When an adult child’s marriage breaks up, his/her parents are often drawn into the fray. They are called upon to provide emotional, financial and sometimes, as with increased babysitting, even physical support. I spoke with several parents who have gone through it to see how they felt, how they fared, and how they would advise others in their situation to cope. With the divorce rate stubbornly hovering at around 50%, there’s an even chance that you will be able to relate.
Wondered why. Maggie V. told me, “Both my sons made inappropriate marriages. How is it that my husband and I have been together contentedly for over fifty years and they couldn’t make a go of it for even ten? Did they just assume a marriage would take care of itself? Or, since all of their friends’ parents were divorced, maybe they thought that’s the norm and we’re the weird ones. Who knows? People who are constantly sniping at each other stay together while others who seem so in love split up. The longer I live the less I understand people, especially my own children.”
Did not feel guilty. I found surprisingly little self-flagellation among my respondents, even those who had been divorced themselves or whose child had been divorced more than once. A few said their child was too immature when he got married or went into it for the wrong reasons. Many more, though, thought either their kids’ marriage had been a bad fit from the get-go or it was the fault of the other spouse (who was usually described as “mentally unstable,” “troubled,” “dealing with many personal issues,” or, as one father put it rather more bluntly, “wacko.” While their child’s divorce led to some self-examination, by and large the parents didn’t feel they had played a role in the break-up.
Rejected “failure” . . . The parents I spoke with did not feel their child’s divorce was a referendum on their own parenting or on their child’s moral fiber. “Divorce is the failure of an institution not individuals,” said Janey D. “My son was unrealistic, and the expectations failed. That’s the extent of it,” said Don P. Phil B. chimed in, “People make mistakes, childish mistakes, even when they’re chronologically not children anymore. Others are simply not suited for marriage or can’t seem to pick the right one.” I’ve also heard some therapists voice concerns that the younger generation simply doesn’t have what it takes to make a long-term relationship work.
. . . But experienced pain. “I felt awful for such a long time,” Ellen R. told me. “I was miserable for my grandchildren, who were so upset, and I was frustrated that there was nothing I could do to make the situation right. In order not to step on their mother’s toes, I always went through her to speak with the kids. When they were older I was able to have direct conversations with them, and they thanked me for being there for them. I guess we all weathered the storm, even if we’ll never be exactly the same again.”
Quelled impatience. DeeDee R. said, “My daughter knew it was over for at least ten years before she finally called it quits on her marriage. I think it was a combination of her perfectionism, loyalty, and desire to provide a stable home for her children that kept her from pulling the trigger. So, year-in, year-out I had to listen to her tales of woe while I zipped my lip. It was torture! When she finally made her move, it was all I could do from turning cartwheels, but I couldn’t let my exuberance show because I knew she was still wracked by conflicting emotions. A year has passed and we have a much more relaxed, natural relationship now without my having to watch every word.”
Breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s much worse for children to live in a house where the parents are at war than one headed by a mother or father alone,” contends Cindy A. “The constant conflict exacts a terrible toll on kids, who feel it’s their fault and/or their place to make peace. No kid should have to go through that. Since the acrimony continues in my son’s situation, both her children are still struggling emotionally even though by now they’re both in college. I wish the split had come earlier for the kids’ sake.” But some splits have a happy ending. Bente J. told me, “My daughter-in-law called at the time of the divorce to say I would always have access to the grandchildren. God bless her! I slept for the first time in months after getting that phone call.”
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at what the experts and parents say you should and should not do when your child divorces. Stay tuned . . .
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