Going through a difficult divorce can be one of the most heartbreaking times of a person’s life, but it’s now been claimed it can actually hit some parents of adult children the hardest – with many mothers and fathers forgetting it’s their child’s heartbreak and not their own.
Divorce expert Rachael Scharrer has warned parents of the importance of accepting that a marriage split is solely between an adult child and their spouse, and while parents can be a huge support they also need to keep a healthy distance away from the heartache.
“Too often, some parents fail to remember that their adult child’s divorce is not their divorce,” she said in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60.
Sharing tips for parents to help them cope with the difficult time themselves, Scharrer explained that while a divorce can feel like it’s torn a family apart, it’s down to the couple themselves to eventually overcome their grief and accept the huge change to their life.
“Yes, it is upsetting to see your child hurt. Yes, it is sad to see their relationship end, especially if there are young grandchildren involved. However, it is imperative that you take the ‘you’ out of your adult child’s divorce,” she said.
Scharrer said one of the main pieces of advice she can offer is that parents must understand that a child’s divorce “isn’t a reflection on how you raised them or what you ‘did to them'”.
Having worked with many families who have gone through a situation like this, she insisted that any healthy marriage can withstand difficulties with in-laws or any issues a parent has had with their own spouse – so they’re very rarely to blame at all.
In some cases, the parents may have gone through a divorce themselves and therefore assume that their own heartbreak could have somehow ‘rubbed off’ on their adult children, but Scharrer said it’s simply not the case.
“In the event that your marriage broke down with your child’s other parent, the reasons for ending your relationship may be very different to your child’s reasons for their relationship not lasting a lifetime,” she said. “It takes courage to leave a relationship or marriage that isn’t working or isn’t beneficial to both parties.”
Once you have accepted that, Scharrer said possibly the most important hurdle is understanding that the divorce doesn’t directly involve you as a parent.
“You were not one of the two people committing themselves to each other and you certainly weren’t living in their home witnessing words and behaviours ‘behind closed doors’,” she added. “As such, you may not be privy to all of the details that contributed to the marriage break-down.”
Offering further advice, Scharrer said parents essentially need to play the role of “the sounding-board and source of comfort and understanding”. However, while the main job is to offer support, she also said you may need to play devil’s advocate now and again, should it be needed.
“I am sure you have heard of this saying – there is your version, my version and the truth. Remember that you may only be hearing one side of the story and while it may hurt hearing about your child’s pain and challenges, it is helpful to remain open and encouraging of a functioning, respectful and amicable relationship between your child and their ex-spouse,” she said.
That is especially important when there are grandchildren involved, as encouraging an amicable relationship (where appropriate) may ease issues over custody and visitation from both sides in the future.
Marcia Watts, relationship psychotherapist counsellor for Brisbane-based counselling service Transform2Lead, previously gave her own thoughts on the issue to Starts at 60 and said it’s important for a parent to draw on past experience of the couple’s relationship to help guide their future actions.
She said that a more harmonious relationship can mean you remain close to your son-in-law or daughter-in-law even after the divorce, but that it’s important to offer your full support to your biological child first, before re-building bridges with their ex-partner.
However, many contentious divorces can follow a previously difficult marriage, and things may be much more hostile. In that case, Watts suggested keeping boundaries firmly in place to ensure you’re there solely for your own child.
Elsewhere, Scharrer said many parents may see their child’s divorce as the most important part of their own life at the time – which could in turn affect their friendships and relationships. She advised parents not to let it take over their lives and become the sole topic of conversation they have with their friends, or it may quickly control them.
“While it is upsetting to witness and hear about your adult child’s challenges and woes, you are not directly suffering because of their relationship and decisions,” she explained. “Accordingly, your friends don’t need to hear about every detail and all about your grief over the loss of your adult child’s marriage.”
For more advice and guidance from Rachael Scharrer, visit her website here.