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Ask Ammanda: How do I tell my grown-up children I'm getting a divorce?

Our youngest son (18) recently left home to move to another city. Things haven’t been good between me and my husband for a while (i.e. five years or more), but having time to talk about things properly has made it clear neither of our hearts are really in this anymore.

Ask Ammanda: How do I tell my grown-up children I'm getting a divorce?

We’ve decided to separate and most likely divorce. I’m worried about how to tell our boys though. The older one is very perceptive and has probably seen this coming, but the younger is much more sensitive and I know he’d rather we stayed together as a ‘proper’ family. How do I talk to him about this?

Ammanda says…

This might not be much consolation, but so many couples start having these conversations when the last child moves away. All too often, problems that have never been talked about suddenly seem to loom even larger now there’s not much else to focus on. Whether it’s something specific that no longer feels do-able in your relationship or just that you’ve drifted apart, the end result is you’re now moving on.  It’s clear from your letter that you and your husband have reached a decision and now are facing the task of helping others to understand and accept it.

My sense from your letter is you may feel your boys will have very different responses. You say your eldest may have more than an inkling and may even be expecting it. Even if that’s the case, it will still be a major change in his life and one he may need ongoing help and support dealing with. Even when children see their parents could be happier and more fulfilled apart, it still doesn’t still mean everything hasn’t changed. Yearning for what might have been is something that can affect any child – even the most mature and realistic.

You also feel your youngest is more sensitive and would probably hope you stay together. Unfortunately, while you can explain to him why you and your husband want to separate as carefully as possible, he may still be terribly upset. Of course he will want you to be happy, but may still think that you and your husband might have found a way forward together.

I’m not sure what a ‘proper’ family means for your son.  I’m guessing that it might have something to do with mum, dad and kids all being together as a unit. I want to tell you that you will still be a family, even though you’re separated and possibly divorced. The key thing is that even if you and your husband go on to have new relationships, you will still both be parents to your boys. That’s the most important point to get across when you speak to them.

The other important point is to make sure you and your husband talk about each other respectfully and with care. I see many couples where one or both partners regularly off load  each other’s ‘failings’ to their children. This is so unhelpful and often very damaging to a child’s wellbeing, no matter how grown up or realistic about their parents’ relationship they have been. Kids need to be able to love both of you, so it’s important to continue to nurture this as you go through this next stage in your lives.

As for actually telling them, I’d recommend being ‘sensitively straightforward’. This might sound like a contradiction in terms but it just means balancing being clear that you’ve made a decision while also making more than enough time for them to ask questions and share their concerns. Do be ready for tears too.  Although they’re adults now, you can’t necessarily always expect them to act big and strong. Sometimes when we’re giving people we love information we know may well upset or cause them distress, it can be really easy to close down painful questions and occasionally anger and resentment too. Often it’s a way of protecting ourselves as well. So if they need to cry or be angry, let them.  Answer their questions as clearly and honestly as you can and promise (and keep it) to let them know about practical arrangements. Above all, even though you’ll be immersed in sorting things out with your husband, it will be really helpful to make time for the boys to spend time with you individually.

Just a word also about you. You’ve made a decision that feels like the right way forward and may well come with a sense of relief. But don’t assume it won’t come with a sense of loss too. Even when it’s the right thing to do, moving away from a long term partnership can fill any of us with sadness. Just like kids really. Hopefully you and your family will be able to navigate through this next phase in your lives - but be prepared for the first part of the trip to be unpredictable.

Ammanda Major is a Relationship Counsellor and Sex Therapist

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