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HELPING ADULT CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

Divorced parents--or those who stay married but are emotionally divorced--cause long-term damage to their children.

Even when fully grown, adult children of divorce will feel the sad results of their parent’s legal or emotional divorce.Couple Graduate Kiss

This was the case for Brad and LeAnne. They met when LeAnne was in her first year of college and Brad
was a senior. They fell madly in love and married after Brad graduated. Because he went on to medical school, LeAnne gave up her own college aspirations and went to work. She was a bright woman who had planned to be medical doctor, but settled for being a doctor’s wife.

Three years after marriage their first child was born. Since Brad was gone so often, LeAnne took on the double load of child raising and her full-time job. Being mother, father, and financial provider for the family was heavy, but she thought her sacrifice would pay off someday.

After medical school came the intern years, and more children and more bills. Then Brad bought into a medical practice. You guessed it, LeAnne kept working to help Brad get launched.


She felt betrayed and exploited. "Forgive you? Pretend nothing happened? Not on your life!" she snapped.


Man driving convertible car on cell phoneSoon Brad was pushing for an expensive house in the "doctor’s neighborhood." In addition, he felt it was necessary to drive a Porsche and belong to the local country club. Sometimes it bothered LeAnne that Brad had this addiction of keeping up with the other doctors and social climbing.

By the time Brad and LeAnne reached the end of their thirties, LeAnne was exhausted. She was still working full-time, but now she was parenting teenage kids. Brad continued to be gone most of the time. Their marriage was only a certificate--not a reality.

Brad began to take long trips by himself. At first it was to medical conventions, with additional days added for golf or skiing. Then it was unexplained vacations by himself, nights out of town, and afternoons when he was missing from the office.

Then came the day Brad said to LeAnne, "I don’t love you. I’ve been dating someone else and want to marry her. I want a divorce, and I want you to let me go in peace. I don’t want you to hold
Couple Disputeanything against me."

LeAnne’s first reaction was shock and disbelief. It soon turned to intense anger followed by rage. She exploded, "How dare you use me all of our married life to advance your own career and get all your toys, and then dump me? On top of that, you really want me not to hold it against you? You’re crazy!"

She felt betrayed and exploited. "Forgive you? Pretend nothing happened? Not on your life!" she snapped.


Adult children of divorce are difficult because they mistrust, feel insecure, are sometimes perfectionists, and may want to do some things that could destroy a marriage relationship or career.


LeAnne and Brad got into marriage counseling and discovered that Brad’s exploitation of LeAnne could be traced back to Brad’s dysfunctional home and his parents’ divorce.

Brad was shocked as he began to realize that he had used LeAnne to make himself feel good. He was also frightened as he realized the other woman was just another "toy" he craved to help fill the gaps from his childhood.

Couple checking daytimerThe good news is that as Brad and LeAnne began to work on Brad’s past, their marriage started to improve. For the first time in their lives, Brad was genuinely concerned for LeAnne’s growth and achievements. They’re now on the way to recovery.

Maybe you know people facing similar experiences as they try to relate to an adult child of divorce.

Adult children of divorce are difficult because they mistrust, feel insecure, are sometimes perfectionists, and may want to do some things that could destroy a marriage relationship or career.

Here are some ideas LeAnne and Brad found to be helpful:

1. Understand Your Adult Child of Divorce.

Understand what they feel. They have a reason for anger, those periods of depression, and their desire to avoid talking to their parents.

There’s a cause for the mistrust, attempt to control, perfectionism, deception, cynicism, and talk of suicide.

Also, you may be at risk. Adult children of divorce tend to form family units that duplicate some of the same patterns of their own parental family dysfunction. If the adult child is your mate, your marriage may be in as serious trouble as Brad and LeAnne’s.


Perhaps you feel cheated, exploited, or abandoned by your mate--your adult child of divorce may be duplicating his or her parents’ dysfunction.

You also might discover that you come from a dysfunctional family. Maybe you’ve been keeping family secrets, trying to forget your pain from your parental family. Often victims marry victims.


The third year, as adult children work on problems, they experience many more sunny days. They’ll frequently talk about feeling much better.


Sometimes a person with a need to rescue people marries a victim, and neither realizes that each enables the other to remain dysfunctional.


2. Commit Yourself to Long-Term Support
Couple Senior Man and Woman holding hands

It took the adult child of divorce many years to develop these patterns of response to their parents dysfunction. Healing from dysfunctional patterns is not going to happen by two visits to a counselor, reading a book, and a weekend retreat.

Typically, the first year of recovery is a time when people discover how large the problem really is and how much of their life has been affected. That’s a painful process. The second year is full of a
nger and grief as they remember their past and face their losses.

The third year, as adult children work on problems, they experience many more sunny days. They’ll frequently talk about feeling much better. You’ll notice their more positive attitudes and behaviors.

However, the process is not completed after three years. It will continue many years because adult children of divorce are similar to recovering alcoholics.

3. Accept Your Adult Child of Divorce Nonjudgmentally.


They have been deeply hurt and need your protection. They need you to believe them and to know you’re not going to judge or put them down.

If you further shame them because they are not getting better faster, they are likely to pull away from you.


Learn to listen. Listening implies that you draw them out. As they begin to share, you must make it easy for them to keep on sharing.


You’ll have to assure them that you are their ally and you will absolutely keep in confidence the things they share with you. Being confidential means that you never share their problems with anyone.

Also, being nonjudgmental assumes that you will not use what you learn as a power play to take advantage of them.

At times you will need to be the strong shield, protecting them from their parents or their past. You’ll make excuses, handle sudden changes in plans, or diffuse guilt and manipulations from the parents who have caused so much harm.

Couple crying husband listening wife4. Listen Carefully

You also may be their dumping ground. You need to learn to listen. Listening implies that you draw them out. As they begi
n to share, you must make it easy for them to keep on sharing.

Listening is accepting at face
value what they say. Listening isn’t debating, nor is it the time to correct their erroneous perceptions. Those times of giving balanced information will come later.

If these skills are difficult or new to you, you might find it helpful to read through my book, "Friendship".

5. Encourage Your Child of Divorce to Keeping Working on Healing

The authors of the book, "The Courage to Heal", suggest that helpers do the following:

  • Believe the survivor about the damage.Book
  • Educate yourself about the healing process.
  • Validate the survivor’s feelings.
  • Express your compassion.
  • Respect the time and space it takes to heal.
  • Encourage the survivor to get support.
  • Get help if the survivor is suicidal.
  • Accept that your relationship will be rocky during healing.
  • Resist seeing the survivor as victim.


6. Be Prepared to Change and be Flexible


Be their cheerleader. Look them in the eye and congratulate them for changes and insights you see.


There will be days when they feel very close to you. At other times they will treat you as an alien. They may need your help on the spur of the moment, so that your own plans may go out the window. The emphasis is on two words: "Be there." When they need you "Be there"--and get out of the way when they need to do some growing on their own.


7. Give Them Permission to Do What is Healthy for Them

Adult children of divorce often are perfectionists. They’re workaholics, driven with guilt and obsessed by control. Give them the permission to relax. Make it possible for them by helping with some of their workload, or by suggesting things you can do together for an outing.

Give them permission to seek help. Talk to them about the benefits of counseling and of joining a recovery group. Give them permission to spend time and money for healing.
Couple Smiling At Each Other

8. Reinforce Changes

Adult children of divorce feel inadequate. They think they are inferior. They feel alone and abandoned. Your words of encouragement will help them to keep going in the hard, painful times when they feel like giving up.

Be their cheerleader. Look them in the eye and congratulate them for changes and insights you see.

You can also cheer them on as you see their anger. (That was not a "typo.") Anger often gives people the power to explore their past, opening the door for grieving and then healing.

Congratulate them at every point along the recovery road.

9. God Works with you

A wonderful account in the Bible records the incident of Lazarus being raised from the dead. When Jesus arrived on the scene, Lazarus had been dead three days. Jesus told the people to believe God in spite of the fact of Lazarus' death.

  


God invites your help. And He promises to be working in the depths of this wounded person so that recovery will take place. You are not alone.



Jesus then directed the people standing there to roll the stone away. Then He hollered into the deep cave, commanding Lazarus to come out.

Lazarus did
Book ACOD come out, but the account says he was bound from head to toe in grave clothes. Jesus instructed the people to unwrap him and let them go free. (John 11)

Now if God had the power to raise this dead person, why didn’t he also roll away the stone and unwrap Lazarus? To me, it’s a picture of the cooperation between God and man. God asks us to do what we can do, and He does for us what we are unable to do.

The healing of your adult child of divorce is not something you can pull off by yourself. But neither are you left out of the process. God invites your help. And He promises to be working in the depths of this wounded person so that recovery will take place. You are not alone.


Adapted and condensed from chapter 20, "Adult Children of Legal or Emotional Divorce", InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Conway / Farrel Articles ~    Reprint by permission only,  ©2011

Midlife Dimensions ~ www.Midlife.com


The Conways and Farrels are international speakers and popular authors.

Midlife Dimensions is a ministry founded by the Conways and continued by the Farrels.