Divorce Impact on Adult Children – Part Two

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

This is the second in a series of articles about the impact of late parental divorce on adult children.

The question about whether or not young and adult children have different responses to their parents’ divorce by virtue of their age may seem to have an obvious answer. Of course they have different responses. They are adults. While that line of thinking carries some truth, it is not the only truth.

According to Bair (2007), adult children’s responses to late parental divorce often fall into three categories: devastation, anger, and relief. Relief is sometimes described along with resentment. Adult children may feel the negative impact of growing up in a family with unhappily married parents. Relief might come with exhaustion. Adult children whose parents waited to get divorced may have stayed together “too long” in the eyes of the adult child. By the time the divorce happens, there is a feeling of exhaustion.

There may be a feeling of devastation. The house where the formative family lived together for years no longer holds the promise of family celebrations and holidays. The sense of permanence it once had is now gone, even if one of the parents remains in the house. “Young children are expected, indeed encouraged, to express their emotions while adult children are expected to take it in stride” (Bair, 2007, p. 124). Expression of feelings of devastation and powerlessness are too often not encouraged in adult children. That does not mean the feelings are not present.

Anger is a common response for adult children when parents divorce. If channeled in a positive way, the adult child may become resolute to avoid the same outcome for their marriage. Anger may be felt in a sense of betrayal. A feeling of betrayal may result in anger. The family unit that may have felt unsurpassable is no longer the reality.

Articles and books on divorce show a common theme when discussing childhood and adulthood response to divorce. Adult children have unique responses because they are older and have a longer family history. But adult children often describe how childlike they have felt when they learn about their parents’ divorce. Fintushel and Hillard (1991) devote a whole chapter to the feelings of any child, young or old, when parents divorce. Loss and grief, along with shock, feelings of abandonment, confusion, guilt, and shame are some of the shared feelings between young and adult children.

There is a large spectrum of responses adult children of divorce may experience. Acknowledgment and compassion are important steps in recovery.

 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.