When Both Generations Divorce

Enmeshed family boundaries can hinder healing and moving on.

Posted Jan 23, 2020

Going through a divorce is traumatic, no matter how amiable or civilized the parting. It damages self-esteem and can have deleterious effects on all your relationships, not only the one that went asunder but all the others that connect to it, like the ripples in a pond that spread out from where the rock is dropped, as one of my clients put it.

The ripples from her divorce bumped into the ones from her daughter’s, which was happening at the same time. “It was like a whirlpool, metaphorically speaking,” she continued. “It was hard to tell whose angst, pain, and anger was whose, and the whole family, the ex-laws and the in-laws, the parents and their kids, even the grandkids were affected much more than I think would have happened if only one of us had been going through it at the time.”

For this woman, the divorce was long overdue; she and her husband agreed that their marriage hadn’t made either of them happy for many years. And while it didn’t seem to affect her adult sons, she worries that her decision might have tipped the scales for her 25-year-old daughter, who announced the end of her marriage right after she did.

In families where only one generation divorces at a time, it’s easier to minimize the extra-familial fallout. Grandparents can be the voice of reason when parents split up—the place of refuge from the turbulence of their own homes, the source of unconditional love, the people even the youngest child knows don’t blame him for it (even if, as many suspect, they’re the reason). Often, too, that’s who’s raising them; today, an estimated 5 million grandparents are the primary caretakers of their children’s children, a number that’s increased exponentially as the opioid epidemic’s youngest victims would otherwise have no one else to provide for them.

As parents, we naturally side with our own adult kids when their divorce is contentious; it’s only when considering the best outcome for the kids that we accept that maybe our own isn’t able to provide it. We may mourn the changes in the extended families we were part of through our children’s marriage; single parents, especially, may feel these losses keenly. When my daughter’s marriage ended, I missed not only my son-in-law’s clan but the festive holidays we enjoyed together. Sometimes these relationships can change to fit an altered connection; my son’s former wife has become, since their divorce, an intimate friend.

But when you’re divorcing at the same time as your grown children, both sets of marital boundaries, already in the process of disentangling, blur into each other. It’s hard to separate your own emotions from theirs, to maintain a self that’s already feeling shaky, and to keep feelings that are deeply painful from “leaking” into the space between you and others, especially those closest to you.

Just when you’re feeling most vulnerable, so are they. It’s hard for you to be strong and supportive, to refrain from judging, criticizing, comparing your situation with theirs. It’s a classic set-up for the kind of enmeshed family boundaries that can strangle both generations.

Guarding against enmeshment when both generations are divorcing requires strengthening your own boundaries, separating your thoughts, feelings, and impulses from theirs, and being aware of trespasses, yours and theirs. Better a mani-pedi with your divorcing daughter than a mutual pity party. Better a stated rule against discussing the details beyond informing each other of the important ones, especially changes in your or their housing, finances, or legal status, and agreeing not to comment on it, than a day-to-day immersion in those details.

And using the same lawyer, especially at the same time, is a boundary minefield for everyone involved. A more useful strategy is cultivating your boundary intelligence, which consists of awareness, knowing when you’re trespassing in other’s space or they’re in yours; insight, which is a cognitive rather than emotional analysis of what’s happening; intention, which is clarifying what you want to happen in the relationship over time as well as right now (i.e., moving closer or getting some distance); and action, which is about mobilizing and managing your boundaries to get the desired result.

If this sounds like a lot of mental “work” to do in a moment of heightened emotion, it is. But boundary intelligence, which is a key component of emotional intelligence, is what it takes to get through trying times.