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 failure 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 battle 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.
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 robust.
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?
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.
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.
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 entirely self-involved during a 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.
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.
Adult children of Divorce often tell me they feel completely invisible. I remember one client telling me “I never realized until two years after all the drama was over that neither of my parents ever asked me how I was feeling through their divorce.
They accept the party-line that we will all just “move on.” given them by their parents.
“The whole notion that ‘kids are resilient’ is a bunch of nonsense.” is a message that many grown-up children of divorce have told me in their own couples therapy.
Young children, especially under the age of 10 cannot make sense of why Daddy or Mommy are living somewhere else. When they become adults, this fear of abandonment doesn’t necessarily go away. Here’s what a 67-year-old CEO once told me:
I believe my parent’s divorce created a fear of abandonment in me that has persisted through all my four marriages. I developed problems trusting that my wife or my children would ever be there for me. I had low points in my life, and I never expected anyone to stick around for any of that. I never acquired any skills for solving the conflict in my relationships. Divorce was too easy, and there was always plenty of other women. I unconsciously sabotaged relationships, as I didn’t know how to receive and accept real love…
Loss of First Family Adult children often have a hard time accepting the loss of their original family. New lovers and spouses are an awkward fit into the lives of adult children of divorce. ” “Steve is not my dad.” Said Marla, a 41-year-old client, “but mom expects me to be affectionate toward him. I don’t feel anything… and I don’t want to feel anything.”
Parents expect their children to delight in their happiness with new significant others. “Steve is all right, but I can’t be bothered” grumbled Marla.
A Different Schema Some Adult Children of Divorce complain that they grew up in a bifurcated household.
Even often into adulthood, adult children must straddle two forever separate worlds by being “two different people” depending on what’s expected by the parent of the hour.
They complain of hesitancy in their intimate relationships. Relationship issues fester over the insecure feelings that are hard to soothe. Children of divorce experience the impermanence of love up close, and many become consequently wary for a lifetime.
The Marginalization of Adult Children of Divorce
Children are fretted over during the divorce process, but adult children of divorce are marginalized. Their thoughts and feelings are never solicited. Their divorcing parents hand them a narrative which becomes a fait accompli. This “was a long time coming” or “this is what is best for everyone” or “you’re an adult now, so you understand.”
Abandonment and Feelings of Fragility for Adult Children of Divorce
A common theme among adult children of divorce is the parental expectation that they will mirror the sense of “closing a chapter” and “always be moving forward” sentiments which narcissistically miss the feeling of fragility and abandonment that adult children of divorce sometimes find both ineffable and negating. One of my clients put it this way:
“I’m in a lot of pain over this. But I keep getting the message that my discomfort is somehow inappropriate. My father expects me to be able to “move forward” as readily as he is. When I visit him in his new condo, there are no pictures of my mother, but many of his new “girlfriend.” He seems blissfully unaware of how his romantic excitement is negating my sense of my own family history. He actually expects me to be happy for him, and seems annoyed when I try to convey more complicated feelings.”
Research is telling us that adult children of divorce experience a profound shift in their worldview. Any way it goes, they are in a no-win situation.
They are stressed if the break is acrimonious, or they become sad and depressed if the divorce is friendly. “Why did you have to do this?” is a common question…but they often feel uncomfortable asking it.
Lifelong Grief for Adult Children of Divorce
Gray divorce is never “over” for the adult child of divorce. Their pain is disowned and marginalized. They feel somehow unentitled to give voice to it. Consequently, Even though the pain from the divorce is denied, buried, or disguised…it nonetheless continues to echo through time. The world becomes a more fragile and uncertain place.
The reactions of adult children of “friendly divorce” were not significantly all that different from more acrimonious divorces. Adult children of divorce often suffer in silence and stuff their feelings down because the “common sense” social norm is that they can handle it without difficulty.
After all, adult children of divorce have their own lives, children, and marriages to attend to. We now know that the epidemic of Gray Divorce does violence to the adult children of divorce by bulldozing their aspirations, draining them of meaning, permanence, and certainty.
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
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.