Divorce Impact on Adult Children – Part Three

This continues 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 Three of Mary’s post follows, as well as an opportunity to participate in her research.

But We Waited until the Children were Grown

Divorcing parents may sometimes stay in a marriage until their children are grown up, or out of high school, or have their first job, or are getting married, or any other life transition that would represent adulthood in the eyes of the parents.  This article is not about the pros and cons of the timing of parental divorce.  Rather, it is about the unique experiences of adult children when parents divorce.  In fact, it is precisely because the children are in adulthood, that all those early years of growing up as a family are suddenly shattered.  Adulthood is not an inoculation against grief, loss, abandonment, confusion, anger, fear, guilt, shame, and more.  And in divorce, each family member, no matter their age, becomes vulnerable in varying degrees.

Just as with the divorcing parents, the impact of divorce on the children, young, adolescent, and adult, is individualized.  The degree of impact of divorce on an adult child may be understood by early personality development.  According to Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a developmental psychologist known for his theory on social development, change is ongoing throughout our lifespan.  Physical maturation does not mark the end of development and change.  And change does not necessarily come in any particular order.

 For example, it might be thought that an adult child would not feel loss or grief over parental divorce because they have their own lives and are living independently.  Fintushel and Hillard (1991) speak about the waves of grief that adult children almost universally experience.  “For a young woman in her twenties, it may be the loss of a family home that is hardest to bear. At thirty, it may be the lack of a loving pair of grandparents for her children” (Fintushel & Hillard, p. 45).  Or the change that comes to adult children by understanding that their family as they knew it for years and years will never be together in the same way again.  The significance and persistence of loss and grief on an adult child may be influenced by whether or not there was successful completion of early stages of development and ego strengths. Ego strength may be an indicator of the level of impact of divorce on adult children.

 Adult children of late parental divorce may find they are more self –critical.  There is the idea that because they are adults, the intensity of their feelings should be somehow “more under control”.  Self-doubt can potentially lead to depression.  “It is difficult to set about the task of healing when there is so much denial and self-condemnation” (Fintushel & Hillard, 1991, p. 66).   If there is an early history of unresolved feelings of mistrust and abandonment, the adult child will be susceptible to those feelings being reopened.

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:

Part One to Mary’s series is here, and Part Two is here.