How should you react when your son or daughter tells you their marriage is on the rocks? Lee Rodwell investigates.
Annie got the news in a text from her daughter. “Charlie and I are going to separate. It is for the best. We haven’t told the children yet. I’ll phone on Friday when hopefully you’ll have got over the shock!” it said.
“And it was a shock,” Annie says. “I cried. I knew there had been problems, but I thought they were just ones all couples face when they’re both working hard and bringing up young children.
“My daughter was cross when I said I hoped they’d find a way of trying to make things work. But I’d married someone who had been married before and I knew how divorce had affected his children, how much harder it had been for everyone financially and emotionally, how the ripples caused by a break-up spread.
“And I was really worried about our grandchildren. I didn’t want them to be hurt.”
How to handle the fall-out of divorce
Annie’s initial reactions were understandable. Experts say that when your child goes through a break-up, you go through some of the same pain they do – sometimes more.
My daughter was cross when I said I hoped they’d find a way of trying to make things work
Lee Borden, a divorce lawyer, explains: “Even if your child’s spouse is abusive or immoral, you will still grieve because you’re grieving not just for the end of the marriage, but also for the end of your dream for the marriage. It’s tough to see that dream die.”
Relationships therapist Christina Fraser from coupleworks.co.uk agrees. Yet she says the best course of action is to keep your feelings to yourself.
“It’s really hard to hold the misery of people you care about. But try to contain your own emotions in order to be a loving support. And never give advice. You won’t ever know the full story of what went on in that relationship.”
Instead, she says, let your child know that you love them, support them, and will listen to what they are going through without trying to fix it, offer advice or pass judgement – however hard that is to do.
But what about your son or daughter’s partner? How should you behave towards them, especially if you consider them a friend or a surrogate child? Christina says this will need careful handling depending on the circumstances.
“Sometimes your son- or daughter-in-law will have been coming round for years of family dinners and other occasions, but now you won’t be able to stay close to them unless your own child is ok with it.”
Are you still my grandma?
Remember there are likely to be raw and damaged feelings involved. Try not to take sides. Allow your child to talk about their feelings - often anger and stubbornness hide fear and sadness.
“It’s important to acknowledge that it is a loss,” says Christina. “Depending on the depth and length of the couple’s relationship, it may even feel like a bereavement.
“But only by keeping careful communication open is there any hope of a future, and different, link to the ‘lost’ partner.”
Parents may also worry about losing contact with their grandchildren – not just because they will miss them.
Christina says: “Grandparents are pivotal to family life and the loss of supportive grandparents will only heighten children’s sense of insecurity. Yet studies have shown that when parents separate, grandparents are especially important as they can provide a sense of stability and consistency.
“Talk about how this may work for the parents, both of whom may need to be involved, and be sensitive to their feelings.
“Impartiality may be very difficult, but this is where the grandchildren’s stability is paramount. So never say anything that could be construed as critical in front of grandchildren - it will get back.
“And if a child asks ‘will you still be my grandma?’ reply ‘of course I will’. A grandma is a grandma for life.”
Real life: “In my heart I hated my son-in-law for what he was doing”
Suzanne Marks (pictured), 65, has seen both daughters’ marriages end in divorce. She says: “I had an inkling something was wrong with my elder daughter’s marriage but when my son-in-law told me they were actually separating, I was horrified.
“I remember putting my arms around my daughter and telling her that it would all come right, but I had seen what divorce had done to other people’s families and in my heart I hated my son-in-law for what he was doing to her and the two innocent babies.
“So when my second daughter said her marriage was over I could hardly believe it. Then she told me that she would have left her partner at least a year earlier but hadn’t – despite the fact that he had been abusing her – because she thought it would be too much for me. “That made me feel terribly guilty.
“Looking back I can see that although I tried to stay neutral in both cases, I did feel I had to support my daughters through a terrible time.
“In both cases I tried to get the adults to go to mediation, to consider staying together for the sake of the children. But it was a total waste of time and effort and now I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.
“My advice to others would be: however good your intentions, don’t interfere. Not only won’t it help – it often makes for added animosity.”
Throughout both divorces Suzanne felt the grandchildren were the ones who needed her most.
“The break-ups were nothing to do with them. Children need help to understand that a divorce is not their fault.”
Suzanne and her husband still see all the grandchildren regularly but their relationship with the other two sets of grandparents is very different.
She says: “One set took their son’s side and haven’t spoken to us since. The others agreed that for the grandchildren to see any animosity between the grandparents would only make the situation worse, and they have stayed on friendly terms.
“In fact, on the days when they do the school pick-up they often drop in with both grandchildren for a cup of tea.”
This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.