Some parents look on with horror when they realize their son or daughter's marriage is in trouble. Others are delighted that their unhappy child finally sees the light. The first scenario is more common, so I will begin by discussing parents who run to the rescue.
In response to an earlier blog post I wrote about the shock of receiving the divorce announcement, one parent commented: "We feel like observers of a train wreck. Our son recently decided to divorce our daughter-in-law after 11 years of marriage. They have 2 young children - ages 3 & 4 ... There were issues in their marriage that we found hard to understand; but our son seemed content, so we never commented on our observations. Then, for us, out of the blue, he wanted a divorce. At first we tried to 'fix' it, angering our son and then after many long distance conversations we accepted that it would happen."
It's hard to fault parents for wanting to fix what they perceive is broken. Some are willing to do everything in their power to keep the marriage afloat. They offer to pay for marriage counseling, to send the couple on a second honeymoon, to bail them out of financial difficulty, to set a jobless spouse up in business, even going so far as to buy the couple a larger house thinking a change in domicile will solve the problem.
For obvious reasons, some marriages should not be saved. Keep in mind, however, that parents are frequently in the dark and have no idea what is causing the breakup. Even if they know all the details, they should not take the lead unless their child is in danger. It's simply not the parent's decision to resolve or dissolve the marriage.
Butting out may be tough for a parent who has been divorced and thinks that his or her experience will help the adult child. No marriage is the same; no divorce is the same.
It's helpful to stop and wonder what motivates parents to get so involved. One embittered grandfather who advocated for his son's split spoke up in a parent support group to say that, to this day, he blamed his own parents for making him stick out his miserable marriage. "I stayed married eight years longer than I should have and it was hell."
A compelling reason to try to save the marriage has to do with grandchildren. "We've always been very close to our children and grandchildren and it is heartbreaking to have this happen and feel so helpless," wrote the parent who responded to my blog.
Unfortunately, grandparents often get the short end of the stick, but there are many things they can do to preserve the relationship. In my book Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect... What You Can Do? I suggest ways grandparents can strengthen the bonds with grandchildren at each stage of their parents' divorce.
It's natural to worry about the grandkids' well-being. Save the marriage, save the family. While there is a lot of evidence that children of divorce bear the scars into adulthood, today more and more children grow up in a single parent household. In their longitudinal study, Professor E. Mavis Hetherington and co-author John Kelley conducted a longitudinal study, For Better or For Worse, Divorce Reconsidered, observed 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children from divorced, intact and remarried families. They discovered that while there is a deleterious effect, the number of children who grew up, finished school, got jobs, formed healthy families and achieved impressive professional success were "uncommonly" resilient, mature, responsible and focused.
I truly believe that parents who interfere or take sides run the risk of alienating their child. There is no need to feel helpless; you can be someone your adult child can turn to when things look bleak. Be a trusted listener, a comforter, and -- if at all possible -- an optimist.
Your child's divorce is not the end of the world. Many parents think of it in terms of loss. Others who have watched their unhappy son or daughter from the sidelines call it a new beginning.