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Dealing with Your Feelings When Your Kids Divorce

Blaming yourself for their divorce because of your own? It's not your fault.

Key points

  • Your marital history may not be the biggest influence on your children; their divorces are their own.
  • Your children's disappointment is greater than yours; don't conflate your feelings with theirs.
  • Accept their right to make their own choices, even if you think they're the wrong ones.
  • Taking sides is inevitable, but being as neutral as possible in front of the grandchildren is necessary.

“When my daughter told me she and her husband were divorcing, I was stunned,” said Alice, closing the wedding album with a sigh. “If I ever thought two people were made for each other, they were the ones. When she said it was over I didn’t think What did they do wrong? but What did we?

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that question from a client or a contemporary whose adult child, like nearly a quarter of couples, divorced within the first five years of marriage. And while many, like Alice, blame themselves for their children’s marital failures, even those who don’t wonder whether their kids are giving up too soon.

That was my first reaction when my 30 year-old child, married almost four years, told me, “We’re separating.” There were few hints in that initial statement about why, just some vague comments about not wanting the same things out of life, marrying too young, growing in different directions. But I cried myself to sleep that night thinking about the failure of my own marriage years earlier and wondering whether and how much that history might have influenced hers.

She was quick to reassure me that it hadn’t. “If anything, you probably stuck it out longer than you should have, considering how different you and Dad were,” she told me, much like Alice’s daughter Joan reassured her. “I’m not taking it as badly as she is,” Joan said when we talked after she settled her two-year-old in his crib. “I loved Tom and wanted our marriage to work. But he married a fantasy, one who would answer his every need—a hot dinner, a perfectly groomed wife, sex on demand. I never wanted to be a single mother. But if that's the way it has to be, I',m going to do it as well as I can."

Our adult children have their own ideas about marriage, says sociologist Pepper Schwartz. “Young people enjoy more gender equality today, communicate more openly, and have better dialogues. But even peer marriage often breaks down when the first child comes. Both partners see reality as betrayal; they may say for better or for worse, but they don’t really know what worse is, except a failure of their expectations.”

And what about our expectations? Most divorces involve not just a couple but their parents, who share their sadness and guilt. “I always thought I was a good mother, but both my kids were divorced before they were 30,” says Beth, who admits her self-image was badly shaken by her children’s breakups. “I know they’re not just an extension of me, but I feel ashamed, too. They’re not the only ones who are suffering. I’ve lost a daughter-in-law I adored and my grandchildren, too.”

While all parents are pained by their kids’ marital failures, not all take it personally or feel any responsibility for it. “My life is mine and theirs are theirs,” says a 58 -year-old lawyer whose children divorced within six years of marriage. “They make their own choices, the way I did, and I don’t think my divorce influenced them; if anything, it made them more leery of getting married in the first place.”

The decision to divorce is harder to accept when there are grandchildren involved. “Incompatibility, what is that? Maybe it’s not the best situation in the world, but when there are two kids involved, you work harder at being compatible,” says a man whose son divorced after eight years of marriage.

Fear of losing touch with grandchildren has an impact on us. We worry about how divorce will affect the youngest, most vulnerable family members. Loyalty issues surface too; I’d learned to love not only my child’s spouse but the extended family I’d gained with that marriage. Welcoming a child’s new love can also be hard; “I’ve lost a daughter-in-law I loved and two grandchildren, and I’m reluctant to risk that again,” said one woman when her son married for the second time.

It helps to view a child’s remarriage as an opportunity to build bridges, focus on looking forward, and safeguard the continuity of your own family by avoiding destructive responses and resisting the urge to assign blame, especially in front of the grandchildren. Don’t get further enmeshed by explaining one spouse’s behavior to another; you really don’t k now the whole story. Guard your own mental health by not letting yourself be torn apart by your child’s pain or focusing on one child’s divorce to the exclusion of the rest of your family, Looking forward, not backward, and reaching out to grandchildren to help them heal is the healthiest way to cope.

In order to deal with our own feelings of disappointment, we must accept our children’s right to make their own choices. And if their choice is divorce, choose love over judgment.

Don’t take over and try to straighten things out; that’s their job, not yours. Let them ask for the kind of help they need, set boundaries that allow you to care for yourself while still being open to them. Be clear about what you can provide and for how long, in order to avoid resentment in both generations.

And while there may be a bittersweet pleasure in being needed by your newly single, probably heartbroken children now, don’t get too used to it. Once they’re on their own again, you’ll realize how much they’ve grown through the ,experience, which may be the beginning of your own growth, too, as the parent of a truly adult child.

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