Why some parents wait until their kids graduate high school to divorce

"I muttered to myself that as soon as my daughter turned 18, I would be free," one dad says.

Why some couples wait until their kids leave home to split up. (Image: Getty Images/Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo News)
Why some couples wait until their kids leave home to split up. (Image: Getty Images/Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo News)

When Steven Walker and his now ex-wife were going through struggles in their marriage, they knew that they wouldn’t divorce until their youngest child graduated high school. Despite their issues, they didn’t wish to put their daughter through the disruption and stress while she was still at home.

“Once in a moment of exasperation I muttered to myself that as soon as my daughter turned 18, I would be free,” Walker says. “It was wrong of me to say it, and it wasn’t what I actually ever wanted, but my ex overheard me, and she told me that from that point she planned to file as soon as our daughter graduated high school.” After 24 years of marriage and two children, the former couple ended their marriage shortly after graduation.

While the majority of divorces in the U.S. happen during the first 14 years of marriage, divorces for those over 50 have doubled since the 1990s, according to Hello Divorce, an online divorce resource. As the general rate of divorce declines, the rate of post-child-rearing divorces increased. Many couples like Walker and his ex-wife make a conscious decision to delay divorce until their children are adults, while others may simply find that once their children have left, they no longer have any common interests. The phenomenon even has a name: gray divorce.

According to Alisa Ruby Bash, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Malibu, Calif., many people choose to separate when their children leave the home. “People feel they have done the job that they intended to, which is provide a stable household for their children while they grow up.” Bash says that as ‘empty nest syndrome’ sets in, people often reevaluate how they wish to spend their time. “It is like pushing the reset button,” she says. “And that fresh start can mean they want to live the rest of their days in a very different way than they had while raising children.”

But Bash says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for parents choosing between waiting until the kids are grown or divorcing immediately. “There are many situations where waiting will be more harmful for the kids than divorcing,” she says. “And there are situations that probably will help support kids in their growth and security if the relationship is not extremely contentious.”

Bash says that the most important factor determining whether or not parents should stay together until their children are grown even if they know they will divorce eventually is the amount of hostility, aggression, rage and abuse that goes on in the relationship. Having that type of environment is always going to have a traumatic and negative impact on kids, she says.

Patricia, a mom of three who asked to not share her last name, knew that she wanted to leave her marriage several years before her youngest child would be graduating from high school, but she planned on waiting until that time in order to protect her children. Meeting with a marriage counselor, however, made her realize she needed to act sooner. “When [the counselor] asked what I was going to do, I said, ‘Well, I have four years to go.’ But she told me that if I stayed, that would set a bad example for the children.” She ended up getting a divorce when her youngest child was 14.

Cathy Patrick wanted to leave her marriage 10 years before she felt she was able to do so because of her children. “I knew our marriage wasn’t meant to survive forever after the first 15 years, but I wanted to stay together until our kids had graduated from high school,” Patrick says. But waiting for what she considered the right moment was difficult. “Living with someone I didn’t love anymore for so many years did take a mental toll on me,” she says. “I was very sad and depressed.”

That said, Patrick has no regrets about waiting to leave. “The kids never witnessed arguments between us,” she says. “No matter what our relationship had evolved into, we were always united when it came to raising our children.” And while her adult children struggled with news of their parents’ divorce, she still believes they chose the right path in staying married. Patrick says, “To this day my children say they had a happy childhood. That means everything to me.”

No matter when couples choose to divorce, Bash says that it will always negatively impact children, even adult ones. “There is no way to avoid it,” she says. “Of course humans are resilient and learn to adjust and will recover. But it is something to look at on a case by case basis.”

She adds, "Parents often think that children will be unaffected by this news, because they are older and more independent. However, that is not the case.” The best results, she says, occur when parents put on a united front and can give their children specific reasons for their separation. “But there isn’t a really easy way to do it,” Bash says.

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