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Some couples delay the dissolution of their marriage for the sake of their children. They reason that if the kids are older and out on their own, then the impact of the divorce will be diminished.  

The intensity and severity of loss the children feel regarding their parents’ divorce is dependent on many variables beyond just their chronological age. Yet due to the rationale that adult children won’t be affected now that they “have lives of their own”, divorcing parents often overlook or minimize their adult children’s feelings during this family crisis. Unfortunately, sometimes adult children get assigned the role of confidant or ally. Although this role is both unwanted and stressful, many adult children may not want to “hurt or complicate the situation by speaking up.” They may just internalize their pain or else distance from one or both parents.

Here are some valuable insights I have learned from speaking with adult children regarding their parents’ behavior during divorce. Being aware of these issues, can diminish conflict and insure that long after the divorce dust settles, your relationship with your children is not irreparably damaged.

Here are ten things adult children would really like their divorcing parents to know.

  1. Remember the person you are divorcing is our other parent. Please spare us the details of your finances, sex life, legal battle and emotional angst. If it was private during your marriage, then keep it private during your divorce. You may not have a problem betraying your spouse’s privacy, but we have a problem when you cross generational boundaries. Tell your friends, therapist or minister. (But please don’t tell us!) 
  2. Please don’t expect us to hang out with you, to be your best friend, date, surrogate spouse, confidante or therapist.
  3.  Don’t nag or compare how much time we spend (or don’t spend) with each of you. Keeping a scorecard and complaining, “It isn’t fair. I don’t have equal time” just makes you seem petty.
  4.  Please don’t expect us to be overjoyed with your new relationship. You may feel as if you have found the love of your life. To us, that person is an interloper in our family.
  5.  It hurts us when you compare your “new children” to us. We don’t want to hear how accepting they are of you and how great a relationship you all have forged. We feel replaced.
  6.  Please don’t expect us to hate your spouse for what they did. You are divorcing your spouse; don’t ask us to divorce our parent. We love you both. Really.
  7. Don’t expect our recovery time line to be the same as yours. We may get over it quicker than you or it may take us longer. Be patient with us. Please don’t judge our feelings and we will try not to judge yours.
  8. Don’t expect us to be unaffected by your divorce. Just because we are in college or out on our own, doesn’t mean our parents divorcing does not hurt us. Our family, our history and our future are forever altered. We can deal with it and we will, but don’t act shocked by our response.
  9. Be aware this divorce impacts us in practical ways- vacations, holidays, inheritance and our caring giving responsibilities just to name a few. If you remarry, our children may not be your only grandchildren. Don’t assume this is no big deal to us. Ask us about our concerns. We still need you to act like parents.
  10.  Please remember our perspective is different than yours as the relationship is different.  You are divorcing your spouse. Our parents are getting a divorce. Different experience; different point of view. Don’t expect us to feel the same way you do.

Lastly, we love you both. While you may think your cheating, lying, manipulative spouse has a “no right” to have us love him/her; the truth is WE have the right to love and to have a healthy caring relationship with BOTH of you. Don’t make us pawns in your battle. We simply ask that you love us more than you hate each other.

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29 Comments

  1. Rose on the 24. Jul, 2011 remarked #

    Donna – this article brought me to tears. I divorced 5 years ago and my children were adults at the time. Both children were out of the house and one was married with children of her own. I clearly see my behavior at that time in so many of these points you make. I wish I would have had this feedback then because I’m sure I would have handled things differently.

    My ex did the cheating and I was devastated but after reading this article, I clearly realize that I did not handle it well and I’m guilty of a number of these things.

    Luckily, my children are okay with me and are re-developing their relationships with their father. But it’s been a long process and I’m sure it took longer partly because of how I handled my divorce.

    Divorce causes a lot of damage on its own and as two divorcing adults, we need to be aware of the impact that this does have on our grown children.

    Thank-you for sharing this article and clearly stating the impacts to adult children. Hopefully, this article will spare other adult children.

    And Thank-you Donna for the important work that you do around divorce and the impact to families.

    Rose

    • admin on the 24. Jul, 2011 remarked #

      Thanks Rose, for your candor. Hopefully others will learn from your tale of heartbreak and courage! There is life after divorce!

  2. CJ Golden on the 24. Jul, 2011 remarked #

    I had to read this from the perspective of more than 20 years in the past. Hopefully I was diligent about honoring those ten essential items you list. Hopefully, if I wasn’t, my children have learned to accept that I never meant harm.
    All is calm and good and accepting in our lives – our blended family is loving, cohesive and supportive.
    How fortunate I am!

  3. Chip Mues on the 27. Jul, 2011 remarked #

    Donna,
    EXCELLENT ARTICLE! All too often divorcing parents seem blind to the feelings of their adult children. I especially liked #2 – just because they are adults, don’t treat them as your support group! Don’t dump on your Ex. Go to a professional therapist to work through the divorce transition issues!
    Regardless of the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage, children deserve to maintain a positive relationship with each parent! Thanks for sharing your valuable insight!

    Chip Mues
    Divorce Lawyer – Dayton, Ohio

  4. Jerry on the 28. Jul, 2011 remarked #

    Donna,

    I cheated on my girlfriend with an escort. We have a two year old daughter, and she has a ten year old from her marriage. I want to try and save the relationship, but she does not. I worry about how all of my horrible behavior will impact my children.

    • admin on the 28. Jul, 2011 remarked #

      Perhaps you can show your girlfriend this blog. The advice certainly applies to young children too! I am not sure what will become of your relationship but telling the details of your “situation” to your children will only hurt and confuse them. For their sake, try to be at least civil in front of the kids and that can go a long way to minimize any damage to them. Good luck!

  5. jackson on the 23. Sep, 2011 remarked #

    Thank you so much for this! I am going through a divorce right now. My 20 year old son is having a tough time. My husband has been emotionally abusive to me and our sons. I am having enormous difficulty NOT talking with my children about my spouses behavior. I fear that he will try to alienate them from me in the future if I don’t warn them. I don’t want them in the middle of this but my husband has already put them there.

    • admin on the 24. Sep, 2011 remarked #

      Trust that your son(who is a young man) is wise enough to form his own opinion.Stay supportive, loving and don’t let your fear control your behavior. In the end, the high road is the best route. Acting like your husband only brings you down to his level. Don’t let someone else dictate your behavior.

  6. Lisa on the 18. Apr, 2012 remarked #

    Thanks for this article. I’m happy that this issue is being addressed more and more.

    My father had and affair and left our family two weeks after that. I was 21, on the cusp of becoming an adult.

    I do (perhaps unfortunately) consider that he divorced the family. This is because I only ever have that ‘family feeling’ around my mom, sister and me. Owing to the affair as well as my stepmother’s difficult personality, my anxiety levels rise in their house and it does not feel like family, even if my sister is there. Even if it is just my sister, dad and myself, I just do not have a family feeling.

    It has been 10 years and this situation still makes me cry.

  7. Lisa on the 18. Apr, 2012 remarked #

    Also… what do you do if you already know everything about the divorce (from my mom)? I don’t fault her for confiding: she had no confidant following the divorce as well as no self-worth.

    • Donna Ferber on the 18. Apr, 2012 remarked #

      Of course you don’t fault your mom, but as you have learned, it is important for parents to keep some things private even from their adult children. Although you are an adult, you are still a daughter and the details are simply too painful. Thanks for sharing-hopefully others will learn from your comments.

  8. Laura on the 25. May, 2012 remarked #

    I am glad that I happened on this website and article. My daughter just turned 20 and wants to know why her dad and I divorced. She resents us for not having let her in on this when it happened in 2006. Neither of us felt a conversation about it back then was the right thing to do. But now, with her asking frequently, I told her we could sit down and talk about it. Ours happened due to our growing apart, no affair. I’m still glad to read your comment above about keeping some things private. I’ve recently learned from her that she has a lot of anger inside and have asked her to see someone but her dad has convinced her that counselors are not helpful, even though I see one regularly and feel the opposite of him. She feels she has no real family (she’s an only child) and I’ve learned how important family is to her. It’s true I think that her dad and I spent more time stressing over our situation and not considering her feelings as much as we should have. Thanks for any advice you can provide.

  9. Tricia on the 16. Jun, 2012 remarked #

    My parents were married for 43 years. My father had an affair last year & decided to leave my mother. Point number 9 is one I feel strongest about really – my husband & I have 2 children of our own. It might seem a bit heartless to say, but time & money are precious commodities! And caring for 2 parents separately is unbelievably stressful for their adult children (especially if you are an only child & there is no one to share the burden). In this decisions, my dad did not think for a moment about the future – who is obligated to take care of the parents in the future, how much 2 separate care arrangements cost (in time &/or money), and if they selfishly suck up all of the time & energy of their children, what is left for their grandchildren??? I feel like my father has stolen my life & my children’s future.

  10. Ash on the 09. Jul, 2012 remarked #

    Thank you so much for this. As an adult (23 yrs old) of recently divorced parents, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of setting up boundaries with my parents, but there are a few things on the list that expressed ideas I hadn’t even thought about. I’ll definitely be sharing this with both of my parents. Thanks!

  11. Leigh Ann on the 21. Oct, 2012 remarked #

    This article is lovely and just what I needed. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. I have two daughters away at college and one in high school and am in the middle of a messy divorce. This article is a keeper and will definitely go on my fridge!
    I have one question that I’d like to ask about something that has been bothering me. My husband, their father, was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder while in rehab for alcohol & drugs. I am often torn when I hear that my husband has set academic goals for my children that place so much undue pressure on them. It makes me so angry, but as the article states, they love us both.
    I’ve thought about finding/suggesting a counselor for them that specializes in narcissism so they can learn to deal with the fact that their father’s expectations aren’t realistic. Would this be seen to them as badmouthing their dad? I just want them to understand that they needn’t feel guilty or embarrassed for not being perfect all the time.

    • Donna Ferber on the 22. Oct, 2012 remarked #

      Thank you for oyur kind words. You can urge your kids to find a counselor to explore their feelings about the divorce and their relationship with you and their father WITHOUT labeling him. A trained therapist will focus on their recovery and growth rather than on their father, his diagnosis and “what he did”. The goal is for them to find their own voice, make their own decisons and find their own bliss-regardless of the expectations of others.

  12. Tara Miller on the 21. Dec, 2012 remarked #

    My parents, married 40 years, separated this summer. My initial response to my dad leaving, was not shock. My mom had become increasingly difficult to be around the past several years due to emotional issues and depression/anxiety. However, shortly after telling us that he had decided to leave my mother after years of unhappiness, we found out that he moved in with the woman “friend” that had become his confidante over the past year of so. I am now torn between the anger I feel towards my mom for “driving him” to that, and the anger I feel towards my dad for cheating – my entire life my dad has been on a pedestal to not only me, but my friends, for being “such a good man.”

    I live halfway across the country from my parents so travel and holidays are a big issue. As we speak, I am at the house my parents designed, built and shared together for the last 13 years and it kills me to look around at the memories that lie in these walls (even though I never lived here).

    I am having lunch with my dad today and it’s the first time I have seen him since this happened. How do I express to him how angry I am, but that I still love him? I was always a “Daddy’s Girl” which my mom knows, so she thinks I hate her or am mad at her because of my silence on the subject. It has already been a difficult couple of days with that elephant always in the room. I just don’t know what to say to her and I don’t want to upset her.

    I wish I had found this blog earlier so that I could be better prepared for what I want to say to both of them.

    Are there any books out there that you would recommend for my family?

    • Donna Ferber on the 21. Dec, 2012 remarked #

      Hi Tara, Divorce is hard on everyone, especially this time of year. The reality is that both of your parents are responsible for the demise of the marriage. There is no “good” V “bad” here. You are getting to see your dad for who he is- a human being who is not perfect. I think when our parents divorce, we never know the entire story ( and it should stay that way…. )It is best to share what you feel openly and honestly, but to not take sides or past judgement. I hope your holidays are filled with peace and that you can find comfort from both of them as you all go through this difficult time.

  13. leslie on the 22. Dec, 2012 remarked #

    I found yesterday txt s on my husbands phone asking women to lunch and how he is getting divorced. Shock, anger, hurt many emotions. But ok I say, things have been going downhill but I thought we were going to keep at it.We are having a christmas with our adult children today. They live pretty far from us, should we tell them today since we ll all be together or should we wait awhile until we sort it out more.husband kept saying IF he decides too go through with it and I said nope , I won t be waiting around for YOU to decide. We ARE getting divorced!

    • Donna Ferber on the 22. Dec, 2012 remarked #

      I am so sorry you had to find out this way.
      My advice is to sort it out first as a couple and go through Christmas without telling your adult children. Ruining their holiday has no benefit. Even if your husband decides to move ahead, you can tell your adult children later, after the holidays and when you have had some time to deal with this painful information. Confide in a friend, a therapist or your clergy for support and let the family celebrate Christmas without this sad information. If you tell them during the holiday they will always remember Christmas as the day their parents broke up. It can ruin this Holiday and all those to come.

  14. Jess on the 16. Jan, 2013 remarked #

    This article has brought tears but I wished I could find it much earlier. We all learn from somewhere and thank you for sharing this. I was a divorcee for past 9 years and married now for 10 months now. My children 15 and 12 is getting well with my husband but I can see that there’s lots of anger/disobedience with my elder. Reading the list I could put my feet into his shoes as I am also from a broken family for I too had the same felling as in the list. Their father and me had a good friendship a while after the divorce for the children sake and it went well with us to main a positive relationship and to build the confidence in our kids no matter what had happened that we are going to be there for them. Everything turn upside down ever since he got a women and the kids do not want the father to marry her and let her go but the father carried on with the relationship. The women could not see how close we are altogether though we are not in one roof and created a mess for all of us due to jealousy. She does not want him to be in contact with me and step back. She threatened him that she will commit suiside if he failed to take care of her heart. We both have stopped talking now but trying to bring the boys in a right path, giving them the support, love and guidance which I need more advice to help me out. Sharing this list with my ex anyway. Thanks

  15. Dee on the 22. Jan, 2013 remarked #

    I divorced my husband of 28 yrs, seven years ago. My four children then 26, 23,22 and 17 yrs of age. 28 years of protecting my children from his Bi-polar cycles. His unfaithfulness, and emotional, mental, physical and spiritual abuse. I was alone in my marriage as the religion that we were involved in put a lot responsibility on the wife keeping the husband happy and the family together. Divorce was a sin. Divorce was never a choice for me until my kids where beginning to lead adult lives. When I did snap, it was time to take care of myself, there fore leaving the kids to care for their emotionally ill father. I was still alone as they gathered around him in is every need. It was a very very lonely time…”the perpetrator became a victim, and the real victim became the accused” me! My children still keep me at a distance and blame me for the broken family…they will never know all the horrible details of our marriage!! It is very hard and very unjust. I have since remarried a beautiful loving man and am so very happy…but with a hole in my heart. Still taking the high road and hoping at the end it is worth it. Thank you for your blog, your article is so very true and is not easy to manage.

  16. Michael Craven on the 05. Aug, 2013 remarked #

    Donna,

    Great perspective. I will share with my clients in Chicago.

    Michael Craven
    Divorce Lawyer Chicago

  17. Nancy D on the 24. Dec, 2013 remarked #

    Wow, this is my divorce. My STBE is bi-polar and has Asperger’s and I sheltered the kids a lot from his bad behavior (multiple affairs, emotional, mental, physical abuse, etc.) From the very beginning, I’d told our adult children this wasn’t an “him or me” issue. They were allowed to love the both of us and I didn’t want anyone to take sides since he was still their father. However, a mere two weeks into the divorce, the kids started telling me I was divorcing their father to punish him, to drag him into line, to force him to do what I wanted him to do. My youngest even told me, “Why don’t you just kill yourself and put me and dad out of our misery.”

    I can listen to them talk and hear these same words from the mouth of their father over the course of our marriage. He’s actually turned them ALL against me in a really short timeframe. It’s breaking my heart.

    However, given he’s mentally ill, I expected this, but it sure doesn’t make it any easier to take. My oldest son now refuses to talk to me and my youngest is home for the holiday, but staying with his dad, and didn’t want me to know he’d come home. His dad was more than happy to tell me when we were in court the other day, following it up with, “Oh, shoot, he asked me not to tell you.” and laughed.

    Again, he’s mentally ill so I expected the same childish, abusive behavior I saw throughout our marriage, but this goes beyond the pale. This is evil.

    • Donna Ferber on the 26. Dec, 2013 remarked #

      That is a sad story. It is important to remember that divorce as a process for ALL involved-your children’s immediate response will most likely evolve over time and they will in time (hopefully) see things differently as they begin to experience his behavior first hand without you running interference and protecting them. Have faith in your kids and their ability to grow emotionally. Good luck!

  18. Seri Tar on the 25. Feb, 2014 remarked #

    My parents are going through a divorce after 40+ years together. It has been a horrible experience that I suspect would have been easier on me if I was the one getting a divorce. Watching the fallout but not being able to help has been VERY stressful. My father has cut me out of his life because I allowed my Mom to move in with me when he became emotionally abusive. He has also cut her off financially and so I have become the primary source of support for her while he lives it up, making close to 10 thousand a month. Such betrayal can never be forgiven or forgotten.

  19. Frances on the 23. Apr, 2014 remarked #

    My mother and step-father are currently going through a separation. I am 30, with 4 children. I have had the “honor” of getting a play by play of their marital collapse. Both sides say the other cheated, and now 2 weeks after their separation and my mother coming to stay at our home, my step father is moving his girlfriend of 9 months in, and my mother spends most nights at a “friends” house. I realize that both may be ready to move on, but I am not! How could 16 years mean so little that neither of them care to mourn the loss? I think what makes the situation worse is that even when my mother is around, she will jump up from the dinner table to answer her phone when her “friend” calls. I have to hear about how myself and my children are her reason for living, yet we only exist when it’s convenient. I only wish that my parents would act as grown up as some of the others I have read above.

  20. katie on the 22. Jun, 2014 remarked #

    Thank you, thank you for this article!! My parents divorced when I was 30. My dad left, moved on, and is remarried. My mom, 5 years later, is just as devastated as the day he left. She cuts him down, calls him names, talks about private information, and has made me feel that if I have a relationship with my dad, that I’m picking his side. I’ve cried many nights over this. I try to talk to her about it, telling her that when she puts my dad down, it hurts me too. She says I don’t understand and that I’m not being sensitive to her greif. She sees nothing wrong in what she is doing, and makes it a personal attack when I try to say it hurts me. She says she’s been diagnosed with PTSD and that she is fragile and easily hurt. That I’m selfish for not wanting to listen and take her side. I’m struggling right now horribly with all of this. This article makes me realize I’m not selfish and not alone. Late in life divorce can be heartbreaking for children, even when we are adults. Thank you again for your articles.

  21. Diane on the 26. Jul, 2014 remarked #

    I found with my horrible divorce that even with one daughter, it was an ongoing strain afterwards. After being totally mistreated, abused mentally and financially by my ex, now I found that she has to keep secrets about him. I’m not trying to find out details about his marriage as I don’t want to know about the other woman, but she won’t even tell me what he is up to in a casual sense. For example: Is he still going to football games? This was a man I once loved for Pete’s sake. It really upset me when she said: “why don’t you ask him”. She knew we didn’t talk to each other anymore. She won’t say a single thing, but she probably tells him things about me. I can’t have a family member who keeps secrets to protect my hurt feelings. I never had to keep secrets in my family like this ever. This is not respectful or loving when she has to lie about things. It just isn’t right. Since that is more abusive behavior, I’ve lost a daughter. She refuses to talk to me about it. I lost a close relationship with her because of him. Divorce doesn’t end with final papers and new marriages. It just complicate it that much more. I have friends who fight over who gets to take care of grandchildren, etc. Emotions continue because of bad memories that will always be present. You can’t forget the past. It’s a sad situation, but I’m sure over battling it, so I try and look at it as I have no family anymore, and that is fine for everyone involved. Naturally, I don’t like it as far as losing a mother and daughter relationship, but I’m not going to sit back and be lied to after living with someone who lied to me for over 35 years. It’s almost like the ex manipulated her to be the same way. He’s good at that as he was a salesman. He sure had me fooled many years. I’m going on my own way, and trying to leave the past behind – regardless who is in it. Having a biological parent isn’t a reason to condone their bad behavior and then lie to the other parent. If this had been my dad, I sure wouldn’t have had much to do with him, but I can’t keep her from associating with him. It’s like the young adults today have to be robotic to each side. Why fight it? Keeping secrets isn’t the way. A good parent doesn’t teach their children to keep secrets. I thought I taught her better. I was always told to tell the truth, put things out in the open and discuss them amicably as a family, but she refuses to talk. So, it strains both ends unfortunately. She lives in a different state, so there’s no way to talk in person except by phone or emails. I did everything to discuss it with her, but she refuses to talk about it. So I feel I lost her because of the way the divorce has caused her to keep secrets and lie to me.

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