the mothers do, partly because of that kinship issue that I mentioned earlier, and also because of what you were just sharing about.

Women tend, in general, to be more the social organizers and families, and so the men suffer from depression and isolation. So it's something for adult children to be aware of and even the gray divorce. Parents, who listen to your podcast to be aware of too. Women are more likely to join support groups go to divorce, recovery groups, and so forth.

Even read books like, my book Gray Divorce. Whereas men are not. So there is that isolative issue for men that does affect physical health as well as mental health. So it's important definitely to know. 

Andrew Hatherley: Definitely. And what you say is a hundred percent true. I've been doing divorce workshops for six years now, and the ratio of attendees female to male is probably 10 to one.

By far the majority are female. And it's interesting. I don't mean to downplay the economic impact of divorce on women. I would never do that, but what I think has been minimized, because the research shows that, once you reach a certain economic level, happiness is ultimately determined by the quality of your relationships with people.

So men are suffering in the social realm and it's a very important issue. Another issue that jumped out at me in your book, which I thought was really interesting, it fascinated me was in your chapter about, Family traditions and rituals.

Divorce really throws a monkey wrench, as if Thanksgiving wasn't as stressful enough. And Christmas. But now you've got the logistics of who to invite, who not to invite, who gets along with who. It can make it very very awkward. You pointed to a tool that can help adult older divorcing parents help adult children and the tool is called Divorce Ceremony.

And I hope this is fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit more about what a divorce ceremony is and how can it better help families navigate through divorce, particularly with respect to traditions that might have existed in the family? 

Carol Hughes: Sure, what we know about rituals - think of religious and spiritual rituals, and funerals and weddings, or rituals and graduations and birthday celebrations, and all of that.

So what we know about rituals is they really support humans during transitions of pain or happiness, either one. And they've been around since cave-people from what I've read. And I want to give credit to the author of a book called Must We Say We Did Not Love which is the title of the book, and I reference it in the book.

And it's Dr. Manza Naff. It's available on Amazon, in which she's an adult child of divorce many years ago. She's retired now. Was an English professor, and she talks about how our society does not have a ritual for divorce. And wouldn't it be wonderful? And if people look on the internet, they will find some divorce ceremonies.

Divorce rituals, where the point is that if couples can celebrate what they did have, they fell in love once they had children. A lot of them. What could they celebrate the positives and acknowledge that this is a life transition and many couples are doing that. It's certainly not the majority.

And they invite family, extended family, community members, et cetera. And their adult children, sometimes grandchildren, that this is the passage in life and especially the numbers in the gray divorce debate, sorry, grade divorce numbers are, is the highest divorce rate in industrialized countries now.

So it deserves a ritual. And that's the point. And you're right, it is in the chapter about rituals and traditions and celebrations. 

Andrew Hatherley: It seems to me that, I hope that this idea of divorce ceremony would catch on much as I like the kind of idea of the Irish wake after somebody passes to celebrate the life that somebody's had.

If they've lived a good long life, let's celebrate it and think about the people whose lives have been impacted by that person and celebrated. I think it's a terrific idea, but both are ways of dealing with life transitions, I think in a positive forward-thinking way.

Carol Hughes: And it can provide healing as much as a celebration of life, as you said, that's becoming more popular than the traditional funerals, right? Celebration of life, right? Celebration of what they did, do well. It doesn't have to be black and white all bad. 

Andrew Hatherley: We have a lot of gray divorcees, or soon-to-be gray divorcees listening to the podcast.

What key piece of advice would you give to these parents to appreciate and help their adult children? 

Carol Hughes: Thank you. That's a great question. I would say absolutely, number one, the research in the mental health field beyond gray divorce is that listening without judgment, without criticism is healing just by itself.

If all the parents do is listen to what their adult children are saying, Hear what they're experiencing, hear what they're saying their feelings are, and don't challenge them. Don't judge them. Don't tell them that they should feel differently because they're grown and so forth. On and on deeply listening is healing by itself. 

Secondly, if they can validate, the parents aren't the adult children, obviously, and the adult children's experiences are different. If they can validate what the adult children say they're feeling, thinking, and experiencing that can be healing too. Sometimes adult children pull away from their parents in gray divorce because they don't know what else to do, just as minor children often will.

And so if that happens, reach out to your adult child and say, “Let's go to talk to a clergy. Let's find a therapist. Let's go to a support group.” So that we can come back to what you were saying earlier, Andrew. What we know about the research, over 80 years worth of research about the value of relationships to humans.

We are social relationship animals. And our relationships are, the research indicates, the number one indicator of our happiness and even our physical health. Given that we aren't taking drugs or smoking or something like that our relationships are really important. 

Andrew Hatherley: The issue is of course, our mental health can lead to a degradation of our physical health because we inoculate ourselves with alcohol or drugs or whatever, which can lead to a vicious cycle.

For those parents, who perhaps can't see the forest for the trees, what would you say to the children? Whose adults are parents of the adult children? What critical piece of advice would you give to the adult children of the gray divorcees? 

Carol Hughes: So I would say some of what I said earlier is that you're not alone.

That your voice matters. Your feelings matter. Even if there's no one around you right now that supports you to say what you're going through is valid. There is help, there is hope, and there is healing. And the research shows amazingly that the majority of adult children who become alienated from their parents are the ones to reach out to their parents and ask, let's go to talk to a clergy person, or counselor, try to work on a relationship. Let's heal. Let's not have this divorce affect all of our family relationships. It can affect three to four generations. So that's part of healing as well. And to hear again what I said, your voice matters.

What you're feeling, and what you're going through is valid because this is a major life change that deserves attention. Even though our culture is not giving it the attention it deserves. 

Andrew Hatherley: What you just said brings up a very interesting subject. In my divorce workshops, I always emphasize that there is life after divorce.

And it's often a better life because you're emerging from a situation that wasn't right for you. What you just said about the adult children helping their parents is a key component to growth after trauma. And I can envision a situation that once the adult children have gone through this process, emerging, potentially stronger for it.

Carol Hughes: Yes. Yes. And there is research. What isn't there research about, right? There's good research, right? It's good research that when we give, we do take, we get something back when we give. And we secrete different neurochemicals when we give not obsessively, not denying ourselves of course.

But you make a really good point, Andrew, that giving and helping your parent within reason to help them in this transition can also help the adult children. And just to remember our relationships, years ago, a psychiatrist who developed the Attachment Theory said, “we live in relationships from the cradle to the grave and we can either, they can be healthy relationships or unhealthy, and we should always be striving within reason to make our relationships as healthy as possible”. Because that's true. We live in relationships. 

Andrew Hatherley: That's a terrific way to end our conversation today, Carol. I really appreciate you coming on the Gray Divorce Podcast and sharing your wisdom on an underappreciated subject. How can our listeners find out more about the work you do and potentially reach out to you? 

Carol Hughes: I would love that. I'd love to help in any way I can with referrals or whatever they may need. My divorce website is called, as in making peace, not work., and there's a form there where they can email me. You can also simply email me at I'm on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. Please reach out. I'm happy to give you referrals or connect you in any way with resources that could help you and your family.

Andrew Hatherley: Terrific. Thank you very much, Carol. 

Carol Hughes: Thank you.

Announcement: Thanks so much for tuning into this episode of The Gray Divorce Podcast. To learn more or get in contact with your host, you can visit Andrew's website at Also, please feel free to rate, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. That helps others find the show, and we greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again for listening, and we'll catch you in the next episode.

Andrew Hatherley: Information provided is educational only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Each situation is unique and should be discussed with your tax or legal advisor prior to implementation. Andrew Hatherley is not an attorney and does not provide legal advice. Information provided is financial in nature.

Advisory services offered through Hatherly Capital Management, LLC. Divorce Financial Analysis Services offered through Wiser Divorce Solutions and affiliated company.