For a few years, John and Joan* had seen the warning signs. Short tempers had turned into silent stand-offs which had eventually turned into an absence of their daughter-in-law at family gatherings. When their son told them he and his wife were separating, though, the fact that they’d seen the signs didn’t ease the heartbreak they felt.

Joan wanted to jump in and take care of her son. She wanted him to move in, wanted to pay for couple’s counselling, wanted to take care of her grandkids and become their mother in a difficult time. John, on the other hand, wanted to empathize with both his son and daughter-in-law, but from a distance. The way he saw it, they’d done their part in raising their child, and that child had to take responsibility for his choices.

“Few crises rock a parent’s world like their kids’ marital struggles,” Gary Chapman writes in Married and Still Loving It. “We know the dismal statistics. Many of us have a sibling who divorced and remarried. But our kids, that’s another story.”

There’s no easy fix for a broken marriage, and there’s no simple five-step program for you to help your own child if they’re going through marital struggles, separation or even divorce. But there are certain things you have to keep in mind to not only help your child, but to also protect your own marriage in the midst of the pain.

You can’t fix it

“The natural response of many parents is to try to minimize what has happened,” Chapman explains. “They jump into ‘damage control’ mode and try to protect their son or daughter. In my opinion, this is an extremely unwise move. The young adult must learn to accept responsibility for the decisions they have made.”

As Karin Gregory, Focus on the Family Canada counsellor, explains it, there are three phases of parental involvement:

  1. Control: When your child is a toddler and you have them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you have a large amount of control over their actions and behaviours.
  2. Influence: As soon as they start going to school and you no longer have them 24/7, you can influence their decisions and speak into their behaviours, but you no longer have full control over what they do.
  3. Invitation: When your child becomes a teenager and young adult, the influence you have becomes limited, so it's important to start inviting them into conversation and building a new kind of relationship.

“Ultimately, you have to understand that your marriage is yours, their marriage is theirs and all you have is an invitation to listen and love,” Gregory says.

Many parents, when they see their child going through a crisis, want to revert back to when their children were toddlers and take control, but doing so will create tension, resentment and possibly fracture your relationship with your child. If you and your spouse disagree on how much to get involved, take time together with just the two of you to make it clear how much support you’ll offer and where the line is so you’ll know when to let go.

“Let your child know that while you are deeply hurt and cannot remove all the consequences, you want him/her to know that you are with them and will stand by their side as they walk through the consequences of dealing with this failure,” Chapman writes.

This is not to say you cannot help your child, but you have to do so in unison with your spouse and with clear boundaries so everyone knows what to expect.

What to discuss with your spouse

Before you make any decisions and jump in to help your floundering child, you need to make sure you and your spouse are on the same page. There is often one spouse who wants to save their child and fix everything – whether that means letting them move back home, taking care of the grandkids or paying for extra expenses – while the other wants to support their struggling child while also enjoying the golden years of their marriage.

That’s why it’s so crucial for you to discuss your own expectations as well as how much to get involved before offering to step in and help your child. Here are a few things Gregory suggests you discuss with your spouse:

  1. How much financial help will we give? 

    Stepping in to pay for additional costs is a huge decision that must be agreed upon between the two of you because major financial gifts or loans will affect your retirement plans. Some parents may feel obligated to step in and pay while others may see their kids as adults responsible for their own finances, and when these two extremes are in one relationship, tensions can grow. That’s why you and your spouse must decide together how much you’ll give and whether or not that will be a gift or a loan. Once you’ve decided between the two of you, make it clear to your struggling child what they can expect. 

  2. Will we help with the grandkids?

    Can we spare two days a week of childcare? Do we invite them to stay with us? How will that impact our marriage? These are valid questions for you and your spouse to decide if your separated child has kids of their own. You both need to explain your own expectations since one of you may be done with the child rearing years while the other is eager to be the parent instead of the grandparent.

    However much you decide to get involved in the lives of your grandchildren, it’s important to remember that you, as the grandparent, are not the primary disciplinarian. Even if your child is in a difficult place, they are still responsible for their children. If there is an issue with discipline or lack thereof, you need to speak to your child. It’s also important to remember that there may be differences in parenting styles. While you may have been strict with your kids, they may be more lenient, and it’s their road to walk as the parent.

  3. If they move into our home, how long will it be for?

    What will our house look like? If you do decide to open your home to your struggling child, you need to remember that your house doesn’t immediately become child-centric. Whether or not they bring kids with them, they are not “coming home.” They are an independent adult coming to live with you in your home for a period of time. Often it’s a matter of changing the language to avoid reverting back to adolescent patterns.

    “Sometimes it’s easier to think about it as a household, not a home,” Gregory suggests. “If there are three adults living in a household, there will be an easier understanding of distribution of chores and responsibilities.” Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page as your child’s presence in the home will affect your marriage, your communication and your intimacy in what you previously thought was a childless phase of life.  

What boundaries to set with your children

As with everything, setting boundaries and sticking to them will protect your relationship with your children but also with your spouse. Here are a number of boundaries Gregory suggests for those who are parenting a child going through marital struggles.

  1. Your child cannot force you to take sides

    Your relationship with your son- or daughter-in-law is your relationship. Apart from situations of abuse, if your child left their spouse for reasons you don’t fully understand or agree with, you are under no obligation to cut ties with your child-in-law. They were invited into your home and became part of your family and you may want to continue that relationship with them.

    When David and Mary’s** son left his wife and child, he expected they would take his side – as did everyone around them. They knew, however, that his choices were not their own and they loved their daughter-in-law and granddaughter too much to let them go. They rented out their basement suite to her, making sure she knew she and her daughter were loved and cared for. It was not up to their son to make that decision for them, but it was up to David and Mary to make that decision together.

  2. You need time together as a couple

    When a crisis hits, it’s expected that you may lose time together with just you and your spouse, but in many situations, this is only for a season. Separation, divorce and the repercussions last a lot longer. When your child is going through something like this, you need to be aware that it can and will affect the time you and your spouse get to devote to one another. If they move in with you, it will affect how you’re intimate as well. You also have to be sensitive to the fact that your spouse may not want to invest as much time as you do in caring for your child. If this is the case, speak openly with one another about your frustrations, your expectations and what boundaries you can set to protect your marriage even as your child’s marriage falters.

  3. You cannot be the sounding board for their complaints

    If the only time your daughter talks to you about her marriage is when she’s complaining about her husband, you may need to ask if it’s the whole truth or only part of the story. If she’s complaining without making any changes, you may also need to take it a step further and explain to her that you’re not there to let her vent. You and your spouse may agree to pay for therapy for your child and their spouse, but just like you can’t control their actions anymore, you can’t control where they go, when they go and even if they go. You may invite them to seek help, but be sure to make it clear that you can’t be their mediator or sounding board any longer.

  4. You don’t have to tell everyone the whole story

    If your child is going through a separation or divorce, your community of friends, family and neighbours may want to know the details. Remember, though, that your family’s privacy is your own and you’re under no obligation to share the whole story – even if they’re praying for you. Just because you’ve asked for prayer for your child’s marriage doesn’t mean you need to share every detail. Make it clear with your spouse and your child how much you want to share and with whom.

“No matter how old they are, or how old we are, we never stop feeling responsible for our adult children,” Chapman explains. “We never stop hurting with them and for them.”

For the sake of you, your spouse, and your children and grandchildren though, it’s crucial for you to be united as a couple and clear with your boundaries to protect your family relationships during this challenging time.

“Parents whose adult children are going through crises must maintain the balance between self-preservation and self-sacrifice,” Chapman goes on to say. “We must maintain our own health and well-being while trying to help our children as needed. Your physical, emotional, and spiritual health must be nourished, and you must focus on keeping your own marriage strong.”

If you and your spouse are facing a similar crisis and disagree on how much to get involved with your child, or you’d like to receive prayer and support in this difficult time, please contact our care and counselling team. We would be honoured to pray with you, provide you with a free, one-time phone consultation and/or get you connected with a counsellor in your area.


*Although John and Joan are a fictional couple, they are representative of many real couples who are dealing with this issue

**Names changed to protect privacy

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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