Adult Children of Divorce
Adult Children of Divorce suffer too.
There is a robust cultural belief that adult children, once successfully launched, are relatively unimpacted by their parent’s divorce. I encounter this belief in couples therapy regularly.
Emerging research explains that nothing could be further from the truth. “Gray Divorce” has a profound impact on adult children.
Adult children often feel a profound sense of loss. Like small children, they experience the loss of the family as a cohesive family unit. But unlike their younger selves, paradoxically they may have more baggage and even less resilience… but are asked to accept more responsibility.
Adult children are not afforded the same degree of emotional attention and concern as their younger counterparts.
They are often baffled and stunned when their family of origin collapses into conflict and recrimination. Unlike small children, adult children are often sucked into the conflict as confidants, advisors, spies or caretakers. There is an epidemic of boomer divorce, and their adult children are impacted in many ways that our culture fails to consider.
Here are Some of the Impacts on Adult Children of Divorce:
- Adult children of divorce can be easily drawn into toxic triangulations. It’s painful to hear your father attack your mother. The paradox of divorce is that young children are often told nothing, but adult children are told too much. Adult Children may be curious about why their parents are divorcing, but parents often burden them with unnecessary personal details.
- Adult Children of divorce worry about how the divorce will impact their own children. The emotional impact on grandchildren is frequently overlooked during the divorce process. There are best practices for explaining divorce to children. Adult children of divorce still need grandparents for their children and a family home that is the repository of family memory and ritual. Often that family home is lost through sale or re-mortgaged. This can be a profoundly sad loss for adult children.
- Adult children may feel responsible for the ensuring the quality of life for their divorcing parents. Divorcing Boomers can sometimes place unreasonable emotional or financial demands on their adult children.
- Divorcing parents may exacerbate the simmering marital stresses of their adult children.
- Adult children often feel a need to choose sides, even when asked not to. The best course is neutrality, which is easier said than done.
- Adult children of divorce have to explain why grandma and grandpa don’t live together anymore. Their children may fear that mommy and daddy will be next.
- Research tells us that divorcing parents often inform their adult children that they are divorcing by telephone. Adult children often feel this is disrespectful. They want and expect gravitas. They want to be told in person in a family meeting with siblings.
- Divorcing parents may insensitively explain that they would have divorced decades ago…but stayed together “for the children.” Adult children of divorce ask “Was my happy family growing up just a lie?”
- What will be the “new normal” for family gatherings and rituals? Will the divorced parents manage a display of extended family unity? Logistics of holidays and birthdays just got a lot more complicated.
- There is no cultural expectation that adult children have any emotional needs around parental divorce. They are expected to just “deal with it.”
- Adult children of divorce may have to consult with their own spouses to establish clear rules and boundaries. And they may experience friction with their partners when they don’t.
- Family homes are often refinanced or sold to fund late-life divorces. This is a wealth drain for the extended family and dilutes any future inheritance.
- Divorcing Boomers often fail to consider their responsibility to be family role models. They may need to be reminded to co-parent their adult children with care, discretion and dignity.
- Adult children want their divorcing parents to think about the future and how family dynamics will be forever changed.
- If your parents have new partners, there may be resentments and irritation over love and attention bestowed on this stranger who you are now told is “family.”
- Adult children may feel a need to “Circle the Wagons” with their siblings.
What to Do If You Are an Adult Child of Divorce
- Discuss Appropriate Boundaries With Your Spouse and Siblings.
What is the most appropriate stance around being a confidant? How much emotional support is enough? What are the financial or logistical concerns? Your spouse will be impacted as well. Be a united front. And keep your boundaries and communication clear and strong.
- Remind Your Parents That There is an Extended Family That Is Being Impacted.
What about the grandkids? Family celebrations and holidays? You may have to drag your Boomer parents out of their clueless self-involvement.
It isn’t just about them. Don’t be afraid to point this out.
“Circling the Wagons” is a good idea. Be unapologetic about discussing the impact on grandchildren and extended family. Put that discussion front and center. Speak to your siblings, and, if possible, ask for a united front of benign neutrality. Focus on the future. What will healthy extended family functioning look like post-divorce?
- Cultivate a Stance of Benign Neutrality.
You are entitled to keep a relationship with both of your parents. Don’t tolerate bad-mouthing and strong-arm efforts to win you over. You decide who is in your life, not your parents.
- Resist the Temptation to Problem Solve or Enter a Triangle.
Practice saying “Don’t go there Ma” or “Leave it alone Dad.” You don’t have to discuss anything you don’t want to.
Let your divorcing parents make their own decisions. But be clear about the fallout on the extended family. Resist taking sides. Demand courtesy when appropriate. Do not tolerate abuse for your refusing to be their private, personal ally.
- Remember to Value Your Independence and Autonomy.
That’s the best thing about being an adult child. You have a say!
Be clear about what you expect, and what you need. Boomer parents can be quite self-involved during late-life divorce. Don’t be guilt-tripped or steamrolled. You get to have whatever kind of relationships you want. You decide. The needs of your own family come first.
- Your Parents’ Divorce is Not a Comment on Your Marriage or Your Capacity for Intimacy.
Recent studies show that adult children of divorce are more stressed-out and reactive during marital spats. If your parent’s divorce is weighing on your belief in the value of intimacy, see a science-based couples therapist before it becomes a bigger problem.
Gordon Julien, J. (2016, April 21). Never Too Old to Hurt from Parents’ Divorce. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/fashion/weddings/never-too-old-to-hurt-from-parents-divorce.html