James is struggling. “My parents are being impossible!” he said. “It’s hard enough to go through separating from my wife without my folks giving me a hard time about it. Every time we talk it’s the same thing: Why can’t you stay together? Why don’t you get some counseling? Why, why, why?”
In this case, there is no reason to assume that James and his wife can’t separate and do well by their kids and themselves. James and Tamara don’t hate each other. They are disappointed and saddened by the failure of their marriage. But they aren’t blaming and shaming each other. They are separating their marriage, not their relationships with the kids. They are doing the work they need to do to do it reasonably well.
Nonetheless, James’s parents are upset and are actively lobbying the couple to stay together. What could be going on here?
When the older generation pressures their adult child not to divorce, there are often reasonable reasons underlying the anger and upset. Let’s take a look at a few of the common issues and what to do about them.
- They haven’t seen the problem. You and your spouse may have been very good at keeping your private issues with each other private. Your parents haven’t seen your conflict or your fights or your coolness to each other. You’ve had months or years to come to terms with the fact that you can’t make the marriage work. For your parents it is new information. They think you are being impulsive. They just see two fine people who they believe should be together.
- They are invested in the relationship with your partner. Parents who genuinely love and respect their son or daughter-in-law may fear that if you break up your marriage, you will require that they break up with a person they have opened their hearts to. They don’t know how they are going to manage continuing in a relationship that you have stopped.
- They worry that communication about your family will slow or stop. Often it is the women in a family who keep the older generation informed of family news, includes them in events, sends the birthday or get-well cards, and who remembers to call, email or Skype with them now and then. If the soon-to-be-ex is a daughter-in-law, they may worry that they will only be contacted as an afterthought, if at all. They worry that their attempts to stay in touch with you will seem intrusive.
- They worry about their ability to see their grandchildren. The rights of grandparents are often not considered at all during the legal decisions around a divorce. They may worry that they will be distanced or cut off from grandchildren they love. They may be confused about how to maintain the level of visiting they are used to. If you all celebrated holidays or vacations together, they may be grieving the loss of some or all of those special times.
- They take your separation as a comment on their choices. If one or both of your parents has been unhappy in their marriage, they may resent you making a decision that they didn’t. They may think you should “stick it out” as they did. If they stayed together for the sake of the kids, they may believe you should do the same. For you to do something different suggests that maybe their sacrifice wasn’t necessary or appreciated.
Conversely, if they did work at it with some success, they may not understand why you can’t do the same. They may not understand that you and your partner are different people living in a different time and that you have different choices available to you.
Below are some tips for turning objections to support.
- Communicate. You are an adult. You don’t owe your parents an explanation. But if you want their support, you do need to give them enough information so they can understand that you aren’t making an impulsive and thoughtless decision. They don’t need the details of your discontent. But it would be helpful if you let them know that you wish it could be different and that you want to get through the divorce with as little collateral damage as possible.
- Ask for support. They may be sufficiently upset that it doesn’t occur to your parents that you would appreciate some support. Let them know that this is a stressful time. Ask them to trust your judgment. Emphasize that they didn’t raise someone who would give up on a relationship without a struggle. In an amicable situation, stress that it is important to you that they not take sides or badmouth anyone. If it is a less than amicable situation, ask them to stay out of the conflict.
- Reassure them that they will not lose their grandchildren. A positive relationship between grandparent and grandchild is healthy for them both. Studies show that kids who have a close bond with grandparents are better able to manage stressful experiences like their parents’ divorce. If your parents are anxious that they will lose contact, reassure them of your commitment to maintaining their relationship with your kids and work with them to come up with practical ways to make it happen.
- Share your vision of your future. Like you, your parents are not only losing your partner as a regular part of their lives, they are also losing their vision of what your future was going to be like. They may be worried about your emotional and financial stability as you move forward. If they saw you and your partner dividing tasks for everything from housecleaning to childcare to wage-earning, they may worry that you won’t be able to manage on your own. Let your folks in on how you intend to manage everyday life without a partner. Ask for help if you need to learn some of the tasks that your partner was responsible for.