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It's Not Only About You: Divorcing with Adult Children

An increasing number of marriages are breaking up after the couple’s kids have left home. With all the unique issues facing these long-term couples, they may not be focused on the effect this will have on their adult children. Some may be relieved they won’t need to deal with custody issues or child support and may assume the kids’ lives won’t be impacted much at all.

But—it is not that simple.

Family traditions and routines that have been the norm for many years and are solidly embedded in everyone’s memory will be significantly altered.

Big holidays, graduations, weddings, babies, vacations will all create new challenges and new traditions that everyone will need to get used to. Sure, they will never be exactly the same, they will look very different and feel very altered in many ways. But, different doesn’t necessarily mean worse or bad. Some events may actually be changed for the better. And as parents, we can only offer our children ways to accept the difference with as little disruption as possible.

There is a dizzying number of books and guidelines on how to handle young children during and after a divorce. There are specialists to walk you through every step from breaking the news to them to co-parenting them; how to handle holidays and how to decorate their new room. But a long-term married couple with adult kids? They are left to rely on their parenting instincts, at a time when those instincts are probably not their strongest.

Thankfully, other families have survived—and thrived—through this upheaval.

Here, from first-hand experiences, are some basic tips to help during this time:

1. Be mindful in telling adult children about the separation. Make a plan; don’t assume they won’t be surprised, or are too involved in their own lives or families to be concerned. More than likely, they will need time to process. If possible, deliver the news together and in person. This will allow them to see that you are both “okay” and on the same page. Don’t set any expectations for these conversations. They may go well, or your child may not accept this new situation easily; each child in your family may have a different reaction.

2. Make it easy for your kids to communicate with both of you. It can be annoying for your kids to adjust to having two full conversations about everything they want to share. Think about it—sometimes its’s a challenge for our kids to take the time to tell us anything—to have to do that twice? Offer them the option to “group text” or conference call both of you. Both parents will hear the news at the same time, and each can decide to follow up with the group, or the child separately. This will take a burden off of the kids. Use group communications to discuss expenses and permission requests so everyone is on the same page.

3. Resist demeaning or denigrating your ex to your kids. This may actually be more difficult when our kids are grown. We sometimes think of our adult kids more like friends than our children, but we don’t want to suggest that there are sides to be taken or share parts of our divorce story that are private. Call a friend, get a coach, see a therapist. Keep your kids out of this part of your healing process.

4. Recognize that your children will now be sharing their time between their parents. College breaks and holidays will automatically be more stressful for them as they attempt to be fair with their time. Your responsibility is to praise their efforts and be as flexible as possible. Resist keeping a scorecard. Also, if you are the parent that has moved out of their childhood home, be prepared that they will probably feel more comfortable back at that home rather than in your new home. Be understanding and give them time—even if it hurts a little!

5. Make big events as drama-free as possible. Life – and graduations, engagements, weddings, and babies—goes on after your divorce. Don’t miss out on important events in their lives because you are “uncomfortable” to be in the presence of your ex. These events are not about you or your ex—they are about your kids. Your kids will continue to make memories for themselves and their own families, and you will want to be a part of those and remembered as the loving parent that you have always been. If you need to avoid your ex at these, do that. But don’t make that something your kids need to deal with.

6. Realize that you may be asking your adult children to take on more serious roles. Ex-spouses will have to re-execute wills, powers of attorney and medical documents when they divorce. You may ask your adult children to sign these documents. You also might want them to attend doctor’s appointments with you, and help you make medical decisions. These are major decisions and responsibilities that are difficult to ask of our children. Give them time to deal with these asks; it could feel like a lot to them. Some kids will naturally adjust to these roles; other kids may need to think about them and research their new obligations.

7. Be thoughtful in how you introduce a new person into your grown family. For younger kids there is all sorts of guidance for this one – how, when and where—even scripts. There is not a lot of information about how to do this when our kids are adults. So, like a lot of this, we need to use common sense. Think about your timing and your tone. Understand that regardless of how obvious this may seem to us, this is huge news to our adult kids. Their big life events will now involve someone who hasn’t been there to share their journey. This might take some getting used to. Adult children may feel more protective of their other parent, and may feel awkward inviting one or both parents to events. Introducing the new person thoughtfully can help ease the way for these future events. Again—it’s not only about you.

And really, that is the theme. You and your ex are not divorcing in a vacuum. We have created and nurtured our family unit for decades. We have intertwined all of our lives so that what is felt by one member is felt by all. And now we—as parents—are choosing, unilaterally, to change that. Our kids have grown into this unit, and now have no say in its future. This can be traumatic.

If we are mindful of this, and are thoughtful in our words and actions, we can help ourselves and our kids—even our “grown and flown” kids—handle this transition with grace and dignity.

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