Adult Children of Divorce: An Attorney’s Perspective

Written exclusively for Feeling Barefoot by guest blogger Diana Mercer:

It seems like older children take their parents’ divorce much harder than the younger ones do.  As much as a divorce rocks the world of a child under 12 years old, mostly these kids are resilient and they adapt to the change in circumstances.  And the younger they are, the better they adapt.

For the babies of divorce, two houses is the only world they’ve ever known.

And as sad as that is, my heart really aches for the older children, or adult children, of divorce. 

Here’s what I’ve seen happen to older kids in my 23 years as a divorce lawyer and mediator:

  • Children choosing sides on their own---or being encouraged to choose sides by one or both parents, and becoming completely estranged, sometimes permanently
  • Having to “parent” their parents and grow up too fast. Parents start to rely on their kids to be their best friends and confidantes in a way that isn’t appropriate.  The children literally take over the role of the former spouse (sometimes even sexually)
  • Struggling with their own relationships because the relationship they thought their parents had turns out to be a sham and now they don’t know what a successful relationship looks like
  • Languishing in school because they aren’t at either house long enough for either parent to enforce homework rules and study habits
  • Being left too much on their own while parents work or date
  • Feeling weird that parents are dating when they’re coming into their own sexual maturity
  • Being assured that their college education was going to be paid for…at least partly…….but so much money was spent in the divorce their college fund is gone.  So instead of Northwestern, they’re now headed to community college and living at home
  • Asked to be happy for their parents when they find new partners, and asked to adapt too quickly to new step families
  • Having to adjust to a series of step families as their parents jump from relationship to relationship. The divorce rate in the US is about 50% for first marriages….and 75% for second marriages, and even higher for third and fourth marriages, particularly when children are involved
  • A general failure to launch…..just not quite growing up.  The irony of this issue is that it’s often the “good” kids who “adapted well” to the divorce at the time who turn up with problems later.  The kids who acted out during the divorce actually get their parents’ attention and their issues get addressed. The kid who keeps up his grades and never smokes cigarettes is the one who’s turn to flounder will come later on.

I saw little or none of this with younger children.  

The one major problem I did see with the younger ones happened in extreme circumstances, what people are now calling Parental Alienation, and that the psychology community is just now deciding whether it’s an actual “syndrome” or not.  Parental alienation happens when one parent completely brainwashes a child against the other parent.  That’s not to say that the second parent had no role in the process; after all, if the parental relationship was where it should have been the brainwashing was much less likely to work.  But it happens to younger kids sometimes because they are…..younger.  They don’t have as strong a bond with one parent as they might have had if they were 10 years older.

But the older kids are old enough to have a say in their parent-child relationship, even if they have to sneak away to be with the other parent, as a friend of mine did when we were teens.

So what happens to the older kids is even more heartbreaking, because there’s less time and opportunity for repair.  If you’re older and out of the house, you don’t have teachers and guidance counselors looking over your shoulder. You don’t see your folks every day.  You’re busy with college or culinary school or work and unless you’re really fumbling nobody suggests you talk to a therapist.

So the older kids get lost.  That’s just my opinion.  I’m not a research scientist but I’ve seen enough of it to know there’s a pattern. A very unfortunate pattern.

My favorite book on the subject:  We’re Still Family:  What Grown Children Have to Say about their Parents’ Divorce by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D. (Perennial Currents/Harper Collins 2004) 

Diana Mercer is an Attorney-Mediator and the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services, She is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) and Your Divorce Advisor (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001) and writes for the Huffington Post as well as her own blog Making Divorce Work


House for Sale

 Part One of this Story

It kills me to think that the couple tentatively placing a bid on our house will pull the Realtor aside to ask why the house is for sale and the Realtor will look to either side, move a bit close, and whisper in a hush hush voice, "messy divorce."

It makes me hate the Realtor.

Eight months ago, Dad moved out.  I heard the version where he wanted to move out and get on with his life, and the version where Mom just wanted him out of the house already and a few subversion of those stories, and to be honest, I'm not sure what is the truth, if there is a truth, and have given up any hope of understanding.

Mom has been living in the house on her own.  

As a couple, my parents seemed to be doing just fine financially.  Separated, they are not.  I watch them both cut down on expenses, things that they decided they don't really need.  It breaks my heart.  Mom gets her nails done less often, which is fine, she tried to color her graying roots in our bathroom, which was messy, and she switched our cable provider for a better deal, understandable.  Oh, right, and she has also decided to sell the house.

I lived on my own in three various dorms and two apartments.  I have moved the entirety of my belongings, my property, nine times.  Still, my home, the place of return no matter where my property relocates, has been the same since I was born.  Our family never moved.  Things changed within the house, Mom redid the bathrooms, cat died, new kitten made a mess, backyard deck was extended, carpets were ripped up and wood floors redone, but the house itself remained.  Dad moved out, which was strange, but house stayed the same.

My Mom told me that she is ready to sell the house.  I know what she means.  It is something she has to do and she has enough energy to proceed.  It is not so much about starting somewhere fresh and new, moving on from a past life that is no longer.  This is a valid rational, but I know that it is hardly the reason.  Financially, she cannot stay.  I know she would stay if she could, if only for the sake of her children, but she can't.  I have lived in my own apartment afforded by my monthly salary, I understand.  Still, it is hard.  It is yet another change. 

Brother was upset, I was not.  My thoughts are upset, but my heart doesn't care and I don't know why.  At first, I thought I had accepted reality.  I didn't get upset, angry or depressed, I simply accepted the fact that my house was up for sale.  Then again, how can you really differentiate acceptance from denial? 

My mind is playing tricks on me.

Heart:  I don't want to think about it.

Brain:  Don't think about it, just let it happen.  If you think about it and get upset, it's another thing to deal with.

Heart:  I'm not upset, I'm not even shocked, I knew this would happen.  It's no surprise.  No shock, no feelings, all is good.

Brain:  Logically, there is nothing I can do about it, so what is the use in letting it bother me?

Heart:  I am BROKEN.  Nothing can upset me anymore.

Maybe my heart is disconnected from reality as a way to help me cope.  Maybe my brain is being logical.  Denial sounds negative, acceptance sounds positive, but really, what is the difference?  Denial is the beginning, acceptance is the end.  I am not in denial, I am numb.  I am tired.  I am worn out.  For now, I think I am okay with saying goodbye to my house.  Then again, I said Au Revoir to my home long ago.

Two weeks later the papers were drawn up, a draft sale agreement between my parents and the new owners.  My house was sold.