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Are Adult Children to Blame for Divorce?

The news that Al and Tipper Gore are divorcing set off  media madness with headlines from “The Rise of the Silver Divorce”  to “Could It Happen to Us?”  Speculation was rampant as to the cause of the split: An affair? Boredom? The internet?

Articles abounded about the possible triggers for the dissolution of a decades-long marriage, and a number of fingers pointed at adult children as a source of friction

In a New York Times op-ed, “The 40-Year Itch,” author Deirdre Bair noted in her book, “Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over” that:

Women had grown tired of taking care of house, husband and grown children; men were tired of working to support wives who they felt did not appreciate them and children who did not respect them. Women and men alike wanted time to find out who they were.

 And, in “ ’Til 40 years do us part,”   the Wall Street Journal  interviewed Los Angeles psychiatrist Mark Goulston who noted that he:

 “…sees another issue behind later-in-life breakups: tensions related to adult children, who are often closer to their parents today, and needier.

 “There’s a saying, ‘You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child,'” Dr. Goulston says. “One spouse may still be overly involved with the adult children, worrying about their happiness, and the other may be saying, ‘I’ve done my parenting. I want to have a chance to have my own life.

 Mothering21 sought some insights into recognizing and preventing tensions caused by adult children. We interviewed stress management expert Debbie Mandel who knows the territory well. Ms. Mandel is the author of several books including “Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life.” Her other impressive credentials: Married 39 years and the mother of three children, ages 35, 30, and 21, and grandmother of three tots.  

She leads stress-reduction workshops around the country where people share the cause of agita in their lives. The ways adult children can stress a long-term marriage include, says Ms. Mandel,

  • Moving back home
  • Needing money supplements
  • Having emotional issues and needing guidance

We asked her about causes and remedies:

Adult children are “boomeranging” home in record numbers after college or even later due to a job loss or other issues.  How does that cause friction in a marriage?

Most parents initially fear dealing with the empty nest but they get used to it, enjoy it, and establish new routines. Problems start then when the children come home: messiness, coming in late at night, more cooking and laundry, even your sex life.  You lose the spontaneity.  You begin to worry again.  I don’t care if they are 30; they’re in your home and you feel a sense of accountability.

You call it the “return of the to-do list”?

The additional duties and worries become an endless to-do list.  When you had young children you juggled, then you got a break of a few years when they went off to college. Now they’re back again. After all these years you’re still juggling children and their issues.

We all know that women feel responsible for everyone’s happiness—children, husband–and that comes at a personal cost. You’re not living in the present, you’re living in the future and worrying about what you have to do next on your list.

That pressure sets off stress and then the stress impacts your marriage?

Women go into a worry loop; we’re hardwired that way.  From carrying this endless list you become stressed and eventually become depleted.  When you are depleted you become irritable and when you’re irritable anything can set you off, it doesn’t take much.

Then your husband and anyone else in range hears about it!  What happens when a couple disagrees on how to handle the issues that arise with an adult child?

There are lots of problems because adult children seem less mature these days, and that can cause conflict between husband and wife. Sometimes one parent wants to pay for the adult child to go to therapist and the other parent is of the approach “let him sink or swim.” Sometimes the child mirrors weaknesses of the parents. It’s also hard because as a parent you are dealing with an adult child who is dependent but no longer obedient!

Money can be another source of friction when one parent wants to use it to help adult children and the other doesn’t?

Money carries an emotional value: How you want to spend it?  How does your husband want to spend it?  How do your children want you to spend it? Children can be very manipulative when it comes to money. A couple has to negotiate what they feel is appropriate to spend on adult children.  

That’s often a challenge.

Yes, you have to seek each other’s core values.  Ask the question when dealing with an issue: “Why do you feel that way?” The answer can help you reach an equitable compromise.  Given that often there is no unanimity on many issues, your goal is to attain equanimity.

To reduce stress you suggest that we helicopter moms stop hovering over our children and start circling ourselves instead.

Yes, you need to change your perception that you are responsible for the   happiness of your entire family and shift some of that focus to yourself. It’s hard to do. One way is to shed just one thing everyday from the to-do list.

Another is to literally change your perspective. Change where you sit at the kitchen table.  I threw my husband out of his recliner. I had a wonderful new vista. Another suggestion is what I call creative compensation: Figure out what you love to do and where it intersects with what you are good at, and do it.  I garden.

So there’s a good tip: try gardening, painting, cooking, spin class  whatever  keeps you happy, and perhaps your marriage too.

Yes,  those things help you treat yourself kindly instead of being a stern inner critic.

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