There are tons of resources and advice on getting divorced with minor children but adult children tend to be forgotten. What’s important to understand about divorce with adult children is that it is still painful for them.
Divorcing with adult children isn’t easier or harder but it is different and that means you can’t take anything for granted.
You need to be every bit as mindful and intentional about your divorce as you would have been if your children were still minors.
How to handle divorcing with adult children.
Telling Your Children
How your children hear about your divorce matters. With minor children living at home, the best approach is for both parents to tell all the children together so they all hear the same message. Divorce attorney-turned adviser and coach, Karen Covy says that’s still the best approach for adult children.
“However you can orchestrate getting everyone together whether it’s physically or virtually, at the same time, in the same place, gives you the most control over what’s communicated and how it’s communicated,” said Covy.
The danger in telling each child individually is that before you even finished having the conversation with the first child, they’re already passing on the news to their sibling(s) via text, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or whatever other technology they use.
Adult Children Feel Responsible
Adult children do take on the responsibility for their parents’ divorce, just as minor children do but they do it in a different way.
“They might not feel that they’re necessarily responsible for the breakup of the marriage,” said Covy. “They feel responsible for their parents’ unhappiness for all the years that they stayed together just for the kids.”
That translates often into a huge amount of guilt and it’s something that most parents don’t think about especially if they’re struggling with their own guilt. With that burden of guilt, your child may be advocating against the divorce or encouraging marriage counseling. They may be well-meaning but this is not their decision.
With long term marriages, the kids may be wondering if you’ve managed to make the marriage work for 30. 35, 40 years, why not just keep doing do what you’ve been doing.
“Just because you’ve handled it for 40 years doesn’t mean that you want to continue handing it for whatever time is left,” said Covy. “The problem is no children ever want to see their parents get divorced but it’s your decision, not theirs.”
It’s Harder When They Don’t See It Coming
Children who think their parents have a perfect marriage and don’t see the divorce coming have a harder time coping and especially when a child has a close relationship with a parent. Covy references research by Professor Tamara Afifi. She has a TEDx talk on the impact of divorce on children – see minute 11:56 for when she talks about children who don’t see the divorce coming.
I think children don’t see divorce coming when one party has decided the marriage needs to end but has made a decision to wait until the children are in college before acting. That parent starts to withdraw from the marriage, detaches and so they don’t engage in conflict and are able to construct this facade of a happy marriage. That enables the parent to stay in the marriage, to do family events and celebrations, have family vacations.
Then, when the end of the marriage happens the child is surprised because their parents never argued so of course, they had no idea the marriage was troubled.
“It rocks their whole world,” said Covy. “They start doubting whether what they saw was real. It’s not at all what it seemed.”
That starts a process rewriting their history and trying to make sense of family vacations and holidays. They struggle to find the truth in these events and it’s hard for them to accept the concept of multiple realities.
Adult children of divorce also start to look at their own relationships. That their parents did such a good job of covering up their problems, makes the child wonder about what’s real or solid in their own relationship.
The Kids Usually Know Something Is Not Right
While some kids don’t see the end of their parents’ marriage coming, many do. They’ve heard the arguments, or they’ve seen the behaviors that have made the marriage crumble or that made staying together really difficult.
Even if they don’t know the full extent, once you remove the protective shield of keeping up the facade, and the children start to renegotiate their relationship with each parent, their awareness will increase.
The Kids Don’t Need To Know Everything
While adult children struggle to rewrite their truth, it can be tempting to try to explain your own reality. There’s a fine line.
“For parents, the smartest thing is they’ve got to walk the line,” said Covy. “They want to share enough information to reassure them that no those weren’t fake. Those happy memories really were happy memories but perhaps there were other memories that the children weren’t privy to.”
Parents usually keep those circumstances from the children out of love and wanting to protect the children and that doesn’t make the other memories fake. And just because the parents have made the decision to end their marriage doesn’t mean that it is now time to share everything that has been going on.
Covy says the key here is to listen to your child and to let them vent. They may be angry. They may be frustrated and they’re going to have an opinion but don’t play into it and don’t get defensive.
This is related to children not needing to know everything but it’s so important it needs to be emphasized. A common mistake that many people make is to overshare with their adult children because they think they’re adults and they can handle it. That’s not necessarily true.
Avoiding oversharing becomes trickier with adult children because they are going to ask the questions that younger children don’t. For example, your adult child may come right out and ask if you or their other parent was having an affair. If an affair was involved you might feel like telling your child because it justifies the divorce, it helps to explain everything.
“We all value honesty in our close relationships so that gives parents the impetus to overshare,” said Covy. “But then what? Nobody wants to know their parent was having a 10-year affair and all the gory details of who it was and what they did and where it happened. Nobody wants to know that about their parent. And to think that won’t damage a relationship with a parent is crazy.”
While you are not responsible for covering up or keeping your STBX’s secrets Covy says that your North Star for deciding what to share is asking if sharing the information will hurt your child’s relationship with their other parent and whether not sharing it will hurt your child’s relationship with you.
Related to over-sharing is getting your child over-involved. A classic example of this is when one parent needs to move out of the marital home and asks their child if they can move in with them. Finances may be very limited and finding somewhere inexpensive to live for at least a few months may be a priority but if there are other options take them. And, if the real reason to move in with your child is for emotional support, then all the more reason to look for somewhere else to live. Your child is not your social support system or your therapist.
Don’t Ask Or Expect Your Child To Take A Side
Based on my experience, I think it is more common for adult children to take sides in their parents’ divorce because they do know or think they know more about the circumstances. This isn’t healthy and it’s not what we want. In the short term, taking sides will certainly hurt the child’s relationship with the parent they’re opposing. In the long run, it may even hurt their relationship with the parent with whom they’re allied. The other real danger is that it will damage a child’s relationship with their sibling(s) because it pits them against each other.
This is easier said than done especially in situations where one parent is oversharing. For example, if you end up keeping the marital home as a result of the divorce negotiations, your child might say that they don’t think it’s fair that their other parent gave you the home. The word ‘gave’ is a red flag that your STBX has been oversharing and painting you in a negative light.
To not respond or defend yourself would likely damage your relationship with your child which may already be strained. At the same time, you want to avoid oversharing because the details of the divorce are not your child’s business. Even if your STBX is oversharing, taking the high road is the right choice.
In this case, responding with an acknowledgment that yes you did get the home, that your STBX didn’t “give” you the home, and then stating that your ex got other assets that are worth as much as the house would be appropriate. You could also explain that the legal process does call for an equitable division of the assets and that is supervised by the court.
It’s Takes Time To Rebuild
While your adult child is wondering what was real about the family vacations and Holiday get-togethers may be an opportunity for you to reassure them that’s how you can all still be a family even after divorce, Covy stresses that it still takes time to rebuild.
It’s simply not realistic to think that because you and your STBX have managed these events civilly, even amicably in the past that you can carry on doing so as if the divorce didn’t change anything. It’s a great ideal but it does take most families time and commitment to achieve this.
“I see so many people put pressure on themselves and say, ‘I want to be best friends with my ex’ and I say, ‘Yeah, but you haven’t even divorced him, yet’” said Covy. “If you’re not friends immediately that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to ever be friends or be on good terms them.”
Give yourself the time to get through the legal process first and to let the dust settle. Sometimes continuing family dinners while you’re navigating your separation is just too painful and doesn’t help the children either because it exposes to them to on-going conflict and makes feel caught in the middle.
This article was originally published on Since My Divorce.