Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Sarah Hampson's Generation Ex

Adult children carry the burden of divorce too Add to ...

shampson@globeandmail.com

When one of Silvio Berlusconi's daughters expressed dismay earlier this week about the reported links between her 72-year-old father and Noemi Letizia, an aspiring actress and model whose 18th birthday party the Italian Prime Minister attended, she inadvertently illuminated an issue that's often overlooked in divorce.

Contrary to what many assume, the emotional upheaval for adult children is just as intense and painful as it can be for younger children who endure a family break-up. The realization flies in the face of the popular belief that if parents endure an unhappy marriage while their children are still young and living at home, they can spare them trauma by divorcing later on. It's the old "for the sake of the children" argument for staying together until the nest empties.

But the assumption is a misconception.

"People think that because the children are adults, it shouldn't affect them; they should be able to handle it," says Debra Rodrigues, a counsellor and mediator of separation and divorce issues with Peel Counselling & Consulting Services. "But no matter how old you are, the child within you is still going to react to something traumatic like that."

It is not uncommon to hear of parents who drop a child off at university and announce the news that they are separating. They have reached a parenting goal: Their child is mature and independent. They reason that their child will be so happily distracted with the activities of her own life, she won't have the time or inclination to worry about changes going on at home.

Some parents may privately congratulate themselves for having sacrificed their own short-term happiness to protect their children until they are old enough to handle the news.

"I knew 10 years ago that I would leave my husband when our daughter went off to university. I was biding my time," says one woman in her 50s who left her spouse after a marriage of more than 20 years.

But the age of mature children can make them more vulnerable to the effects of a split. For one thing, "parents often think that they can tell them everything that's going on about the divorce and also sometimes pull them into the middle and expect them to take a side," observes Ms. Rodrigues, who counsels many children of divorce in their late teens, 20s and even 30s.

The children are also forced to reconsider their childhood. "They may have felt that they're one of the lucky ones in the world, in this case by having an intact family, and suddenly that view of their family and the stability of their life changes," she says. "They look back and think, 'What did I miss?' And they may wonder what was real and what was put on for the sake of the children."

In her comments to the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, Barbara Berlusconi, who is 25 and the eldest child from her father's second marriage, to Veronica Lario, explained that "my story is of a girl who lived her youth in a normal and tranquil fashion." Now she is dealing with a father up to his dyed-black hair in scandal. The most recent embarrassment is tape recordings, allegedly of her father's voice, said to have been made by an escort who was partying at one of his houses.

When asked if she thought her parents' breakup was the end of a great love affair, she replied, "I am sure that it was for mamma."

Worrying about the more vulnerable parent is a common burden for adult children, experts say. Roles often become reversed, as adult children assume responsibility for one or both parents.

A few years ago, I was talking to an adult child of divorced parents who remarked that their family story proved that a deadbeat father, as theirs had been, did not affect their livelihood or their happiness. "He wasn't around, but we didn't need him," she said, referring to herself, her mother and three siblings.

But she neglected to point out that the eldest sibling, a graduate student at the time of the divorce, and, soon after, a successful businessman, essentially stepped in to become a provider.Such a sense of responsibility, while generous, can interfere with the adult child's own stage of life, one in which he shouldn't have to think about supporting or advising his parent. Children whose parents divorce as they enter university often react in an unexpected, self-sabotaging way. Rather than diminish their worry about their parents' decision, the distance from home accentuates it, as they fear the unknown and the uncertainty.

The involvement of new partners is also problematic. When they visit their parent, they often discover a completely different person to the one they knew growing up. "Enough talk about sex," a friend of mine announced at a recent dinner gathering, hushing her guests when her 19-year-old son, who was over from his dad's house, emerged from the basement. She had been regaling her girlfriends with talk of her raucous sex life in the aftermath of her fresh divorce. She straightened her blouse, stubbed out her cigarette and waved demurely at her son. "Got enough pop down there?" she said sweetly.

And it goes without saying that a parent who is interested in a much younger person runs the risk of alienating the adult child, who may, as in Ms. Berlusconi's case, be the elder. "I was amazed. I never frequented old men," she said of her father's friendship with the dewy Ms. Letizia. "These are psychological links of which I have no experience."

The new relationships can make the adult children feel displaced. As they try to adjust to the new people in their parents' lives, they can feel that they don't matter as much as the new love interest does. Or, as their parents rejoin the dating carousel, children can find themselves having to continually play the role of confidant for mom and dad's love woes.

But the biggest problem is that adult children often feel they should just suck it up. They should just cope with the pain of their parents' divorce. And unfortunately there are few resources for them, Ms. Rodrigues notes, because the focus is usually on younger children of divorce.

Finding people to talk to is important - and not necessarily a reporter with Vanity Fair.

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular