In spite of the fact that the so-called “grey divorce” rate more than doubled in the last two decades, there are few guidelines for adult children dealing with their changing family. Many adult children of divorce (ACODS) experience loyalty conflicts because they feel that they have to pick sides. Even if they don’t take sides, they may feel stressed trying to maintain appropriate boundaries — especially if their parents are angry foes.
Truth be told, ACODS may find themselves in plenty of tricky situations that younger children are spared, such as hearing about their parents’ dating life or aspects of their parents’ divorce due to one or both of their parents oversharing.
Other ACODS may feel devastated when they hear the news of their parents’ divorce and wonder why they stayed unhappily married for so many years and may even feel guilty because they believe that they could have done something to stop it.
For instance, Alana, a twentysomething teacher says, “I wish my parents would have split earlier, I survived years of daily arguments and now my parents are divorced, middle-aged, and having a hard time being alone. My mom is lonely and always texting or calling me looking for companionship and my dad stops by my house unannounced a lot. I wish I could have helped them stay together.”
Even if they are in favor of their parents’ breakup because of chronic arguments or abuse, ACODS may be surprised to hear about their split and grieve the loss of their intact family. Over a coffee at a local café, Jason says “My parents were never happy so their divorce wasn’t a total shock, but it feels uncomfortable to spend holidays in two homes and my mom needs more help around the house – stuff that my dad used to do. I feel guilty but I have my own family can can’t always help her.”
Another concern for ACODS is their vulnerability to divorce themselves. According to researcher Paul Amato, they have double the risk of divorce, compared to counterparts raised in intact homes. However, author Elisabeth Joy LaMotte believes that experiencing parental divorce can make you a clear-eyed realist and can enhance your chances of achieving, a successful, long-term relationship. According to LaMotte, if you pay attention to the multiple factors that impacted your parent’s sense of happiness and make good choices in romantic partners, you can build healthier relationships for yourself.
Here are some guidelines for adult children who are dealing with their parents’ divorce:
- Maintain healthy boundaries. If one or both of your parents is sharing too much personal information or relying too much on you for support they need to know how you feel. Or, if one parent badmouths the other one, you need to tell them to stop.
- Resist being in the middle between your parents. You can be sympathetic if one or both parents ask you to settle a dispute or expect you to be their counselor or mediator. But saying something like “I’m sorry you’re hurting but I need to stay out of this,” will hopefully communicate the message you desire.
- Express your feelings calmly and clearly. Daughters in particular may find themselves feeling emotionally upset by the news of their parents’ split. According to Louann Brizendine M.D., women value emotional expression more than men do and their memory is better for emotional memories due to their amygdala being more activated by emotional nuance.
- Strive to not let your parents’ divorce define your relationship with them. Enjoy pleasurable activities together and during those times you might say “Let’s not talk about the divorce right now.”
- Maintain contact with both extended families. If you want to keep your relationship with both of your parents’ families, be clear with your parents that this is your goal. Gary Neuman, author of “The Long Way Home: The Powerful 4-step Plan for Adult Children of Divorce” says that ACODS can have stronger family bonds than other people because they are more committed to making relationships work. It may provide them with a sense of family and closeness.
- Stop comparing your romantic relationships to your parents. Attempt to see yourself as capable of learning from the past, rather than repeating it.
- Face your fear of commitment if it exists and embrace the notion that commitment has to be made with some degree of uncertainty. If you wait to make a commitment when you are free of doubts, it will never happen.
- Take your time dating someone and make sure that you’ve known them for at least two years to make a lifelong commitment to reduce your risk of divorce.
The good news is that experiencing your parents’ divorce can make you more careful about whom you choose as a partner as an adult. This can emerge as your signature strength. You understand the fragility of love, yet maintain a healthy respect for commitment in your own life.
Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry