What Not to Say to an Adult Child of Divorce
Adult children aren’t immune from the emotional trauma of divorce — far, far from it. In many ways, dealing with a parent’s divorce as an adult can be just as messy, gut-wrenching and earth-shattering (and sometimes, even more so) as dealing with divorce as a child.
While adults are less likely to feel the crushing sense of guilt that so many younger children of divorce experience, they’re often acutely aware — too aware — of all the gory details of the split itself. Who hates whom. Who’s sleeping with other people. Who’s coping poorly, who didn’t want to stay married, who never wanted to get married in the first place. This isn’t exactly a fun or healthy place to be, to say the least.
Divorced parents of adult children also tend to lean on their kids for emotional support, which, while understandable (especially if parents are close with their children), creates a lot of undue stress and anxiety for everyone involved. This blurring of boundaries can lead to adult children taking sides in the divorce, which only further divides families.
Expectations Are High
Late-in-life parental divorce is also much more apt to shake up children’s identities. Adult children of divorce (or ACODs) often look back on their lives and question every happy childhood memory they ever had, in addition to dissecting their own marriages and relationships with freshly critical eyes.
We know all of this, and yet, our culture still expects ACODs to be resilient and bounce back easily in the aftermath of divorce. Even though the majority of parental divorce research today focuses on children, the rising divorce rate among older Americans has forced researchers to begin examining ACODs more closely. This will hopefully lead to an increased cultural understanding of divorce and its effects on older children. In the meantime, if someone you know is an adult child of divorce, it’s helpful to learn what to say — and, more importantly, what NOT to say — to alleviate their suffering.
Here are 12 things you should never say to an adult child of divorce.
As well-intentioned as this statement may be, it’s just not comforting to hear. It may very well be true that a divorce is “for the best,” but this also might not be the case at all — and that’s OK.
If you’re seeing a loved one through their parents’ divorce, it’s perfectly fine (encouraged even!) not to rush to the bright side. Instead, give the person permission to feel sad, angry, resentful or even hopeful, rather than imposing your narrative on the situation. If — and only if — the person has positive feelings about the divorce, then you can reassure them that it’ll turn out for the best, but always wait for their emotional cues first.
This statement, while likely a stab at empathy, is woefully misguided. Few people actually want their parents to get divorced, even if it’s clearly the best, healthiest course of action. The truth is that divorce tends to make life harder for children, not easier, regardless of whether those children are 10 years old or 45 years old.
Divorce is a dissolution of the parents who raised you; this is difficult and destabilizing, and no one should “wish” they could go through it — much less say this to comfort an ADOC.
A Matter of Maturity
Sure, adult children are probably (hopefully) mature enough to come to terms with their parents’ split, especially if they’re able to seek help from a therapist or other licensed mental health professional. But does that mean they want to hear you tell them that they’re mature enough to handle things? Nope!
When you tell someone this, you’re essentially saying that, because they should be old enough to “handle it,” their pain doesn’t matter. But divorce is cataclysmically awful no matter how old you are, and sometimes, “handling it” looks like grieving: Crying, yelling, clamming up, feeling depressed and getting irritable should be expected and allowed. There’s no formula for how best to “handle” divorce anyway.
Sure, hopefully ACODs want their parents to find contentment, and divorce can certainly lead to happier, healthier lives. This is particularly true with “gray divorce,” which is what sociologists call divorces when couples are 50 or older. According to a 2016 article in The New York Times, the rate of gray divorce has doubled since 1990, and researchers have surmised that this late-in-life independence can often lead to self-discovery and happiness — especially for women, since the institution of marriage itself has been slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality.
That being said, it’s one thing for someone to intellectually recognize that their divorced parents may be better off; it’s quite another to actually feel happy about divorce, regardless of the circumstances. This kind of acceptance can take time. Instead of telling someone they “should feel happy” about their parents’ divorce, reassure them that whatever they’re feeling is normal.
While this statement may be true (and it’s undoubtedly coming from a good place), it’s not exactly helpful. Even ACODs that are in happy relationships or are happily solo, with distractions surrounding them in the form of kids, pets, travel or work, will be thrown off balance by their parents’ divorce.
And when someone is in the throes of a tragic event, like the breaking up of a family unit, it usually doesn’t cheer them up to be reminded of how good they have it otherwise. Rather, this may end up making them feel worse, since it implies that they should feel thankful for what they have, instead of making room for totally normal feelings of sadness and anger.
A divorce isn’t the Super Bowl — you don’t pick sides and stay there. However, as any ACOD will tell you, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be forced to side with someone at some point during a parent’s divorce.
This isn’t healthy behavior, though, and framing it as such isn’t helpful. Instead, encourage them to draw boundaries and refrain from swearing allegiance to either parent.
Just because someone isn’t a child doesn’t mean they won’t feel the potentially devastating effects of divorce; they’ll just feel it in different ways. The loss of a long-intact family can have heartbreaking repercussions for years. ACODs take on an immense emotional burden when they’re forced into mediator or friend roles for their parents, and they can easily become alienated from one or both parents because of this.
To top it off, ACODs often experience an isolating pain since their feelings can go unacknowledged by friends and other family members who assume that, because they’re no longer children, parental divorce is somehow easier. This secret pain only adds to the shock and confusion of divorce.
This is never a good idea to plant in someone’s brain. Sure, anything’s possible, but why give an ACOD false hope when you have no idea how things may turn out?
Instead of speculating about whether their parents may get back together or not, reassure them that their parents love them and have their best interests at heart.
Telling someone whose parents just divorced that they’ll “get over it” someday (or worse, that they should “get over it”) is a wholly bad idea. Divorce is akin to death on the grief spectrum, and it should be treated with the same gravity and compassion. If you’d never tell someone whose family member just died that they’ll “get over it,” you also shouldn’t tell an ACOD this.
The phrase “get over it” denies how basic human emotions work — being allowed to feel what we feel is often the only way to deal with an emotionally tragic event and come out OK on the other side. So, banish this callous phrase from your lexicon, and instead, validate the other person’s feelings and emphasize your support for them. A simple “What you’re going through is awful, and I’m so sorry you feel the way you do” is infinitely more helpful.
Join the Club
This is basically another way of telling someone that their pain isn’t unique or significant, which is upsetting for anyone to hear. It may be true that plenty of people have divorced parents, but every person’s experience is different, and everyone deserves to have their pain recognized.
Rather than minimizing the divorce, try to truly understand where your loved one is coming from, and validate their emotional landscape as much as possible. Saying something like “that must be so painful” works wonders.
Location, Location, Location
Unfortunately, not living with their parents doesn’t exempt ACODs from the ramifications of divorce. Going back home for holidays, weddings, birthdays and other family-centric events can be incredibly painful, especially since there isn’t a centralized home to go back to anymore.
In addition, no matter where they live, adult children are more likely to be seen as sources of emotional support during this difficult time, which can lead to an unhealthy parent-child dynamic.
Too often, we assume that parental divorce doesn’t affect adults as profoundly as it does children, and so we elect to say nothing at all. This can be the most hurtful response — even if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, saying something in the face of a loved one’s parents’ divorce is still preferable.
Just be careful to sympathize as much as possible, let them speak their truth and resist the urge to tell them how they should feel.