Dealing with your child's divorceWritten by Dr. Greg Smalley
Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. – Pat Conroy
“It’s Taylor calling,” Erin said as we walked into a concert hall for our date night. But as she turned her attention back to the phone to talk to our 26-year-old daughter, I could tell something was very, very wrong.
“What?” Erin asked, confused. “Taylor, calm down . . . I can’t understand you. Why are you crying?”
“Everything OK?” I asked my wife.
“What?!” Erin yelled into the phone. “That’s impossible. You’re joking, right? No way!”
She began to cry as she handed me the phone. My first thought was that someone close to Taylor had died.
“Taylor,” I asked, “Is everything alright?”
It wasn’t. Taylor’s husband had asked her for a divorce.
I was in shock. How could this be happening? This had to be a sick joke. Jeremy* had spent Christmas at our house. He and Taylor had just celebrated their third wedding anniversary. I’d given him my blessing. He promised to love my daughter for a lifetime. And I had walked Taylor down the aisle and placed her hands in his.
Taylor’s phone call wasn’t a joke – the life she had been building with Jeremy had come undone. And it felt like mine had, too.
The impact on parents
Although experts say around 40 per cent of first marriages will end in divorce, I never believed that it would happen to my family. Erin and I are marriage experts, after all. We’re not perfect, but we try to show that with hard work, your marriage can overcome anything. Jeremy had promised me that he’d do anything and everything to get help if he and Taylor experienced problems.
And when those problems happened, Taylor begged Jeremy to get help. She told him that they could go to Hope Restored, one of the best crisis marriage counselling programs on the planet. Erin and I helped start this program years ago with a team of amazing marriage therapists. Nearly 8,000 couples have gone through the Hope Restored intensive program in Canada and the U.S. and over 80 per cent of the couples are still together.
But Jeremy wasn’t willing to fight for our daughter.
On Mother’s Day, while our family celebrated at Taylor’s new apartment, Taylor received the final divorce decree. We all wept together.
It’s hard to describe the pain of walking through my daughter’s divorce. But so many other feelings were in play, too. When an adult child is going through a divorce, parents experience a wide range of emotions:
Shock and disbelief
Initially, we thought that our daughter and son-in-law had a good marriage. We knew it wasn’t flawless, but we were blindsided when Jeremy asked for a divorce.
Divorce is like a death without a funeral. There’s no closure. Divorce feels similar. You grieve the loss of a son- or daughter-in-law. You mourn the lost holidays, dinners and moments together. And much like death, divorce leads to change. Old patterns and habits are swept away to create a “new normal” for those left behind. Your life may get turned upside down. Your retirement plans may change. Perhaps you’ll need to give up some of your free time to support your child and his or her children. You may even have to care for your child or grandchildren in new or unexpected ways.
Worry and fear
After receiving Taylor’s call, we worried about her well-being – emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. Would she fall into deep depression? Would she jump into a rebound relationship? How would this impact her relationship with the Lord? As her dad, I’d spent 26 years telling Taylor that she was incredibly valuable – my treasure. In a matter of months, Jeremy had undone what I’d worked so hard to establish. Now Taylor was left wondering why she wasn’t prized enough for Jeremy to fight for her. And since Jeremy had been such a close part of our family, we worried about our other kids. How will this affect their view of marriage and commitment? Will they get the opportunity to tell Jeremy goodbye?
We’re not the only family looking for answers. And those aren’t the only questions families ask.
Many parents and grandparents worry about the children (and grandchildren) of divorce. Other families, however, worry about the fallout from the separation. What will happen to their kids and grandkids? Will grandparents be welcomed in the children’s lives or will the former spouse deny visitation?
Erin and I fight for marriage. God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman for one lifetime. We believe this. We teach this. However, as we watched Taylor struggle, we felt like helpless victims. The thing we hated most – seeing families torn apart by divorce – was happening to us. And we felt powerless as we watched Taylor and Jeremy’s marriage collapse.
We love our son-in-law. It hurts to know that he is no longer a part of our family. At the same time, Erin and I felt a bit of relief. Taylor was free from the difficulties that led to the divorce.
You may also find relief (and it’s OK to feel relieved) in knowing that your son or daughter is getting out of a very bad situation or an abusive relationship.
There were moments I felt so angry at Jeremy because he broke a promise that he’d made – not just to Taylor – but to me. He and I had gone away for an entire weekend and, as he asked for my blessing to marry Taylor, he promised he’d do everything in his power to stay married for life. He made a commitment to me that, if troubles threatened his marriage, he would go to counselling and never give up. And then . . . he gave up. How could I not be angry?
You may experience a similar anger. Or you may be angry because you’ve watched your child’s spouse do things that broke the marriage – things like abuse, infidelity or addiction. You may feel angry as you watch the divorce turn into a nasty fight over children, property or alimony. Maybe you feel frustrated as custody battles terminate your visitation rights with the grandkids. The anger and pain is real. Erin and I felt it as we watched our daughter and son-in-law argue over the value of a toaster or fight to see who would get the dog – a massive goldendoodle.
Guilt, shame or embarrassment
In the aftermath of Taylor’s call, I tortured myself with the thought that it was partly my fault. How could I have missed the warning signs? Maybe I should never have given him my blessing. We didn’t do enough to prevent the divorce. It’s a common reaction. In her book Your Child’s Divorce, author Marsha Temlock writes that parents often blame themselves. “Perhaps it’s easier to blame yourself than to accept the fact that somehow your children have failed you by not living out your dreams. Many parents cannot accept the humiliation and embarrassment of their children’s divorce.”
And then there’s an even deeper guilt for parents who went through something similar. “I got divorced. I’m responsible for this. I failed to show my kids what a healthy marriage looks like.”
The stress load on your adult child
Experts say that a divorce is usually one of the five most stressful life events. The only thing more painful is the death of a loved one. The stress will cause your child to experience an avalanche of emotions: anger, fear, grief, anxiety, depression. It also takes a physical toll. Many people going through a divorce gain or, more likely, lose weight.
“Parents need to understand that for your child, admitting that their marriage is over is going to be one of the most draining conversations they will have experienced in an already-taxing time in their life,” writes Daniel Pearce for Men's Divorce. “Your questions and concerns will be addressed but starting off on the supportive and comforting right foot will help you be there for your child in the long run.”
Tips for handling your child’s divorce
The Rock of Gibraltar is more than an enormous cliff formation in Spain at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, it’s been known for its stability. Choose to be “The Rock” for your children and grandchildren during this difficult season. Provide a safe place and a firm foundation. Here’s how:
The only possible way you can consistently show up as “The Rock” is to pray – unceasingly. Ask God to restore the marriage. Pray that he will guard your grandchildren’s hearts and minds as they experience the trauma and pain of divorce. Take comfort in knowing that even if you don’t know what to pray for, Romans 8:26 promises that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Guard your own marriage
Research shows that divorce is contagious and can actually “spread” among friends. Guard your marriage by maintaining a rock-solid commitment to your spouse, prioritizing time with him or her and then building a community around your marriage. Erin and I did these things and also went to see a marriage therapist as we grieved Taylor’s divorce. I wanted to deal with any issues that might put additional strain on our relationship. I also wanted to show our other children that counseling is normal; it’s what we do to keep our marriage strong.
We never stopped encouraging Taylor to fight for her marriage. Erin and I prayed for Taylor’s heart to remain open to Jeremy and that Jeremy’s heart would soften. We never gave up hope because sometimes a marriage can survive off of someone else’s hope for a season.
Encourage your child to consider a healing separation instead of a divorce. Also, encourage your child to receive professional counselling from a professional Christian counsellor. Focus on the Family Canada has a comprehensive referral network of Christian counsellors. Your adult child can also call and speak with one of our Christian counsellors at Focus on the Family Canada for free. Taylor found a wonderful counsellor who’s been a lifesaver as she’s walked through the divorce.
Avoid taking control
Resist the urge to take over and assume responsibility for your child’s divorce. We know the desire comes from good intentions. But your adult son or daughter needs to know that you believe in them and that they’re capable of dealing with this. Erin constantly told Taylor how strong she was. This is critical.
We’re not saying our kids don’t need help. They desperately need your support. But it’s important that you show up as his or her “assistant” and not as the responsible party. Daniel Pearce writes, “In this moment, you need to be a haven where they can find comfort and refuge, not where they can receive a status report about how the events of their divorce are going.”
Offer emotional support
Divorce is painful for all parties involved. Your child is suffering, and you are, too. But your job, first and foremost, is to set aside your own grief and be fully present to support your adult child. Think of how difficult and painful it is trying to untangle years of weaving a family together. This is the time to walk out James 1:19: “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, [and] slow to anger.” Your child and grandchildren need your unconditional love, strength and caring heart.
As you go through this season, it’s important to remember that divorce creates an emotional roller coaster. Grief doesn’t follow a formula or consistent pattern. One moment your son or daughter will need a shoulder to cry on and the next moment a safe place to vent. Some days, your child will be moody and push away in anger. Don’t take this personally. It’s not about you.
Your adult child also needs your loyalty. Erin and I love our son-in-law deeply. Even though we hate his decision to leave our daughter, we would welcome him back with open arms. However, we wanted Taylor to know that we were there for her. We didn’t want to treat Jeremy as an adversary (divorce is never one-sided), but we chose to show our loyalty to Taylor and let her know we were “in her corner.”
In her book Your Child's Divorce (as quoted by DivorceMag.com), Marsha Temlock writes:
Your child comes first. That doesn’t mean you have made a vow to reject the son- or daughter-in-law or say terrible things about that person because you think that’s what your child wants to hear. This is a time when your child is banking on your loyalty. What your child wants to hear is that you love and accept him – that you will be there to help her get through the tumultuous times ahead.
Allow your child and grandchildren to grieve in their own way. Remind your family that your love is unconditional and that it’s a joy to serve them. Don’t try to fix their broken hearts. Don’t tell them how they should think or feel. Instead, make it your goal to care with deep compassion. Keep former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt’s words in mind: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
Offer practical help in addition to showing emotional support. Divorce is exhausting on every level – emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. Your child is facing a very difficult journey. Think of it this way: Imagine someone handed you a large jar of coloured sand and told you to separate the colours. You would feel overwhelmed by the task. That’s how your adult child (and grandchildren) are feeling. So, find ways to help them through the separation. Offer to babysit, clean, run errands and take grandkids to school or to practice. Your child may ask you to join meetings with mediators and lawyers. If so, help when you can. But do these things only if he or she asks for assistance.
Seek out your own support system
It’s difficult to keep your child’s divorce from monopolizing your life. There will be days you feel weary. Take time to recharge: You can’t give what you don’t have. Invest in practices that give you rest and refreshment. Lean on close friends or family members. They can help you work through your own emotions.
As Erin and I walked through Taylor’s divorce, we sought marriage counselling (as a couple) and individual counselling (one-on-one). We benefitted from having a safe place to cry, vent and question God. It was also important for us to remember author Rachael Scharrer’s words in StartsAt60.com,
Many parents may see their child’s divorce as the most important part of their own life at the time – which could in turn affect their friendships and relationships. Don’t let it take over your life and become the sole topic of conversation you have with your friends, or it may quickly control you.
Additionally, one other way to take care of yourself is to put boundaries around your social media usage. It’s tempting to stalk your son- or daughter-in-law on Facebook or Instagram to learn why your child’s divorce is happening. However, playing detective rarely helps your emotional well-being. It often does the opposite – it makes you angry. That’s no way to care for yourself.
Guard your tongue
Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (NIV). Yes, you want to vent about the person who’s causing your loved ones so much pain. That’s understandable. You need to have a safe place to do that – a close friend or counsellor. But don’t speak poorly about your son- or daughter-in-law in front of your child or grandchildren. But what about the times they want to vent? Listen and empathize with their pain. You don’t need to pile on.
I learned this from personal experience. Sometimes, when Taylor vented to me about Jeremy, I’d add that I was angry with him, too. She would often snap back and defend her husband. She was right to do so. I had to learn to say, “I shouldn’t have made that comment.” Lesson learned, right? No. I made an even bigger mistake when I later said, “I’m just glad you guys didn’t have any kids together.” Those words made Taylor’s eyes fill with tears. I felt terrible and I instantly apologized.
You may have made a similar mistake. There are times when it’s difficult to show God’s grace. When that happens, own your fault and apologize.
Throughout the divorce process, I reminded my family to model God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Not only is it important to live like Jesus, but it’s also important to remember that Taylor and Jeremy might reconcile one day. We want to be intentional to avoid doing anything that might interfere with the reconciliation process or might make your child’s working relationship with his or her spouse more difficult. With Taylor’s blessing, Erin and I met one-on-one with Jeremy. We approached these meetings with care. We didn’t want to do or say something that would boomerang on Taylor.
Be careful with financial assistance
Divorce is expensive. Your child may ask for financial help as the lawyer's fees, court costs, tax implications, child custody evaluations, real estate appraisals and sale of a home add up. As you and your spouse pray about providing financial assistance, remember to guard against creating financial dependency. Providing temporary financial help – such as a place to stay – means much. But don’t overdo it. If you decide to help financially, be clear about the amount. Also, let your child know whether you’re giving the money or loaning it. If it’s a loan, clarify the parameters in writing: Make a simple contract everyone signs to prevent misunderstandings and protect the parties involved.
If your child and grandchildren move into your home, make sure to talk about a time frame. Unless there is proof of adultery or abuse, Canadian couples seeking an uncontested divorce must separate for a year before filing an application for a divorce order, then wait several months for a judge to approve the divorce. A contested divorce that requires a trial can take much longer. If you have other children, think about giving them a gift to limit resentment and favouritism.
One final note about finances: Meet with your lawyer or accountant to make changes to your will or trust. It’s also worth checking (and changing) co-signed loans or business transactions made with a former son- or daughter-in-law.
Be a safe place for your grandchildren
Your grandchildren need your strength and presence. A divorce will shake their world. It affects kids in numerous ways, no matter their age. A writer for Focus on the Family describes it this way:
A shell has exploded – or is about to explode – in the middle of your kids' world. They feel as if chaos is descending upon them, and they’re reacting as anyone would react under the circumstances – chaotically. . . . [T]heir behaviour [will be] somewhat erratic and characterized by a pendulum-like swing between opposing extremes: good and bad, loud and soft, clinging and withdrawal, silence and hostility, tears and anger, rebellion and helpfulness.
When Mom and Dad are splitting, you become the stabilizer. During this turbulent season, your grandkids need security and stability. They need to know your love is unconditional – that you are committed to them for life. Pursue them through texts, phone calls and video apps. Visit for birthdays and holidays. Take them out for special dates and other fun activities. Invite them to your home for a sleepover – I’m sure your child will appreciate the break. Most importantly, give them a safe place to cry and vent. They might ask difficult questions: Why is my daddy moving out? Why did God allow my parents to divorce? What happens at court? Will I have to choose who to live with? Was it my fault? Do your best to answer without disparaging the parent(s) at fault.
Be the spokesperson
Well-meaning friends and family will ask about the separation or impending divorce. Every time your child retells the story, he or she will relive the pain and trauma. It’s exhausting. But there is a way to help: With their permission, become their spokesperson. I did this for Taylor. I let close family members know what was going on and told them not to call Taylor – she wasn’t at a place emotionally where she could answer questions. Don’t overshare, but let people know that they don’t have to keep your child’s divorce a secret.
Support your child even when he or she is the “guilty” party in the divorce
Up to this point, we’ve focused on our story of supporting Taylor as she tried to save her marriage. But what if your child causes the divorce? What if he or she is neglectful or is struggling with an addiction? What if your child is the abusive spouse? The one who’s participated in an affair? It’s an indescribable heartbreak to watch your adult child make poor choices. It’s difficult to know how to show up. On the one hand, you want to love and support your child, but on the other, you don’t agree with his or her actions and decisions.
First, remind your son or daughter that you love him or her – that your love isn’t conditional.
Kevin A. Thompson writes:
No matter what choice a child makes, they are always your child. Clearly communicate to your child that you will always love them. Work harder to communicate your love than your opinion about a particular issue. Most of the time, a child knows when they have disappointed their parent. What they often question is not your opinion, but your love. Make sure they never have a reason to question whether or not you love them.
Demonstrate tough love when you need to
Next, stop questioning where you went wrong as a parent. He or she is your adult child. Don’t try to figure out how the person you raised is making bad decisions. This isn’t your problem to fix. It’s not your job to rescue your child. You cannot make him or her end an affair, receive help for an addiction or attend couple’s therapy. As the parent of an adult child, you no longer are responsible for your son’s or daughter’s decisions.
At the same time, don’t enable poor choices. Set boundaries around living at your house or providing financial assistance. And then, don’t cave – follow through on the limits you’ve placed within the relationship.
Erin and I like Jim Burns’ take on tough love:
Tough love is a disciplined and strongly expressed boundary to promote responsible behaviour and long-term change. You offer tough love when you set firm limits and enforce consequences. Tough love might mean not allowing a drug-using adult child to move back into your home without first getting help. . . . The purpose of tough love is to stop the problematic behaviour and encourage positive growth and responsibility in your adult child. Don’t confuse tough love with meanness. The purpose of meanness is to be hurtful, which is the opposite of tough love.
Look to the future . . . carefully
I love how Jeremiah 29:11 reads in the New Living Translation: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’ ”
Remind your child they have a bright future. And, no, we’re not talking about typical Christian platitudes, like “When God closes a door, he opens a window” or “Where God guides, God provides.” I understand the heart behind the clichés, but they rarely help when someone is hurting. And they never provide much hope for the future.
Erin and I remind Taylor that we believe there’s a solid Christian man out there who will fight for her until “death do you part.” However, a word of caution: Reminding your child of a happy future can be met with frustration and anger. Your child may still grieve the divorce and ask God to restore his or her current marriage. He or she may not be ready to talk about the future. If your child reacts negatively to your positive outlook, don’t argue or push the subject.
I noticed this when Taylor and I took a father-daughter hike after her divorce. During our hike, I asked what she saw herself doing in five years. After a long pause, she gently let me know that she wasn’t ready to think about life without Jeremy by her side.
Hope for the future
Erin and I believe Taylor will get married again. I love to imagine that she and Jeremy will have their marriage restored and their divorce erased. What a powerful love story that would be! Only God knows.
One amazing silver lining through the heartache and pain has been watching Taylor and her sister, Murphy, grow closer together. They are now roommates.
I know this isn’t how Taylor envisioned her life, but she is a stronger and healthier person. Erin and I can see her strength and grace grow every day, every hour.
After her divorce, Taylor wrote a beautiful poem that delved deeply into this painful season of her life. She gave me permission to share it. As her father, it breaks my heart. But it also encourages me. Because in it, I can see her looking to the future:
I hate that divorce is part of my story, but it is part of the story God is writing for me.
And it is beautiful.
It's important to me to talk about this now. While I'm still in the fire.
Before the promises have been fulfilled.
Before the healing is complete.
Because if you're in your own fire, know that you are not alone.
He sees us.
Redemption and healing are coming.
He gets the glory now.
I’m so proud of Taylor’s strength, grace and trust in God. She’s everything a parent could hope for in a daughter – and so much more. Even in the midst of her pain, anger, heartbreak and broken dreams, I know that God has wonderful plans for her. And they are, as Taylor says, beautiful.
*Name has been changed.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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