My Parents are Talking about Divorce after 47 Years
November 15, 2010 6:33 PM   Subscribe

My parents are pushing 70 and have been married for almost 50 years, and now they're talking about divorce. How can my siblings and I help?

My parents have lived at opposite ends of their house for ages (the past 15+ years) and we all knew that they occupied different worlds, but in the past year or so it seems things in their relationship have gotten to a point of crisis. My siblings and I always assumed the years of shared experience would be enough to give them the strength to see past their differences, but this doesn't seem to be the case anymore -- the big D word keeps coming up and everyone is getting very frightened. Part of the problem seems to be my father's extreme religious fanaticism -- he insists that my mother is going to hell for not sharing his church fervor. This causes her to ignore him at home and make him feel unloved. Both are so stuck in their ways that it is nearly impossible to make them see the other person's side.

Does anyone have any suggestions or experiential wisdom on how adult children (ages 25-43) could help their aging parents keep their relationship together when things look really hopeless?
posted by RingerChopChop to Human Relations (36 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can't save their marriage. You can't fix their problems. The best you can do, for them and for yourself, is to let them know that you love them and hope that they will work it out, and that you will support both of them emotionally as best you can, but that you will not get in the middle of their relationship. Any other way will just drive you crazy, and it won't help them.
posted by decathecting at 6:35 PM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites] their aging parents keep their relationship together...

You are asking the wrong question. Have you considered supporting their decision to divorce? After 15 years of misery, a divorce probably has the appeal of a new lease on life to them. It might be just the way you worded your question (and only your parents know the full story, of course), but it sounds like you want to keep them together for your sake.
posted by halogen at 6:38 PM on November 15, 2010 [29 favorites]

Do you want to help your parents or stop the divorce? The way you describe things, the two options seem mutually exclusive.
posted by griphus at 6:39 PM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you're trying to keep their relationship together when it's not what they want, you're not helping. If it looks really hopeless it probably is. Everyone will feel much better when it's over.
posted by amethysts at 6:40 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

the big D word keeps coming up and everyone is getting very frightened

What is there to be frightened of? You're all adults here, and your parents deserve a chance at a life that makes them happy. You'll all be fine, even if they were to divorce -- you'd still have your parents; they'd just be at separate houses.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:42 PM on November 15, 2010 [16 favorites]

Why should they keep their relationship together? What's being gained for either of them by staying married? It sounds like they have completely incompatible life goals and philosophies.

And I am on Team Your Mother. I don't give a hoot if your father feels unloved--I wouldn't love anyone who told me I was going to Hell, either.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:43 PM on November 15, 2010 [25 favorites]

Is it that you want them to stay together, or is it that you're afraid if they split up, one or the other will want to live with you, or otherwise become more dependent on you, or on your siblings, for emotional or financial support?

They are adults. They will do what they must. I think you're fairly allowed to inquire into how they will get by if they divorce, but I don't think you're allowed to try to stop them if they feel they must.
posted by zadcat at 6:43 PM on November 15, 2010

I would say let them do what they want, but, honestly, you guys are a family and, though I sound ageist, they are pushing 70 and you need to remind them that they are a family and you all need to be there for each other and get along. Tell your Dad to quit harassing your Mom, and tell him that treating a spouse unkindly is probably not going to secure him a ticket to Heaven any time soon.

Now I'm saying this only because my flawed view on this is that they've been married a long time and will need each other. And what I'm saying might be offensive and ageist, because it sounds like they're being like squabbling siblings at this point and you all are going to end up being the parent.

I'd also talk to your mom and see what she hopes for/envisions in her post-divorce life, and what she fears.
posted by anniecat at 6:44 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is a poorly framed question, not least because it allows for one to answer "no".

For all we know, they could live for another 30 years. They're empty nesters, it's time to let them go.
posted by Dick Paris at 6:48 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your mom is 70 and deserves to have a few years of happiness. Sad to say, but my grandmother became a lovely, wonderful woman after my grandfather (a great grandfather and lousy husband) passed away, when she previously had been pretty miserable.

Their marriage is not your deal. Let it go. Grieve privately, but support your parents in what they need and will make them happy.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:50 PM on November 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

I think one way to deal with what is happening with your parents is to imagine how you would feel if you fell in love, got married and then one day you woke up and the person you married did not feel you were worthy enough to share the same bedroom any more.

Think of how lonely that kind of life would be. Do you really think that a divorce is the most frightening outcome for either of them?

I know you want everyone to be happy, and maybe you think the worst thing that could happen is coming from a "broken home." But their home is already broken. You can best help them both by supporting them in their decision to split up.

They've already done so emotionally anyway. We are just talking geography here.
posted by misha at 6:55 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Once my grandparents separated, my grandmother practically became a new woman. She almost instantly went from being overweight to walking and exercising every day, started taking care of herself, and quickly dropped down to a healthy weight. She was the happiest and most energetic that I'd ever seen her in my life. She literally looked about 20 years younger. I had no idea that her marriage was troubled, but upon seeing the Before/After, I almost wish that she'd had the courage to walk out on my grandfather decades earlier.

Your parents deserve to find happiness however they seem fit. Don't worry -- you'll still be a family when all is said and done. The best that you can do is to ensure that the split is amicable and civil, and to provide non-judgmental emotional support to your parents.
posted by schmod at 7:07 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to imagine at this point your best strategy isn't to try and save the marriage, but to try and ease the transition to living separate lives. And maybe to see if there is a compromise that can be struck between divorce and staying together.

Obviously, none of this is legal advice, and both parties should see the advice of their own attorney, but it might be worth them exploring whether, at their age and place where they are in life, a separation could be preferable to divorce. Of course this depends a lot on their financial situation, whether one person would be more willing to leave their house than the other, and whether either could ever foresee getting remarried.

Both of them really need to figure out what they want. And individual counseling is probably the best way forward. Not getting an actual divorce also might make the situation less dire spiritually for the father (of course that's not to say that the mother shouldn't get a divorce if that's what she really wants). I think all the adult children can do is be supportive, encourage each to talk to counselor (or someone in the church if they think that person is likely to be helpful and not merely remind him that divorce is a mortal sin, if it even is his in his faith, obviously I have no idea), and possibly brainstorm solutions for their life after this marriage.

The biggest thing will obviously be determining where one of them is going to live and which one. Can they both live alone? Are they both likely to be able to live alone for the foreseeable future? Are they both very attached to their house? Is there a friend or relative around their own age that they might enjoy living with? Could they live with one of their children? If they are going to live alone where do they want to live? What can they afford? What kind of place do they want to live in? Condo? House? Retirement home where they might be able to make friends more easily?

If money isn't tight, then the situation is an easier one to navigate, but if money is tight then the adult children really need to have a frank discussion about what divorcing will mean and will have to brace themselves for what could be a very rough legal fight if one or both parties dig their heels in.
posted by whoaali at 7:15 PM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

We are just talking geography here.

No. We are talking legal and financial rights, division of marital assets, and other far-reaching implications other than geography. Divorce does not just mean "geography."

Does anyone have any suggestions

You might try helping them to understand what the full implications of divorce are, particularly for people who are close to the end of life and who may be relying in some way on the financial aspects of their marital union for support now and upon the death of their partner. Notwithstanding the space that has grown between them, would they still want to visit each other in the hospital? Do they have marital assets that would have to be divided? Would it be an acrimonious divorce that would eat through a substantial part of their assets? How about health insurance?

First and foremost, you need to be caring, kind, and understanding. And that starts by not reacting the way most people have reacted in this thread.

DTMFA is not a helpful answer here. It is, in fact, a callous, ignorant, and frankly idiotic answer.
posted by The World Famous at 7:25 PM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

everyone is getting very frightened

There is absolutely nothing to be frightened of, regardless of what happens. You and everyone else will be okay, I promise.
posted by smoke at 7:27 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

And, on preview, what whoaali said, 100%.
posted by The World Famous at 7:27 PM on November 15, 2010

There is absolutely nothing to be frightened of, regardless of what happens. You and everyone else will be okay, I promise.

Sorry, but I couldn't disagree more. There are absolutely horrible things to be afraid of when someone over 70 divorces. Maybe they will happen and maybe they won't. But I have seen way too many people have to financially and otherwise support aging parents suffering from various medical conditions exacerbated by depression to pretend that there is nothing to be frightened of if you are the adult child of a parent in their 70s who is contemplating divorce.
posted by The World Famous at 7:29 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that is interesting to me is that they've lived 15 years like this and suddenly need a change. Did something happen? Is someone's personality or health suddenly taking a turn for the worse? They are of an age where that starts to be a concern.

If it's just the simple fact that they've decided that, after 15 years, living like this is ridiculous (and that's legitimate) then the best thing you can do is support them in their attempt to live separately (this might be more of an issue for your mom if she didn't work outside the home).

My parents divorced after 30 years of marriage. I was relieved, my sister is still having trouble with it two years later, but coping. It's a weird thing, but probably easier for adults to deal with than kids. You too will be okay.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:30 PM on November 15, 2010

Also, one thing you can do is maybe ask your parents if you can help them plan their legal and financial futures so that you can protect them and yourself. As divorcees, they will probably qualify for more public assistance, so this may actually benefit you in this particular instance.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:31 PM on November 15, 2010

TWF, I take your point.

But living in a marriage bound only together by hate and fear isn't a good thing for one's health, either.

I would suggest that the OP and siblings should support their parents in making an informed and thoughtful decision, whatever that decision turns out to be. Deciding in advance for them that they "shouldn't" get a divorce doesn't seem like the most helpful option.

Yep, divorce would have consequences. Legal separation would have consequences. Continuing to live in the same home would have consequences. The parents need to be supported in each thinking through the upsides and downsides of each set of options, and then in negotiating a mutually agreeable solution.

Family therapists do this every day. Including with people who have been married for 50 years and who are thinking about splitting up.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:35 PM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I agree, Sidhedevil. The whole thing depends on numerous factors that we and the couple's children cannot possibly know. And all of those factors should be considered.
posted by The World Famous at 7:39 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Divorcing will probably make them both happier if they're talking about it this late in the game. Think about it; they've probably been miserable for decades and it's a big deal to admit 50 years into a marriage that it's failing. Many people would say hey, what's 10 more years? But they've finally stopped telling themselves that, and you should take them seriously. That doesn't mean it's the best idea, but you should hear them out and talk through options with them.

I think the major worry you should have is over their financial situation and retirement. If one of them starts talking lawyers and gunning for all the assets they can lay their hands on, encourage mediation instead or make sure they both have lawyers. You don't want one parent to end up nearly broke and living on just their Social Security because they didn't want to do it through lawyers.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:43 PM on November 15, 2010

There are absolutely horrible things to be afraid of when someone over 70 divorces. Maybe they will happen and maybe they won't. But I have seen way too many people have to financially and otherwise support aging parents suffering from various medical conditions exacerbated by depression to pretend that there is nothing to be frightened of if you are the adult child of a parent in their 70s who is contemplating divorce.

I have to agree. Things like pensions, social security, health insurance and many other sources of income can be affected by divorce. I know very little on the subject, but I know enough to tell you I would be going through every aspect of their finances with a knowledgeable professional to determine what the consequences of a divorce would be.

You also probably want to start looking into insurance for both of them (and I'm sorry I can't give you more specific advice) on the assumption that you as their children will be solely responsible for two aging parents and cannot rely on either one to care for the other in the event that one of them needs long term care.

You also need to look really careful at your parents marriage and see whether one of them has mostly handled the finances. In marriages of this length, I would not be surprised to learn that one of them handled all the finances and the other has little knowledge of what their finances look like or any experience in handling their own. This isn't necessarily the case, but it's possible that one of them may have a very different understanding of what their finances would look like if they were divorced.

On top of this, if they have lived in the same house for decades and have no contemporary knowledge of renting or the housing market, they may have no realistic idea about how much it would cost one of them to live on their own.

In any marriage of this length, that has spanned the majority of each of their lives, they have undoubtedly grown to depend on each other in multiple ways even if they interact very little day to day. You're going to have to sit down and figure out: Can they both cook and clean for themselves? Do their laundry? Pay their bills? Keep on top of their checking and savings account? Manage their investments? Do their taxes? Make routine doctor's appointments? Do each of them know basic car maintenance? Household repairs? The list goes on and on, but their is a lot to think about and a lot of long conversations to be had with both of them. Probably separately.

I'm sorry if this sounds so dire, but honestly planning and knowledge is everything. You can get through this and everyone can live a happy life, but the transition is going to require a lot of talking, negotiating, learning and planning. Not to mention hiring a couple lawyers and maybe an accountant and some other experts who have experience with these situations.
posted by whoaali at 7:50 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

One last thing and then I'll go away. AARP might be a good resource for you and your parents.
posted by whoaali at 7:51 PM on November 15, 2010


folks, stop trying to figure out how/why they should stay together... odds are they shouldn't

70 does not equal "about to die", they may both have another 20 years or more of independent living! If they've not been happy for 15 years it's unlikely that is going to change if they stay together.

I got divorced after 37 years of marriage, and it was probably the best thing we did for a number of reasons, ironically both my ex and I agree on that.

Your job is to support both of them. Don't take sides, continue to care for them, help them make some difficult adjustments as best you can, it is really that simple.
posted by HuronBob at 7:59 PM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

My dad is going through a divorce this year. He is 71. It's been a bit of a pain in the ass, I can only imagine how much more of a pain it would be if he were married to my mother. So, I skimmed this thread but wanted to give you a few words of advice.

1. Your parents may be happier apart and you may be able to develop independent relationships with them that were not possible when they were together. If this is what they want, I agree with other commenters, support them, do not let them slag on the other one [or use you against the other one] and try to find ways to support each of them in what they want to do.

2. determine how much you and your siblings want to actualy DO for your family members. things that their spouse would have done for them. My dad does not have a great support network and I live four hours away. I know he would like me to come down and take him to the airport or to his doctor's appointments. I do not want to do this. It's hard to help a parent be independent when they are not cut out for it or don't want to do it. If you and your siblings can determine this amongst yourselves it may help you make decisions further on down the line

3. Even if it's what's best, divorce is stressful and takes a long time. My dad's wife walked out over a year ago and they're just getting paperwork finalized this month. It's been long and annoying and she did us all a favor by basically vanishing so I only have to worry about him. That said, he's had lots of symptoms that it's hard to tell if they're stress or age-related. He's never been in the best of health but he developed a tremor and some balance problems. We all flipped out, he got lots of medical appointments and as the paperwork is getting finalized, the tremors have been going away.

4. Encourage them to get professional help for things. For my dad it was getting someone in to clean his house and a therapist so I didn't have to be his sounding board or his maid. For other people it might be arranging meals or something with the senior center, or even toenail/foot care clinic things or finding a lawyer to rewrite their wills.

While it's possible that your parents may find a way to muddle through this, they also may not. You need to be prepared to accept what they decide, as their adult children. I don't think divorce is that great, but when my parents split when I was a kid, I felt like I developed real relationships with both of them instead of being close to my mom and afraid of my dad. Your faith traditions may have proscriptions against it which could have possibly caused your parents to stay together longer than maybe they should have. Or maybe this is a rough patch. Be kind to them and kind to each other. I wsh you the best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 9:35 PM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Did they ask for your intervention? Because I didn't see that in your question. If they need your help on their marriage, then they'll ask.

At most, you can make sure they have good legal and financial advice. Then you leave them to the decisions. One option is that they can remain married, but establish totally separate residences and lives. That might preserve the assets for their retirement and still get them away from one another. It's their call.

If your parents were 30 or 40 or 50 would you tell them to hang in? Probably not. Your parents could live another 20 years, but even if they don't they deserve to live a happy life with whatever time they have.
posted by 26.2 at 10:51 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have heard of couples getting divorced, but still living together, to collect higher social security benefits than they could have collected if they remained married. Is it possible that the relationship has been more-or-less over for a long time (it sounds like it) but they just recently realized that they would be financially better off if they officially divorced?
posted by Jacqueline at 11:59 PM on November 15, 2010

Is one of them more attached to the house than the other? Help the more mobile one to move out and get an apartment near one of the children (you?). Now you have relieved the pressure and given them both room to breathe and see what life without each other is like.

If they aren't going to change towards each other, maybe they'll both find themselves happier without the other. If either or both of them are going to change, this is when it might happen, then they were made to realize what life is like without the the other.
posted by pracowity at 12:09 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could try humor. Here's an old joke that might offer them some perspective:

An old married couple goes to their lawyer to request a divorce. The husband is 101 and the wife is 99, and they've been married or 79 years. The lawyer is shocked and asks them why in the world they want to get a divorce now. The wife answers in her frail voice: "We were waiting for the children to die".
posted by fairmettle at 2:40 AM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

OP, it's not clear what you're frightened of. Maybe you're frightened of the practical and financial challenges a divorce might lead your parents into. That's legitimate, and you should start thinking about what those challenges might be. There will be practical things you can do to help, that do not include preventing the divorce from occurring.

On the other hand, my initial impression was that you were simply frightened of living in a world where your parents are not married. This is not your parents' problem, and you don't solve it by getting them to change their minds. It would be extremely unfair to them if you were to pressure them to stay together for your own comfort. Your parents have evidently been unhappy together for a long time. That's not your fault, and you probably couldn't have done much to prevent or remedy the discord of their past 15 years. But it's ugly to think that you'd want that status quo to continue. The best you can do for them is to help them identify what they really want, and then to help them achieve it.
posted by jon1270 at 4:31 AM on November 16, 2010

A marriage can survive distance. It cannot survive antagonism.
posted by gjc at 6:18 AM on November 16, 2010

If your parents are already struggling, the last thing you want to do is stress their situation more by piling your own fears on top. And it's wrong to assume that things would automatically be more difficult for everyone if they do separate or divorce. They've been married for a long time, yes, but people are just as likely to grow apart as together over the years.

I like the idea of helping them take a look at the mechanics of a divorce -- who would get what? Where would they live? What would their daily routines look like? How would they handle holidays and time with grandchildren? Would they like living alone? How much would a divorce and the associated changes cost? Now's the time to find a trusted counselor, attorney, or social worker who can help them look at the bottom line and make a decision whether or not to move forward together. (check out

It might help you to remember that parents are people too - even after 50 years together - and entitled to their own lives, goals, and ideas outside of their marriage and their family. If your parents are unhappy, it doesn't mean that their marriage or your family has failed. It means that people change and grow and move on. Families can be amazingly flexible and strong, even when they're not "traditional" -- sometimes especially when they're not traditional. If you can be more specific with yourself and your siblings about what it is you fear, it'll make it easier to talk to your parents about those particular issues and, perhaps, come up with solutions. But the only people who have a right to decide where their marriage goes next is your parents.
posted by hms71 at 8:15 AM on November 16, 2010

My parents were married for almost 50 years and should have gotten a divorce any time in the last 35. Oh sure, they're the only couple in either of their families to stay together, but their antipathy was far more poisonous than any divorce would have been. Yes, I'm still bitter!

Shorter: Your Dad is sad because your Mom doesn't like that he thinks she's going to Hell. Are you really expecting your Mom to just ride this one out? Wait for Dad to figure out he's been paying attention to the wrong books?

They are not stuck in their ways: you are. You're scared for them, but they're the ones who are bringing up "the D word" as a solution and you are coming to AskMeFi to figure out ways to prevent them from getting unstuck.
posted by rhizome at 9:10 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course you're concerned and worried about your parents' divorce. It'll be an important change. You can't predict how it'll shake out. You don't know how various family relationships will be altered. It makes perfect sense that the siblings are frightened. It's normal.

The first thing is to interrupt yourself when you start imagining bad things that might happen, because you absolutely can't predict anything. And remind yourself you have no control over what they do or how it turns out.

But you definitely can help, by telling each of them you love them. When interacting with your mother or father, let your words and deeds come from the best part of yourself. That doesn't mean you should do things that aren't right for you, such as listening to angry or bitter complaints from one parent about the other. Look toward the future, and if you want to help, put your efforts into adding to your relationship with each one once they do split up.
posted by wryly at 1:55 PM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Let them divorce and be happy for them.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 4:34 PM on November 16, 2010

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