The last 20 years have seen a steady increase in the number of people over 55 seeking a divorce. In 2016, more than 13,000 women and 19,000 men aged 55 and above divorced in the UK – an increase of 5.8% from the previous year. Many of those couples have grown up children.
Divorcing couples with young children are inundated with advice on how to tell the children and how to act in their best interests, but there is very little advice or research out there to help you navigate talking to your adult children about your split.
I’ve talked to grown-up children of divorced and divorcing parents and put together the top 5 things they want you to know about how your divorce is affecting them.
1. “This is hurting me too”
It can be easy to assume that your split will not affect your adult children – after all, they’ve left home, they’re financially independent, they may be married with children of their own.
The message I’ve heard repeatedly is that your divorce will still rock their world. The news that your parents are getting a divorce is a shock, whether you are 8, 33 or 46. It can still be devastating when your parents have to sell the home you grew up in, even though you moved out 10 or even 20 years ago.
However old your children are, they need you to do more than just talk to them. They need you to ask them how they feel, listen to their answers, and be there to answer their questions or give them a hug.
2. “Please don’t overshare or ask me to take sides”
As children grow older, their relationship with you changes and may become more of a friendship than a hands-on, every-day ‘parenting’ relationship. When things are challenging, you might tend to lean on your children for emotional support.
However, sharing the intimate details of your latest row with your ex, or your date last night, is likely to be uncomfortable for your child. They may feel hurt, conflicted and upset. Remember that they are 50% you, 50% your ex, and they love you both. However old they are, they don’t want to be put in the middle and to feel forced to choose between you.
Choose instead to look for emotional support from elsewhere – friends, or better still a coach or therapist trained to help you handle your emotions.
3. “I have loads of questions – is this my fault? Did you stay together for my sake? Was the happy childhood I remember a lie?”
Many grown up children find that their parents’ divorce throws up all sorts of questions and doubts about the validity of their memories of childhood. For some it can shake their fundamental beliefs about themselves – especially if you overshare details of past hurts.
Reassure your children that your divorce is not their fault or their responsibility, and that just because you are divorcing now, it doesn’t mean their memories are false, or built on a lie. Reassure them that, although you are choosing to be apart now, you chose to be together then, and those memories are still special.
4. “I hate having to choose how I split my time with you both on holidays like Christmas”
Once you are divorced, your adult children must spread themselves even thinner over holiday periods, and it can be stressful trying to keep everyone happy. If they have families and children of their own, it can become even more tricky. Unlike cases involving younger children, there are no courts or processes to go through to reach an agreement over who stays where at Christmas. It is usually the adult children themselves who have to choose how to organise their time.
The message I have heard loud and clear is that when you are flexible about arrangements, or willing to share time, it makes it easier. When you accept your children going to their other parent with a smile, it helps them to enjoy their time with you both without feeling guilty.
5. “When I have special occasions in my life, please put your differences aside so that I can enjoy celebrating with you both”
Although my children were very young when I got divorced, I was acutely aware that one day, I would need to attend a wedding, graduation, a landmark birthday, a christening – and my ex would be there. I knew that I wanted my children to feel comfortable that we could all be in the same place together.
All the adult children I have spoken to have said that the most important thing to them is that their parents can put their differences aside for the special days in their lives.
Last month I listened to a divorce lawyer describe, with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat, how her parents came together for her wedding despite their acrimonious split. On the most important day of her life, she said, her parents were able to put her first. They put their pride in her above their feelings about each other.
You have the remote control to your brain, and you can do this, however hard it might seem. Remind yourself that you once loved each other enough to have children. Do your best to find the good in each other rather than expecting the worst. It might not always be easy, but your children will thank you for it.
However old your children are, you are always going to be their parent, and they will always look to you for a lead. Show them that despite your divorce, you are there for them when it matters.