You’ve entered that time of your life that you may (or may not) have been dreading: the empty nest. It’s not uncommon for married couples to reassess their relationship when the last kid heads off to college, or cleans out their closet in preparation for the move to their first full-time job. If your reassessment results in divorce, or if you’re a man or woman of a certain age who finds themselves in the midst of a divorce, you may not give much thought to how your children will fare during this transition. They’re grown, right? They have their own lives and their own issues to deal with, so how could the divorce of their parents have much effect on them?
In fact, adult children are most certainly vulnerable to the effects of their parents’ divorce. In several ways, they have different versions of the challenges their younger counterparts face. The good news is, they probably have more maturity and resources (life experience, wisdom, support systems and the knowledge of how to use them, and a peer group, to name a few) to bring to the situation. And they’re more likely to recognize some of the same things about the marriage that their parents see as insurmountable challenges. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering a loss, a change in their relationships and their experience of family, and the tug of loyalties and old family dynamics. And if they are, they may feel the same vague threat that most groups and communities are subject to when faced with the end of a relationship of one or two of the members.
Adult Children are Still Your Children
What’s a parent to do when going through a divorce after the children have started their own lives? Some of the same guidelines to consider when divorcing with younger children in the mix still apply. Don’t put the children in the middle, and give them only the facts that don’t place blame. Saying negative things about the other parent to younger children has the (often subconscious) effect of saying negative things about that child, who sees him or herself as half of each parent. Adult children have developed a greater sense of their own selves and while negative statements about a parent aren’t as damaging to the self as they are to the younger kids (they may have the same experience of that parent), there is a risk of triangulation and enmeshment that is not going to serve anyone well. Adult children usually have more insight into the dynamics of their parents’ relationship and may have their own theories as to why the relationship is ending: if your grown daughter asks for confirmation of Mom’s affair that she says she’s long suspected, refer her to her mother. Boundaries that are important in your adult relationships are even more important in post-divorce relationships with your children.
New Boundaries for New Relationships
As with divorce at an earlier point in the family lifecycle, it’s important to redraw the boundaries of the family. For some families, there will be a complete break established by the parents, and the children have distinct – and separate – relationships with mom and dad. Other divorced parents will establish more fluid boundaries, and the parents may continue to be friends. This tends to be far less confusing for grown children than it is for younger children, and grown children don’t typically harbor hopes that their parents will reconcile, or create situations to promote that. But rather than the parents setting the tone for the family when the two of them have a post-divorce friendship, adult children will choose whether and how to integrate their relationship with their mother and their relationship with their father. Some may choose to keep them separate, in spite of the friendship between the divorced parents. Others may embrace the fluidity and maintain some of the pre-divorce family culture. It’s important for divorced parents who maintain a relationship with their ex-spouse post-divorce to respect the preferences of their adult children, and give the kids the opportunity to set the tone for their relationships with each of you.
Finally, remember that divorce represents a loss for everyone in a family that is changing. Adult children can appreciate the reasons behind the decision to divorce, they can applaud their parents’ ability to make that difficult decision, but they still have a loss to process. Don’t assume that all is hunky-dory with the children; honor their loss in whatever way you can. If you’re able to serve as a sounding board – which means resisting the temptation to talk about your own emotional experience and opinions of the other parent and his or her behavior – then ask them how they’re doing with all these family changes. Encourage them to seek support: from spouses, friends, siblings, trained professionals, or any safe and constructive place. And give them the time and space (and grace) to adjust to the new normal.