I’ve seen it happen a number of times now. Clients with adult children come into my office seeking representation in a divorce. Maybe the divorce was their idea; maybe it wasn’t. No matter the circumstances that led them into divorce, most of them believe the biggest myth about the effect of divorce on adult children: they assume that since their children are older, they divorce won’t affect them as much. They assume their adult children will be fine.
The Names May Be Changed, But the Story is The Same
I knew a man once (I’ll call him “Dave”) who wanted a divorce from his wife of 30+ years. They had three adult children. Dave had been the primary breadwinner in the family. His wife (I’ll call her “Sarah”) had raised the children. Dave had been a good father, and he had a good relationship with his kids. But his relationship with his wife had grown cold years ago.
As he found himself facing retirement, Dave just couldn’t picture spending all of his time with Sarah. He also met an attractive younger woman with whom he felt he had a lot more in common than he did with Sarah. Dave had an affair. Then he filed for divorce.
When Sarah got served with the divorce papers, she was devastated. Then she got angry. Getting a divorce after 50 had never been a part of her life’s plan. Getting a divorce after 50 from a husband who was having an affair with a younger woman was even worse! It was almost too cliché and painful for her to bear.
Sarah immediately called the children and told them everything – not just about the divorce and Dave’s affair, but also about all of the slights Sarah had suffered and endured during their marriage. Now the children were devastated – and furious with their father for ruining their family. Dave tried to explain his side of the story – how he and Sarah had grown apart and how he needed someone to be a more compatible companion in his old age. But that only made the children angrier. The oldest two wanted nothing to do with him, but the youngest child was torn: she still loved both of her parents. She also needed her father’s support to finish paying for college.
Dave knew that the children wouldn’t be thrilled that he and Sarah were getting a divorce, but he hadn’t anticipated just how upset they would be. He thought they knew how unhappy he had been for years. He thought that, after they got used to the idea that he and Sarah were splitting, they would be fine. They weren’t.
Dave and Sarah’s divorce wasn’t the most amicable case in the court house, but they were ultimately able to settle it and go their separate ways. Meanwhile, ten years later, Sarah is still bitter and Dave has virtually no relationship with his two oldest kids.
Like Dave, most people assume that the effect of divorce on adult children is not nearly as bad as the effect divorce has on younger children. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
What the Research Says About the Effect of Divorce on Adult Children
Research has shown that most adult children are shocked when they learn their parents are divorcing – even if the children knew their parents’ marriage had been rocky for years. That shock is followed by a lingering disbelief, and a deep and abiding sense of loss.
After their parents’ long term marriages end, adult children often become cynical. They develop problems with trust. Many become angry. They lose their faith in marriage, and they lose their faith in their parents. They lose their sense of family, and find themselves questioning whether their entire past was a lie.
Many adult children of divorce become insecure when their parents’ marriage ends. They find themselves preoccupied with death, disease, and loss of all sorts. They often resent their parents for abandoning a marriage that the children believed they should have been able to fix. They feel betrayed. Overall, while the effect of divorce on adult children may be different than the effect of divorce on younger children, it is every bit as devastating.
How to Lessen the Impact of Your Divorce on Your Adult Children
So, what do you do if you have adult children and you want to (or your spouse wants to) get a divorce after 50? Here are a few things to remember:
- Give Your Children Time to Grieve. It doesn’t matter how old they are, your children are still your children. As a parent, you need to remember that, and to expect that your children may have strong feelings and emotions about your divorce. Listen to them. Let them air their feelings. Your divorce is a loss to them, too.
- Be Thoughtful About How You Tell Your Children You Are Getting a Divorce. You should give as much thought and care to telling your children about your divorce now as you would have if they were only 5 or 6 years old. That means that, to the greatest extent possible, you should break the news to them together, and in person.
- Don’t make your children your therapist! If you are having problems getting through your divorce, or adjusting to your life afterwards, don’t lean on your kids! Get a real therapist, or talk to your friends and siblings.
- Don’t air your dirty laundry! Yes, you should be honest with your adult children, but that doesn’t mean they need (or want) to know all of the intimate details of your marriage. Telling them the dirty details of how your ex had serial affairs or overindulged in alcohol or mistreated you for decades only makes them feel more sad, angry and insecure.
- Keep Your Children OUT of Your Divorce. Don’t ask your children for divorce advice, and don’t make them mediate your conflicts! They are children of you AND your soon-to-be ex. They love you both. Don’t force them to take sides.
- Don’t Become a Burden! Learn how to meet your own needs on your own, without their help. If you haven’t cooked a meal or cleaned the house or paid a bill in years, figure it out! Sign up for a class, ask friends, search the web, do whatever you need to do to learn how to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.
- Take the high road. Encourage your children to have a relationship with your ex, and don’t make them feel bad when they spend time with him or her. They need to have a relationship with both of you. Don’t pepper them with questions about what your ex is doing or who your ex is dating. Doing so may satisfy your curiosity, but it will make your kids uncomfortable. Besides, I hate to say it but, after the divorce, it’s none of your business. Focus on your own life, not on your ex’s life. If you do, both you and your adult children will be much happier.
(The story of “Dave and Sarah” is based on a real story, but the names have been changed and the facts have been altered to protect the identities of those involved.)
No matter how old your children are, when you are facing divorce being prepared is key. Get your FREE Divorce Checklist to make sure you are ready for what’s coming.