Divorce Impact on Adult Children – Part One

This begins a series by guest writer Mary Murphy, LICSW. Mary is researching the impact of divorce on adult children — and it seems there is an impact, and possibly a negative impact, even when the children are no longer “children”. Being a legal adult does not mean the divorce of your parents has no impact. Part One of Mary’s post follows, as well as an opportunity to participate in her research.

Uncoupling after decades’ long marriage is complicated. And so is the impact on adult children. It is commonplace for articles and books on divorce to include discussion of the impact divorce may have on children. Young children and adolescents, that is. Too often it is assumed adult children will “be just fine” because they are adults. Believing this assumption without question may add more confusion to an already emotionally charged family event, i.e. divorcing parents. In this first of a series of articles on adult children and parental divorce, some common assumptions will be looked at. In addition to naming assumptions, I will also examine how they may impact adult children.

“They will be just fine. They are grown now.” When a formative family breaks up after decades together, no matter how amicable the divorce may be, everyone, including adult children, is deeply impacted. As Fintushel and Hillard (1991) write, late parental divorce is not like a puzzle that has come apart. Rather, the realignment of family relationships is unmapped with no clear path to regrouping. The family that children grew up with is pulled up by its roots.

“They have their own families now. They are independent.” Adult children may have their own families and be living independently. Cain (1990) suggests that it is precisely because they are developmentally in a stage of independence that adult children are uniquely faced with the task of regrouping a family presumed to be sacrosanct. They must make new meaning out of the “family of childhood- the one in the picture frame, animated, intertwined and inseparable” (Cain, p. 7).

“They may be temporarily upset, but they’ll get over it.” Yes, the immediate feelings of confusion, loss, anger, abandonment, and more will hopefully diminish. Some adult children may be more prepared for their parents’ divorce in late life than others. The impact of the divorce includes realizing that they have gone through their childhoods with the false presumption that the family in the picture frame would be the family forever.

These are a few of the most common assumptions adult children of late parental divorce often experience. Parents do not want to see their children hurt. Assumptions can instinctively offer a buffer to otherwise deeply painful experiences. It is a paradox that acknowledgment and compassion toward painful emotions paves the way to understanding and acceptance for adult children.

Mary Murphy is a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) in the State of Washington and a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology in the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University/Seattle. Her website is here: www.mary-murphy.com.  As partial fulfillment of her doctoral degree, she is researching the impact of late-life parental divorce on adult children, ages 23 years and older at the time of parental divorce. A link to the online survey is below: