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Why Some Adult Children Aren't Upset When Their Parents Divorce

"I feel like I let her down by letting her suffer for so long."

Key points

  • Some adult children of gray divorce are relieved and happy when their parents divorce.
  • Sometimes adult children of gray divorce carry guilt that they didn't protect a parent from abuse.
  • After their parents divorce, adult children who endured abuse may finally feel free to heal.
Zen Chung/Pexels
Source: Zen Chung/Pexels

In my last post, I promised to share why some adult children of gray divorce are not shocked, sad, or angry when their parents divorce and find new love. Gray divorce refers to couples 50 and older. Growing up, these adult children may have experienced abusive, hurtful behavior in their families.

George's story

I entered my waiting room to see a lone 25-year-old man, fit and tan. As he stood and extended his hand in greeting, he said, "I am so happy to meet you. A friend of mine saw you, and he told me you helped him a lot, so I know you can help me too. I am George." I introduced myself and Friede, my yellow Labrador therapy dog, who sat politely, wagging her tail on the carpet like a windshield wiper and gazing at him with her big, brown eyes.

He leaned to pet her, scratching her ears softly as if he knew she would love it. He looked up at me, "I love dogs! They are the best! I have two adopted Australian Shepherds. I thought they would be enough therapy for me, but I need more than they can offer." We smiled and looked knowingly at each other.

George (not his real name) followed Freide into my office, sat on one of the loveseats, and scratched Friede's ears as she eagerly put her head in his lap. Without me prompting him, he began, "Well, I am here because I am feeling a bit guilty, not really, but it keeps nagging at me. Last year, after my mom's 50th birthday, she filed for divorce. I was not shocked, angry, or sad at all. I know a lot of adult kids are, but I was relieved and happy for my mom.

"When I was a kid growing up, I watched my dad lie to my mom, hide bills from her that came in the mail, and gaslight her. My mom worked to support us because Dad was fired from numerous jobs. For years, I overheard her asking him to get a job to help her, but he didn't. He had a secret gambling problem too. She begged him to get help, but he wouldn't.

"He teased me a lot when I was a kid and teenager, saying he was joking and having fun. It wasn't fun for me, though. He was quite an aggressive guy, and when he drank a lot every day, he became angry, belligerent, and cruel. Looking back, I realize I was too scared to confront him about his sick behavior. I think my mom was afraid of him too.

"I moved out as soon as I graduated from high school. I felt guilty leaving my mom there with him, but I couldn't take it anymore. He was a good cook and would invite me to come to dinner. I would agree and then back out because I didn't want to be around him. Then he would guilt trip me for not coming, saying he bought extra food for me. That made me stay away even more.

"Sometimes, he was a fun playmate. He taught me how to play tennis, which I still play today. So, I guess I'm grateful for that. But the negative far outweighed the positive.

"I always wanted Mom and me to be happy, but when I was growing up, I didn't know how to talk with her about what I was seeing and experiencing. That's part of what is bothering me. I feel like I let her down by letting her suffer for so long. Of course, I suffered too. But I should have protected her."

George broke into inconsolable sobbing. I waited patiently in silence, not rushing him, allowing him to experience everything he was feeling. After a few minutes, he looked up. His tearful, red eyes gazed at me. It seemed he was finished talking for now.

"George, sadly, what you experienced growing up happens in many families. What you were feeling then and are feeling now is common for adult children who had a painful family life."

George’s gaze was locked on me. His red, watery eyes were barely blinking.

“Really?” he asked in an incredulous tone.

“Yes,” I replied. "It's natural that you feel guilty for not speaking to your mom about what you were seeing, hearing, and experiencing. Remember, though, that you were a child and teenager. It wasn't your job to protect her. And you were afraid of your dad. Your mom probably was too. You and your mom were enduring emotional, mental, and financial abuse, which is trauma."

George began to shake his head affirmingly. "I know now she was afraid of him too. She kept hoping he would change and didn't want to break up our family. She told me that when I moved out, it was the beginning of her becoming stronger and accepting that divorcing him was the only viable solution for her."

I added, "George, your deep pain is also about mourning what you experienced. As I said, you and your mom experienced trauma. You need to be able to heal from it. I would be honored to help you on your healing journey."

His eyes barely blinked as he looked out the window across from the loveseat. I thought, "He's pondering what I said." We sat in silence for several minutes. He slowly turned his gaze back to me. "You're right! I'm finally ready to do the work I need to do. I like that you call it my 'healing journey.' That feels good and gives me hope. Let's book our next appointment."

Trauma-focused therapy can help

If your experiences are like George's and you want to start your healing journey, look for a therapist who offers trauma-focused approaches like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT).

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Copyright 2022 Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D.

Facebook image: Chokniti-Studio/Shutterstock

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