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When the "Kids" Aren't Kids

This is all about the thorny issues that divorcing spouses and their children face when the children are adults. Often adult children are just as reluctant to enter the divorce fight between their parents as young children are. Too often, though, their divorcing parents reach out to them aggressively and drag them into the fray.

My client Patrick and his wife Margaret came to my office to complete an uncontested divorce. When I met them there was a third person standing there, a young man in his mid-20's or so. "This is my lawyer," said Margaret. My client explained it. "This is my son Ted," he said. I said a quiet prayer for both of them, and especially for Ted. Margaret had recruited Ted (a loan officer, not a lawyer) to negotiate with his father on behalf of his mother. As our meeting, continued, Ted's discomfort was obvious to everyone but Margaret (and maybe Margaret too).

Parents of young children who go through divorce may drag their children into the fight, but at least they know better. Parents of adult children don't seem to recognize any boundaries here. Often one spouse will move quickly and shamelessly to line up allies among the adult children, telling them all the transgressions of the other parent throughout a lengthy marriage. Does anyone think for a moment that adult children want to hear all this? And even if they do, that they have any business hearing it?

Frankie said it best in a message she sent me recently:

[Adult children of divorce] are in a bit of a different situation in that we're old enough to be more involved in the whole mess, and we tend to feel more responsible for picking it up. It's also painful in a different way when you're grown, your parents' divorce is supposed to feel less painful than if you're a small child. In some ways it's actually more devastating, particularly if one parent with whom you've been close suddenly decides to break off his relationship with you because he thinks you won't need a father any more . . . a lot of couples in their fifties are breaking up now and leaving behind a lot of bewildered twenty- and thirty-somethings who once believed that their parents' marriages were proof that commitment could last forever.

Here's what you can do if you're the adult child of divorcing spouses: 

Circle Up the Wagons

Call a conference with your brothers and sisters and see if you can't agree on a common course of action in response to the issue of divorce between your parents. Also agree on who will convey this to your parents, or whether you'll each simply convey it as necessary. If you're uneasy about getting the message garbled, you could even sign a written statement. Here's an example drawn from the statement I helped a friend of mine prepare when her parents were divorcing:

Mom and Dad,

We all love both of you and want the best for both of you. Recently we've heard comments from you indicating your marriage is in trouble. We hate this, of course. We want your marriage to survive and for our family to remain intact. We acknowledge, though, that this is not our decision.

Just as it is not our decision, it is not our problem to solve. Our request is that the two of you work through any problems you have without trying to involve us in them. This means neither of you tries to describe the past or present transgressions of the other with any of us -- we really don't want to hear about it. This means neither of you asks any of us to convey messages to our other parent on your behalf -- that's your job, not ours. This means that neither of you asks us to be ready to testify in court about past behaviors of the other. This means that both of you maintain regular contact with us, not because you need it but because we need it. We're concerned about you, and we want to spend time with you. Basically, this means that both of you recognize and support our need and desire to maintain a close, loving relationship with both of you, even if you are no longer going to be married.

Can you both agree to this? Even as we write this, we realize that one or both of you might interpret this as showing a lack of support for you in a time of crisis. Please understand that this is the way we know we can support both of you through what we know must be an incredibly difficult time. Remember: we love both of you.

Stick to the Plan

This message will be ineffective, of course, unless you insist on remaining faithful to it. Often, an adult child's initial determination to stay out of a divorce fight between parents collapses in the face of a parent's all-consuming need for support. There are few needs more compelling than those of our parents. And parents going through divorce are just like other people going through divorce: they are a bundle of need with little or no regard for boundaries or decorum. It's no surprise, then, that adult children often get sucked into the fray.

Even if an adult child is already in the middle of a fight between Mom and Dad, it's never too late to pull back. This can start by simply clarifying for both parents the intention to stay out of the conflict between them and to maintain regular contact with both of them.

Encourage Conversation

Often adult children can deflect efforts to suck them in with consistent use of one simple device. Whenever one of their parents engages them in conversation about the behavior of the other, they can say, "Sounds like you need to be telling [the other parent] about this instead of me." Parents often don't like this, but they will listen, and may actually do it.

That's what happened with Bob and Peggy. Neither of them was excited about coming to mediation with me. Their trust was at an all-time low, and both were convinced from talking to their respective gladiators that their spouse was being unreasonable. Both believed that their divorce would only be resolved after a trial in front of a judge, and Bob was busily engaged in lining up the children to testify on his behalf about Peggy's drinking.

But every time Bob brought up the divorce and all the terrible things Peggy had done, his children had the same consistent response: "You need to be telling this to Mom, not me. If you can't talk directly to Mom, use a mediator. Here are three names and numbers. Call them." Eventually Dad got the message. Bob and Peggy are divorced now, and Peggy is still drinking. They still don't feel all warm and fuzzy toward each other. They are able to talk to each other in a businesslike way, though, and both feel a new affection and respect for their children. In this brutal world in which I live and work, that's a win.

Expect to Feel Abandoned

Often an adult child of divorcing parents will experience intense feelings of abandonment by one or both parents. "It's like my whole past is being torn up into little bitty pieces, and nobody cares." And sometimes it's very personal. "My dad pays more attention to his new wife's children [or grandchildren] than he does to his own grandchildren."

I don't know what to say to get you through this. Just know that you're not alone.

Talk to Other People in the Same Fix

There's an online support group for adult children of divorce.

Refuse to Tolerate Abuse

One huge proviso: everything else I or anyone else can say about the behavior of adult children toward their parents' divorce gives way to the need to protect both spouses from violence and abuse. If you fear (or know) that one of your parents is abusing the other, you have both the right and need to intervene; you may even have the duty to intervene. Abusers need to be kept away from vulnerable people. If you're the only one who can do that for your parents, so be it.

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