Adult Children of Divorce



When I preached a few weeks back on divorce, someone came to me after the sermon asking for resources for adult children of divorce. I did not have much to offer as I am unaware of much for that demographic. It is symptomatic of how adultery and divorce remain viewed as an issue only for the couple splitting or traumatized by the infidelity.

The collateral damage of hurt adult children is often not acknowledge.

Younger children–i.e. those involved in custody disputes–are acknowledged. But the adult children seem to be ignored as party to the trauma that comes at a split between two parents later in life.

I am blessed to come from a family where my parents have been married for nearly 40 years and their parents for nearly or over 50 years. So, I do not have first hand experience on these matters.

However, I can imagine some of the issues having friends from divorced situations.

1. My first thought is to encourage grieving for adult children of divorce.

They have experienced a loss as well. Even though it is disenfranchised–i.e. usually unacknowledged–I think that makes it even more important for the adult child of divorce to give themselves permission to weep or be angry over the losses–i.e. loss futures, connections, etc.

2. It can be scary as well. 

As part of a generation where divorce in parents is not uncommon, I see a trend towards cohabitation prior to or instead of marriage. My take on this trend is that my generation is afraid of ending up as their parents. They struggle with the institution of marriage to some degree. They want to “be sure.” The cohabitation is billed as a test drive as I have heard it described by those in their twenties or slightly older.

It is incredibly disheartening to make it into your twenties or older to see your parents then decide to end their marriage. Add to that the traumatic discovery of one cheating on the other, it is incredibly disorienting and creates a very real reminder of how hostile or unsafe the world is.

My encouragement to adult children of divorce experiencing this fear is to acknowledge it. The world is scary. We do not control whether or when a partner might decide to implode even a marriage of decades longevity to that point. But…

All relationships require risk. The greater the risk and the greater of the reward often times. As C.S. Lewis famously noted, the only safe place to avoid heartache is to never risk one’s heart in any relationship.

That sounds like hell to me. A place without love.

Remember: Marriage or monogamy was never the issue.

Character was and is.

3. It is alright to still love both parents.

This advice is the sort of advice I have heard geared toward younger children of divorce; yet, I think it is still important for adult children to hear as well. Regardless of the state of marriage, these two individuals will always be the two individuals God used to bring them into the world. To hate one is akin to hating one half of oneself.

But permission may still be needed.

Maybe one of your parents cheated on the other. Perhaps even one left the other for the adultery partner? You do not have to approve of their decisions to love them.

I love my little daughter even when she disobeys me and makes bad choices. That will never change. It is not a matter of performance. She will always be my daughter, and I hope she always lives with the knowledge that such means my love for her remains no matter what.

That said, you may have to set up firm boundaries with your parents to keep yourself healthy not drawn into their destructive drama. I think this may be especially case when one is not taking responsibility for his or her infidelity and the destruction that has wrought.

Good boundaries as an adult child is important even with parents still married. It may be imperative in situations where divorce and/or infidelity has added more pressures on the well-being of the adult child.

In sum, I would first encourage children of divorce to catalog and grieve their losses involved in the dissolution of their parents’ marriage. It is hard to grieve what you are not allowing yourself to see.

Next, I would encourage recognition of the impact the divorce and/or adultery has on their view of a future marriage–or current marriage–for themselves. It is wise not to live in unconscious or unexamined reaction to life’s events. 

Finally, I would hope the adult child is able to give themselves permission to love both parents. It is okay to love someone even if he or she is behaving or behaved badly. They will always be your family. Set boundaries as appropriate.

8 thoughts on “Adult Children of Divorce”

  1. I, too, come from a family with very little divorce in it. I really applaud you saying that the children can love both parents but need to set healthy boundaries. I would love to see you write more about healthy boundaries and how adult children can love the adulterous parent by not agreeing with the sinful behavior.

  2. The day my STBX told my daughters that we were getting divorced, you could have heard my eldest daughter’s scream (she was 21) throughout our neighborhood. It came out of nowhere and she was absolutely devastated. Her sister who is a year younger was equally upset but she grieves inwardly.

    It’s now been over two years since they were dealt the blow and both girls have graduated from college and are moving into the next phase of life. However as they regroup, they are living with me. The older child is still incredibly angry with her father who is introducing OW as his fiancée. He hasn’t bothered to tell the kids. The younger one is still holding it in — choosing only to be in touch with her father when the $$ need arises but hasn’t blown up at him and declares his infidelity “shenanigans”. He has basically abandoned them as he moves forward with OW and the outrage from them is more than the anger I now feel towards him.

    In the few times they’ve spoken my older daughter has declared that HIS actions support feelings that he’s divorcing me AND them. He says that’s not the case but the lack of empathy towards the children he once so adored, is mind-blowing.

    The only good to come from all of this for my daughters is that they have learned what they will not accept from boyfriends and future mates. My older daughter actually dumped one beau because she said he was too wrapped up in himself “like daddy”.

  3. Excellent topic DM. Though we are still in attempt at reconciliation, my wife’s affair has significantly affected our two adult sons. Though they have been told nothing specific, they have seen first hand some of the consequences, disputes, and irresponsible, contemptuous behavior of their mother. I also seem to have noticed an increased level of respect for me, but not lack of love for their mother.

    I have frequently struggled with the question of telling them, and if so how much. We’ve only said we’re having some problems and getting help. My wife’s nature is rug-sweep. cover up and deny. I’ve evolved to a conclusion that if it falls apart, or when they are in a serious relationship near marriage, I might tell them some for their benefit and experience. They must know importance of commitment, integrity and honesty.

  4. My children, both in college, feel their father has written them off. He doesn’t return text messages for days but goes to events with the OW supporting her sons (who are exactly the same age as ours). He only gets in touch with if he wants something. My heart hurts for them. They both find his behavior unacceptable although my daughter bakes him cookies so that he knows that “someone still loves him.” Then she turns around and says that her dad and the OW are acting like 14 year olds.

  5. I would add that it’s okay if they don’t want to love the other parent. It’s up to them to decide whether they want to not love or love the other parent.

    1. Agreed. It’s not your job as the faithful spouse to negotiate their relationship with the adulterous (former) spouse.Respecting the children’s agency–especially as adults–is important.

  6. My daughter 28, has treated me as if I had the affair, since ex told her, he was caught, by me, naked in the hot tub with the married other woman, at the family home. Daughter had told me “great now I will have to care of you”, meaning when I get older. Next when I was tearful in the beginning of this living hell, she would respond “It feels like you are trying to manipulate me”. I find her behavior toward me apaulling, especially since her father’s behavior towards her has been nothing but lies.

    1. Nan,

      I can’t how painful that must have been getting that response from your adult daughter. Generally speaking, adult children take care of their parents when they get older even if those parents are still married. It is called “Honor thy mother and father”..part of that whole Ten Commandment thing.

      That said, she isn’t in a position to walk you through your healing from your husband’s cheating. He will always be half of who she is genetically. But that in no way means you must hide your grief from her and pretend that it doesn’t hurt. I just would not recommend looking to her for emotional support. Find some good friends and/or a therapist who can help you in this traumatic time of grief.

      And again, my heart goes out to you. That is a doubly whammy for sure!


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