adult children and divorce

How adult children respond to divorce

Your role as parents does not end when your children become adults.  When you go through a divorce, you may no longer be a husband or a wife but you are still a father or a mother.  Parents may feel that because their children are adults, they should be able to move on more easily after divorce than if they were small children. In fact, I believe that the effect of divorce on adult children has been hugely underestimated.  I believe that there is never a good time for them to face the divorce of their parents.  If you are staying together for the sake of your children and plan to get divorced when they are older because you think it will be easier for them, think again.

They will also grieve

Despite the fact that my children were already over 20, they were shell shocked by our divorce.  I watched them go through deep grief. After the divorce, both of them began to question what was true about their childhood and what wasn’t.  They wondered how much of what they thought was real had been based on lies. Were they mistaken in believing that we had truly loved one another?

Adult children have so many memories of family life together and remembering all the good times in their childhood makes my children sad now.   I don’t want their happy memories to be tainted. I hope that one day they will be able to think of them without seeing them through the lens of our divorce.

Discovering the impermanence of what they thought was forever shook them to the core. Their belief in marriage and ‘happily ever after’ took a real knock. So, not only are they dealing with past memories but with the way in which they think about their own relationships and their future too.

Caught in the middle

I think I gave my children too much detail and if I had to do it again, I would be more circumspect. They were so supportive that I didn’t spare them any of the gory details. On the other hand, they did ask for information and I wanted them to be able to make sense of what had happened. In hindsight I believe there is a fine distinction between confiding in them, giving them the facts they need, and overburdening them.

Sharing too much about your partner that they don’t need to know can make them more insecure and sad. Your child is not meant to be your therapist.

I found that for a while I was always asking my children questions about my ex. Was he healthy? What was he doing ? How was his job going? They were often quite vague in their answers and I backed off in shame, realizing that I was making them uncomfortable. Focusing on him  was making me unhappy anyway and decided I had to put all my energy into my own healing.

The worst thing any parent can do to their children is to expect them to take sides. I have seen situations where divorced parents use their children in the games they play with each other to inflict hurt.  Don’t think that just because your children are adults this no longer happens because you have less control over them. They can still feel seriously conflicted and drawn to support one parent over the other, to the extent that some break ties with one parent altogether.

They still need you to act as parents

Perhaps they don’t need you in exactly the same way as they did before.  Divorce when you’re older means they are probably already independent but you both still play a big part in their lives. Special occasions, birthdays and holidays can be a nightmare for them if you can’t even be in the same room as one another.

My daughter had to face her 21st birthday and her graduation soon after the divorce. Fortunately, both occasions went off smoothly, with her dad giving a speech at her 21st and flying in to attend her graduation. We did not want to spoil these very important occasions for her and so we both managed to set aside our personal feelings. I believe your children should be able to feel that they are more important to you than the difficulties you have with each other.

Be careful of criticizing

Just because your children are adults, does not mean they no longer want to feel that both parents are still there for them. Your children still love you both. It does not help them when you criticize each other.  You may think your subtle remarks about your ex go unnoticed but over time your words may affect and influence them.

I have tried my best to encourage my kids to continue having a strong, loving relationship with their father. Sometimes it’s really hard to do this, especially when holidays come up and they try to divide their time between us. I see more of them on a regular basis, so I reassure them that I am absolutely fine if they spend time with their father (even if it means I will be spending a holiday alone).

Find a way to communicate

A complete lack of communication between divorced parents is hard for the children, even when they are adults. What happens when they face a crisis in their lives? They want to know that you can still speak to each other about them. This is not easy when you are trying to recover from the divorce and any contact just brings back all the hurt. You have to try and put your love for your children ahead of your hurts and issues.

Your divorce impacts their future too

You may not realize it now but your divorce impacts your grown children’s future too. In their minds you would grow old together. You would be a support system for one another. Now, they feel more responsible for you. They are likely to imagine what will happen when one of you gets ill or when other problems occur. They assume they will need to step in and fear that this may become difficult for them as their own families grow.

My daughter has voiced her sadness about the fact that her children won’t have the example of happily married grandparents. My parents were deeply committed to one another and held their 50th wedding anniversary before my dad passed away. They also had a wonderful relationship with their grandchildren and she feels her children won’t experience that because of the divorce. She too has to go through a process of accepting her new reality and letting go of her past.

My son has taken on more responsibility for both of his parents since the divorce. I don’t know what I would have done without his support but I don’t ever want to use him as a crutch. I don’t ever want him to feel that he has to take sole responsibility for my welfare for the rest of his life. I have been forced out of my comfort zones and into learning how to live life on my own without his help.

Last word

Contrary to what some people may think, adult children suffer greatly when their parents go through a divorce. Their childhood memories and perception of their future are affected. Because they are adults, their parents tend to confide in them more, lean on them more and generally treat them like adults rather than like children who need to be protected. They are much more likely to be drawn into the whole divorce process which is often messy. The fall-out of an older divorce on adult children should not be underestimated. Your children need you to treat them with a great deal of sensitivity during your late-life divorce – from how you first tell them about it to helping them to deal with it and express their sense of loss.



3 thoughts on “How adult children respond to divorce”

  1. Have just re-established contact with my son (my only child) in his 30’s after his father and I divorced 5 years ago. I used to text him on important occasions, his birthday, his wedding anniversary, etc & never got a reply. I have a toddler grandson I have never seen, but hopefully that can be remedied in the near future. It’s been a terribly painful 5 years learning to live on my own for the first time ever and dealing with the loneliness and the incredible hurt. Still have flashbacks every so often. My religious faith has been the one constant and my very dear friends within my congregation have been the best support network I could ever imagine. Took up a new craft about 4 years ago and gain enormous satisfaction from seeing it all come together as a finished project. A physical reminder for me that I AM useful and CAN do things and do them well.

    1. Glad you managed to make contact with your son and hope you will be able to meet your grandson soon. It is so difficult learning to live on your own for the first time! At least you have a good support network as that can really help. I found that crafts really helped me too!

  2. I was 22 when my parents separated. They divorced a few years later and by that time I was married. I’m 29 now and have two little kids, everything mentioned in this article is true. All I want in the world is for my parents to be civil and communicate. They haven’t talked since the divorce and that was over 5 years ago. They won’t put aside their differences. It’s a very heartbreaking feeling. I would say it’s the one thing in my life that causes me the most heartache and stress. I may be a mom and wife, but I’m still their firstborn little girl and I’m tired of suffering for them.

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