Adult Children of Divorce Need to Set Boundaries and Stay Out of Conflict

At 26, Lisa Wells had her life just the way she wanted it: A great job, a supportive circle of friends, and, perhaps best of all, a strong marriage. Then she took a plane home for Thanksgiving, and everything changed. “I walked in through the front door and saw my father stacking boxes filled with his clothes,” she says. “I couldn’t breathe, the shock was so intense.”

Her parents were getting divorced after 30 years of marriage, destroying not only the family life she’d relied on, but her ideal of a lasting relationship. After a life spent maintaining control, she’d lost it, and the road ahead was dark and unknown. “For some reason, I blamed my mother,” she says. “I wanted to scream out to her to do something, don’t let him leave.”

“The push and pull between separating parents can be especially difficult for adult children. Just because a child reaches maturity doesn’t make them immune to the effects of divorce,” says Dr. Spencer Eth, a child psychiatrist and medical director of Behavioral Health at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. “In fact, as adults, children are often less protected from the conflict.”

Being thrust into the middle can inflict lasting damage to parental relationships and your ability to move forward. Here are ways to establish some ground rules, and survive the fall-out.

1. Refuse to take sides.

“Siding with one parent puts you in a no-win situation: first in being forced to decide whom you love more, and then dealing with the pain inflicted upon the shunned parent. You have two parents, and you always will,” says Eth. “If you avoid playing games straight off the bat, and establish what the new form of the relationship will be, you can significantly manage the fall-out from it.” Which is all well and good. But in the immediate aftermath, tensions can run high, and neither party may be in a mood to listen.

“It was ridiculous,” says Wells of that first weekend. “When they weren’t trying to bribe me with presents, they had me running messages back and forth to each other. It was like a competition to prove who loved me more, and I was the prize.” In place of being a messenger, says Christy Buchanan, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C., try saying something like, I love you dearly, but I also love Mom (or Dad) too. It’s hard for me to hear either one of you talk badly about the other. Could we just not have those kinds of discussions? And if saying it doesn’t work, write it down on paper. When finished, give a copy to each parent.

2. Start talking again.

In the weeks following the separation, Wells was forced to accept the loss of the free and open conversation she’d relished back home. “They were fighting over the furniture, the cars, everything,” she says. “My visits were the only times they came together, and there was just this loaded silence.”  “Trying to provoke dialogue in this atmosphere can be dangerous. People have been fighting through their children for too long,” says Frances Goldscheider, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Brown Univeristy, R.I., who studies the impact of divorce on children. “It can almost become a habit.” Wells found this out the hard way when she tried to get her father to start talking and he accused her of being a spoiled brat. “I was only trying to help,” she says. This is where professional counsel, a neutral party lacking the personal stakes of either parent or child, can be a godsend. Lee Brochstein, the creator of, a site devoted to helping parents deal with children’s issues, recommends intervention counseling. “It’s strictly to help in the process of reaching agreements and redeveloping those lines of communication,” she says.

3. Confide in someone about what you’re going through.

For many children, admitting their parents’ divorce to someone else can be nearly as difficult as living through it. “A part of me felt like if I didn’t say the words out loud, then it wasn’t really happening,” says Wells. This pact of secrecy even extended to her husband, who found out three months after Wells’ return from Thanksgiving when she broke down one night watching television. “I just couldn’t hold it in any more,” she says. Eth recommends confiding in whoever you trust most, be it a friend, mentor, a member of the clergy or a therapist. There are also books designed to help navigate the situation, as well as remind you that you’re not alone, including “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: the 25 Year Landmark Study” by Judith Wallerstein, and, for a harrowing and ultimately hopeful personal account, “The Way they Were: Dealing with Your Parents’ Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage,” by Brooke Lea Foster. Confiding in her husband turned out to be the crucial support Wells needed. “He told me I wasn’t alone, that we’d get through it together,” she recalls. He made me realize that just because my parents’ marriage ended doesn’t mean mine has to. We control our lives.”

4. Don’t expect miracles.

Sometimes the worst enemy isn’t your parents, but your own expectations. Today, nearly two years after the initial split, much of the acrimony between Wells’ parents has dissipated, causing her to sometimes dream of reconciliation. “I’ll be watching a movie with both of them, and think of the fun we used to have,” she says. “I know its over, but sometimes I can’t help feeling that, even now, it’s not too late. They can patch things up.” While Eth acknowledges the pull of this kind of thinking, he advises adult children not to give in to it. “It’s a set-up for disappointment,” he says. “Don’t do that to yourself.” Goldscheider advises looking at the present through a lens uncluttered by the past. “Be grateful for what you have, in other words. In some cases, if they are in the same room and behaving themselves, that has to be enough,” she says.

5. Know that you’ll get over It.

Wells knew she’d moved past her parents’ divorce when she visited her father and his new girlfriend. “We sat around and talked. She was very polite, but all the time I kept waiting for the ground to fall out beneath my feet.” It didn’t. And while Wells admits that she’ll never be wholly comfortable seeing her father with another woman, she knows that it doesn’t have to destroy her, either. It took her nearly two years to reach that point. For others, the process can take the rest of their lives. What’s important, says Eth, is to fully acknowledge what you’re going through, and not compare your rate of recovery to that of others. As with any situations involving feelings of loss and grief, people move through the stages of healing in their own time,” he says. For Wells, it’s meant the beginning of a new life, one infused with the strength that comes through overcoming adversity.