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Heavy Meddle: Should I Tell My Grown-up Kids The Real Reason For The Divorce?

A mother worries that her grown children will make the same mistakes as their parents. (Woenchen/flickr)
A mother worries that her grown children will make the same mistakes as their parents. (Woenchen/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

My children are grownups, so you'd think by now I would have figured out most of this parenting stuff. But I don't know what to do about something.

Their father and I split up when they were very young, because of his, shall we say, extracurricular activities, his lies, and his lack of remorse. I always tried to take the high road as we dealt with co-parenting, and thus I have never talked to my kids about the reason for the divorce; they do know that it wasn't my choice, and they seem to get that some paternal misbehavior was involved.

I am suddenly almost overcome with fear that they are going to either make what turns out to be a bad choice...

Both my son and daughter are in their 20s and they have both had long-term relationships though both are single at the moment. Because I think the partners they are choosing at this phase of their lives are more likely to become the people they marry, I am suddenly almost overcome with fear that they are going to either make what turns out to be a bad choice (as I did) or be the bad choice, as I think my ex-husband was. There is no evidence that either of my kids is veering in this direction, but I find myself resisting (so far) a very strong urge to sit them down and tell them the whole sorry saga as a cautionary tale.

So I guess my question is twofold: one, should I go ahead and talk to them, in some reasonable and honest way, now that they are adults, about my concerns? And if not, how can I re-train my brain so I don't live in (probably irrational) fear they are going to retrace the unfortunate steps of their scorned mother or cheating father?

Signed,
Divorce is Still Tricky Even After the Child Support Squabbles Have Ended

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Dear Divorce Is Still Tricky,

Oh my. So here’s the deal when it comes to families divided by infidelity—even though the parents have lost a measure of trust, the kids need to be able to trust both parents. And that trust takes the form of not keeping secrets or guarding deceits.

Am I suggesting that you should have told your children about your ex-husband’s “misbehaviors” when they were young? No. But I am suggesting that at a certain point, when they were old enough, you and your ex-husband would have been wise to level with them about why you two got divorced. And that doesn’t mean one parent offering their version of the truth. It means both parents sorting through what happened and being as honest as they can about the reasons behind the split. Infidelity, after all, is an act of betrayal. But it’s also symptomatic of deeper problems in a marriage.

I’m not the only one who believes this. In fact, nearly every expert on family dynamics, and the psychology of divorce will tell you the same thing.

The situation you’ve created instead is one of leaving them to guess at the source of your split. They clearly know that you felt hurt and betrayed, and must know that their father was the cause of this hurt. So they’ve seen and experienced the hurt and the recrimination.

But they’re missing an honest accounting of what happened.

The best thing you can do for them is to come clean, if possible, with your ex-husband’s involvement. Why? Because otherwise you are modeling a pattern of withholding the truth, and that same pattern (ironically) often lies at the very root of infidelity. Affairs are crimes of passion, of course, but much more so of deceit. They happen when one spouse’s needs aren’t being met within the marriage, and that person—rather than being honest and communicating with their partner—withholds the truth and goes outside of the marriage to have those needs met.

The best thing you can do for them is to come clean, if possible, with your ex-husband’s involvement.

Your kids are grownups at this point. They can handle a more direct accounting of how this pattern played out in your marriage, particularly one steeped in mercy. More to the point: they deserve such an accounting. They need you and your ex-husband to model that pattern of behavior—of telling the truth even and especially when it’s difficult.

My hunch is that your anxiety will diminish if you can have this long-overdue talk with kids. Why? Because I suspect some part of you knows that you’ve been withholding with them, and in this sense modeling that behavior for your kids. At the very least, you can come clean about the anger and sense of betrayal that you’ve been carrying around for a couple of decades—and which they’ve clearly already picked up on. Give those feelings a story, and a respectful resolution, and everyone can start to make sense of them.

Please try to remember, finally, that your kids are going to lead their own lives, and sometimes that means making their own mistakes. Your job is to offer guidance and support, including the tough lessons of your own experience. But you can only offer these lessons. You can’t enforce them.

Onward, together,

Steve

Author's note: I keep thinking about Esther Perel’s take on infidelity. Her view is that infidelity is a source of deep meaning, that it often is rooted in a sense of loss. It’s important for Divorce Is Still Tricky to realize that her ex-husband’s version of events is important for the kids to hear, as well. Feel free to offer your feedback in the comments section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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