In the Storm of Divorce, a Parent and Grandparent Can Offer Safe Haven

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You think you're finished with the crazy times of divorce. After all, you are a grandparent. Your marriage is solid. If you went through a divorce, it was long ago. And then you get the shattering news: Your child is getting divorced.

Young children aren't the only family members affected by divorce. The parents of a divorcing couple often get caught up in the turmoil of the breakup, too.

There are no rules for grandparents to follow during the breakups of their grown children. Of course, you want to help your child and ease the stress on young grandchildren. But by jumping in too fast and too furiously, you can also make a bad situation worse and jeopardize your future connection with your grandchildren.

The following are some tips to get you started on the right track when a child announces that his or her marriage is breaking up:

Support your child, period. The initial phase after the separation is not the time to point out where either party went wrong. "You are there for support. That is not the same as agreeing with the decision. Stay neutral," says counselor Marsha Temlock of Norwalk, Conn. "You can say: I support you. How can I make this easier on you?" In the wake of her child's divorce, she has written "Your Child's Divorce: What To Expect -- What You Can Do" (Impact).

Be a helper, not the savior. Take care of the children for a weekend, clean the house, buy your daughter a new dress -- but don't try to save the marriage. Research shows that most couples who break up have struggled in the marriage for a long time. They have already tried to work things out. Some couples who separate come back together, but that's up to them, not you. Once the decision is firm, you can suggest counseling -- not to save the marriage, but to build a healthy post-divorce relationship.

Listen. Of course, you can't stop your feelings, your disappointment that happiness has eluded your child and rage that your child is being hurt. But the divorce is not about you. Even if you know best, you can't tell grown children what to do or how to feel. Your role is to be a safe listening post. You can take cues from your child: Should you rush to the scene? Encourage the "broken" family to live with you? Reach out to the ex?

Good fences make good exes. You are close to your son- or daughter-in-law. You share a history. You want to stay connected because of the grandchildren. But in the initial crisis, you may need to draw some boundaries. Even if you disapprove of your child's behavior and want to make it up to the in-law, family counselors advise that you back off and give the ex some space. You can make clear your sympathy, respect and continuing affection. Eventually the dust will settle, and you can establish a new bond with the ex.

Speak softly and carry a big wad of cash. Be useful in a practical way, but stay above the emotional fray. Things are likely to get worse for your child in the year after the breakup. Money is a major concern for divorcing couples. You are likely to be called on to help financially. At the same time, you're getting angrier. Every phone call is a crisis. Resist the temptation to turn the ex into a monster. Grandparents are known to hold on to grudges.

Temlock tells the story of an exchange between a grandmother and her grown granddaughter: As they drive past a high-end men's clothing store, the grandmother snaps: "That's where your father bought all his fancy clothes while your mother couldn't pay the heating bill." The granddaughter replies: "Gramma, that was 30 years ago!"

Build bridges with the other grandparents. What you share is precious: the grandchildren. In marital wars, the children are innocent, and so are you and the ex's parents. Grandparents are natural allies in the reconfiguration of the family. Divorce is a transition, and more changes lie ahead. Most people who divorce look for new partners and remarry. New members and their children are brought into the family. What remains stable in the life of children of divorce are the grandparents. The family will be stronger if both sets of grandparents can work together for the well-being of the grandchildren.

Reach out to grandchildren. It's up to you to set the tone, even when they live far away or the parents throw up obstacles. Your role is to provide a safe harbor, a place where grandchildren can have fun and find relief from the stresses of living with stressed-out parents. You want to give them a sense of belonging and security.

Know your rights. You don't really have any. According to the Grandparent Information Center on the AARP Web site: "Grandparents do not have an automatic legal right to visit with their grandchildren." This is why you need to overcome your sorrow and build working relationships with your adult child, with the ex, the new partner and the in-law grandparents.

Get a life. It's not healthy to be so consumed by a child's divorce that you neglect your other children or don't have the emotional energy for yourself and your relationships. Like your adult child, you need to move on.

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