Divorce seems to be here to stay. Both as a practicing psychotherapist and on a personal level, I’ve been privy to the pain, anger, hurt, and grief surrounding the dissolution of too many marriages.
It’s a calamity that particularly afflicts members of my generation, the baby boomers. According to the Census Bureau, more than two-thirds
of couples married in the 1950s celebrated their 25th anniversary together, while those who married in the 1970s had only about a 50/50 chance of making it that far. As for those who took their vows in the 1990s, we’ll just have to see.
In any case, it’s the children who pay most dearly. They must deal not only with the breaking apart of their birth family, but often with the ache of loss, betrayal, and deprivation that comes from having been shanghaied into a new blended family.
With so much divorce going around, you’re more likely than ever to encounter situations where parents and their children are acting out the pain of old wounds. Here are some ways you can use time, patience, and therapeutic assistance to help keep a break-up from breaking hearts.
Q: My clients’ four children were planning a surprise 25th anniversary party when the parents announced that they were getting a divorce. All of the kids were hit hard by this unfortunate timing. The youngest girl, who’s 18, says she’s going to Nepal with the funds they’d put in a custodial account for her college tuition. Her parents are beside themselves. Should they try to get counseling for her?
A: When a couple in an essentially dead relationship have put their kids’ needs first, it’s not uncommon for the marriage to fold up as soon as their last child leaves the nest. And no matter how much strife or disconnection the children may have witnessed while they were growing up, they’re likely to be shocked, angered, and deeply upset by the divorce.
So it’s not surprising that their youngest daughter wants to run as far away as possible from this painful ripping-apart of her family home. She may be trying to punish both parents by using their money to distress and undermine them. Or the overwhelming impact of the divorce may have simply blown away any idea of buckling down to her studies as a college student.
If she is willing to see a counselor or therapist, of course it’s a good idea. Being able to tell her story to a patient, compassionate trained professional may help her decide if jumping on a plane to Katmandu is really the best option. The parents may also want to consider a few sessions with her, either individually or as a couple.
Whatever form this therapy takes, counseling from someone not enmeshed in the family situation can help this young woman slow down and reconsider her probably panicked decision about what to do next. Involving the entire family will calm the intensity of everyone’s feelings, allowing choices to be made more thoughtfully. I hope this troubled teen can get to a place where she’ll see what is truly best for her.
Q: A retired entrepreneur I advise is threatening to write his oldest grandson out of his will. The grandson is about to get married for the fourth time, and my client is fed up with waiting for him to “settle down.” The thing is, he himself was divorced twice, and the young man’s father and mother are also divorced. Is there a way I can help keep Grandpa from alienating his grandson?
A: The first step, I think, is to listen to this client’s feelings of frustration, anger, and perhaps betrayal concerning his grandson’s marital messes. Then, depending on how comfortable you feel talking to him about his own life, values, hopes, and dreams, you might gently probe a little further.
Is it just the grandson’s lack of marital stability that rankles him? Does he feel any guilt about his own divorces, or his children’s? (It could well be that he would profit from therapy to explore his powerful and complicated feelings, but he may resist any suggestion that he has a problem making peace with his own past.)
I would also explore what he hopes to accomplish by cutting his grandson off. If the intended message is “You screwed up once too often, and I’m giving up on you,” ask if anyone ever gave up on him, and how he handled this rejection.
By helping him think more calmly about the effect of his proposed action, you may be able to segue into discussing his broader legacy. What constructive life lessons would he like to pass on to his grandson?
Last, I would remind him that a carrot usually motivates people better than a stick. If there are other areas in which the grandson excels, maybe you and your client can brainstorm a way to entice the young man to change, rather than punishing him for behavior that Grandpa doesn’t like.
Q: After splitting up two years ago, my client and his wife were awarded joint custody of their daughter, now 9. The problem is that they’re increasingly at loggerheads about raising her. For example, the mom, an organic vegetarian, wants her daughter to eat nothing but healthy food. She goes ballistic whenever he takes the child to McDonald’s. The poor girl is caught in the middle of their disputes. I feel that I should speak up, but what can I suggest?