When a son or daughter is in a long-term relationship and the relationship is over, it is not unusual for parents (seniors) of the couple to experience a deep sense of loss for the "almost" son or daughter-in-law. I was more aware of this when a woman commented after reading my last HuffPo blog Mourning a Child's Divorce, "Even though my son isn't divorced, primarily because he and his girlfriend of 11 years haven't married, I remember how sad my husband and I were. I think I cried more than either of them. For the young woman we considered a daughter and for the grandchildren they wouldn't give us. Not the same but your blog brought it to mind."
I think 11 years of pre-marital cohabitation and 11 years of expectations, justifies some mourning. Ties are tough to break. It is easy for outsiders to say, "Well, aren't you glad the couple wasn't married? Get over it, soon there will be others to take his or her place."
Marriage has always held an honored place in our society. However domestic partnerships are becoming an increasingly prevalent lifestyle. According to senior economist Fry and senior writer Cohn who conducted a survey for the Pew Research Center (2010) on the growth of the family, the share of 30-to-44-year-olds living together has more than doubled since 1990s. This steady trend toward cohabitation presents challenges to seniors, especially when there are children born while the couple was living together or brought into the relationship by one or both partners.
If the couple has not hammered out a legal agreement to share custody or worked out a visitation schedule, seniors may find themselves with little recourse and a lot of pain when the relationship dissolves.
Marion talks bitterly about her son's breakup. His girlfriend's children became part of Marion's extended family. "I looked forward to celebrating holidays and birthdays together. I used to babysit Pat's two kids all the time. Now I never see them. If my son had married Pat I just know they would have worked harder at staying together."
There seems to be some truth to Marion's complaint. There is evidence that married couples are more committed to one another than unmarried couples. According to a National Health Statistics Reports (2006-2010), cohabitations are typically short-lived and tend to dissolve within 5 years.
With this trend toward cohabitation creating what others see as a war over the family, seniors will be facing many of the challenges parents face when their married children divorce. Marriage-based or otherwise, there are tasks and goals at different stages seniors can adopt to help the family heal.
For more information about the role parents play, please see: Your Child"s Divorce: What to Expect ... What You Can Do (Impact Publishers, Inc.)