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Why do those grey divorces bother us so much?

Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito are divorcing after 30 years together.

Phil McCarten/Reuters

First to come tumbling down were Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who separated in the summer of 2009 after a 23-year relationship. Some said a youthful, shaggy-haired table tennis impresario was involved, on her side.

Next came Al and Tipper Gore, divorcing in 2010 after 40 years of marriage. "Please, Al and Tipper, don't do this. For our sakes – don't," The Washington Post pleaded.

This week spelled the demise of another long-lived celebrity marriage: Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, who moved in together two weeks after meeting in 1971 at a play in which he starred, The Shrinking Bride, are divorcing after 30 years.

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Once again, the cries of shock and dismay went up: Never does the public empathize with marital dissolution in celebrity culture, unless it's a case of grey divorce.

Why the distress? Public divorces like Perlman and DeVito's erode what is left of our hope for marital longevity. They also present the possibility that our own relationships might be more rocky than we realize. As the Post's Ellen McCarthy wrote about the Gores: "This doesn't just make us sad. It makes us scared."

Grey divorce – couples splitting post-50 – has been inching upward for decades in this country. Statistics Canada figures show a gradual increase from 7.2 per cent of men aged 50 to 54 divorced in 1985 to 11 per cent by 2005. For women, it was 5.4 per cent in 1985, rising to 8.9 per cent 20 years later.

In 2004, AARP, an advocacy group for Americans over 50, commissioned a study of more than 1,000 men and women who had divorced in their 40s, 50s or 60s. One in four said he or she had simply fallen out of love or "had no obvious problems." Three in four thought they had made a sound decision, with many speaking of "self-identity" and "fulfilment." Those in their 60s and 70s, in particular, were relishing life after divorce.

But what about their adult children?

"They take it so personally," said Deirdre Bair, author of 2007's pivotal grey divorce tome Calling it Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over, for which she conducted nearly 400 interviews with men, women and their grown children.

Bair said she was surprised by the "intensity of emotion" that adult children expressed when their folks split. They would tell her, "My parents were together for so long, they should have stayed together," even if these parents were escaping miserable unions, she said.

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"The adult children would say, 'The fixed centre of my life isn't there any more.' Many of them were so attached to the home in which they grew up, even if they lived on a different continent, they would still say, 'Now, I have nowhere to go,'" Bair recalled.

To give them some credit, adult children of divorce have few of the supports they would have enjoyed had their parents divorced after eight years of marriage, not 35.

"The parents look to the children for that warm, soft blanket. Children become their confidant, their psychologist, their social worker, their negotiator and all the things that kids don't want to be," said Jim Stoffman, who has practised family law for nearly four decades in Winnipeg.

Often, Stoffman witnesses a "polarization of positions" with kids of grey divorce: "You'll see splits in the family, one child or the other taking sides with mom or dad. That causes friction in a different way than it would have had the kids been 12 or 15 when it happened."

He first saw a spike in clients in their 50s filing for divorce about 15 years ago. More recently, he has seen an uptick in 65-to-75-year-olds. "Suddenly, the parents who are … doting over their children and grandchildren, sharing vacation homes, a lot of that lifestyle is lost. These parents now have to operate two households."

For adult children, the burden intensifies when parents divorce late and then begin to age alone: Think running across town to fetch groceries, change light bulbs or fix appliances, and then multiply that by two.

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"As you age, issues around your care, companionship and social isolation matter more. Oftentimes, the spouse was the one that kept it all together," said Susan Eng of the national seniors advocacy group CARP.

Still, for all the trauma, Eng said it's time for adult children to suck it up: Cases like DeVito's and Sarandon's remind us that "people 'of a certain age' are in fact getting on with their lives like everybody else."

Eng argues kids encroach too closely on their separated parents. "The danger arises with adult children stepping too soon into the parenting role. The parents just made a very adult decision, so the last thing you should be doing is infantilizing them."

And what about that story you have been telling everyone for decades? "My parents have been happily married for 40 years."

"Why is it a bragging right for you?" Eng asked. "We need to look at people as having separate lives. Longevity in a marriage is valued by some. For others, it's the longevity of their torture."

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