A jigsaw puzzle. Dozens of pieces that come apart and get put back together again to look just like the picture on the box cover. Every time. You can count on it. Unless, of course, a piece is lost or bruised; then it makes recreating the picture on the box cover difficult.
I am reminded of a jigsaw when considering the impact of late parental divorce on adult children. For decades, the picture in the picture frame had the same parents and children. The family did, after all, grow up together. The family pieces kept intact; no one was lost or replaced.
When parents who have been married 20, 30, or 40 years decide to divorce, their adult children may feel like suddenly the rug is pulled out from under, even though they may otherwise feel like independent adults. It goes back to the picture frame. The family picture that seemed so durable over the years now has a crack in the middle. The formative family of children is replaced with a new picture showing a new family.
No matter how amicable or unfriendly the divorce is, both parents and adult children are emotionally impacted. For some, the road to feeling grounded again is smooth and short. For others, finding a familiar feeling of equilibrium may be more daunting. Reshaping families is complicated.
Adult children of divorce are a unique group. Oftentimes, it is the so-called assumptions about how adult children will be ‘just fine’ that are hurtful. When it comes to parental divorce and children, there are pages upon pages of articles and books, along with research studies, that discuss the impact of divorce on young children and adolescents. It’s not so easy to find comparable articles, books, and research regarding late parental divorce and its impact on adult children.
But the absence of focus on adult children does not automatically mean adult children are not impacted. Sometimes, the adult child will feel relief, perhaps wishing the divorce had happened years earlier for everyone’s sake. Other adult children say they are happy their parents are finally ‘putting themselves first’ and hope each parent lives a happy and fulfilled life going forward.
Many adult children experience a lot of intense feelings such as anger, loss, abandonment, guilt, fear, insecurity, sadness, and loneliness similar to what younger children may experience. But what is different is that the adult child has a lifetime of memories. So in addition to the emotions around the divorce, the adult child has volumes of family history . There may be old family conflicts that were never resolved or memories of childhood milestones and family celebrations. And what about those family picture albums? What may have felt like a family for ever is now dissolved.
These are but a few examples of how misplaced assumptions about the impact of parental divorce on adult children can be hurtful. Most often, adult children come out of their parents’ divorce on the other end feeling stronger and perhaps more rooted than they were before. But to get to the other side in the least painful way, it is important to throw out assumptions and in their place, start a conversation. Allow feelings to be respected and heard. Use empathy and compassion. Acknowledge emotional pain.
Some families do not feel they can have such a difficult conversation without further emotional damage being inflicted. That is when it is a good idea to consider a skilled therapist to safely guide family conversation.
Whether it is in the family setting or a therapist’s office, a gift to adult children of divorcing parents is to participate in and encourage conversation. For everyone’s sake.