“Mom, Dad… I’m getting divorced.” When these chilling words strike home, one of the first things you have to realize is that this is probably one of the most difficult decisions your children have ever had to make. After the initial shock (and not all parents are shocked; many anticipate the problem even before the child does), you have to face the fact that there are going to be major changes in your lives.
Divorce does not exist in a vacuum. Every member of the family is affected. There will be shifts in relationships, downswings and upswings, many shifts that are not within your control. The only control you can exercise is over the relationship you have with your son or daughter. You need to demonstrate your support from the very beginning.
There are no hard and fast rules as to when parents should undertake this mission to help their family heal. Nevertheless, there are some valuable guidelines.
Some parents’ first reaction is to look for fault or immediately side with their child. Not all parents have this response when they learn the couple is splitting. They may have no choice but to fault their own child. And with good reason. There are unfortunate cases when a son or daughter has shown through past behavior that he or she is unworthy of parental support. In such cases, it is a good strategy to rally around the in-law in hopes of helping the spouse and grandchildren who have already suffered the abuses of that parent. But in most instances, when it is your child with whom you have developed trust and affection, you will want to be all you can be for that child. There are going to be tough times ahead.
Obviously, parents will all react differently to the news of a child’s marriage breaking apart. Some parents will be angry, some will become depressed, others confused, anxious, or fearful. Many parents are relieved that their child is escaping a bad situation. No matter how you react, it is important to remember that you are not the one taking center stage. Your child, son- or daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are the people who will be most buffeted by the winds of change. As a parent, you are expected to be there for the family to help steady the course while you hold your own emotionality in check.
Also bear in mind that when your child makes the announcement, he or she is already in pain and looking for family support. Your role is to communicate that support no matter how you feel about your in-law, whom you’ve learned to accept as your own child. Your child comes first. That doesn’t mean you have made a vow to reject the son- or daughter-in-law or say terrible things about that person because you think that’s what your child wants to hear. This is a time when your child is banking on your loyalty. What your child wants to hear is that you love and accept him — that you will be there to help her get through the tumultuous times ahead. Recriminations, if there have to be any, should come later, when you’re less emotional. Understandably, absolute allegiance to your child may be difficult to carry out, especially if you know there is another side to the story — an unpleasant side, some behavior that you would rather turn your back on.
This is the key point: The way in which you react to your child’s announcement will pave the way for your future relationship with your child, your grandchildren, and soon to be ex-in-law.
What if you’ve already acted with horror and said terrible things? You can’t take back your words. The point is, you’re only human, and you were thrown for a loop. Don’t worry — this is only stage one. You’ll have many opportunities to backtrack and make amends, as this is a long journey with many twists and turns. Chances are your child will be forgiving if you explain you were overwhelmed with the news and didn’t have a chance to sort things out.
This article is edited and excerpted from the book YOUR CHILD’S DIVORCE: What To Expect — What You Can Do © 2006 by Marsha Temlock. Reproduced by permission of Impact Publishers, P.O. Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, www.impactpublishers.com. Further reproduction prohibited.