Talking to adult children about your marriage problems

How to Talk to Your Adult Children about Your Marriage Problems

Sooner or later your adult children are going to know there is a problem. When you want to reconcile with your spouse, you must be careful not to alienate your spouse from the kids.

Talking to adult children about your marriage problems
Don’t put your adult children in the position to judge, take sides, or pressure your spouse.

Many people find out the hard way that confiding in their adult children about their marriage problems is not always the best thing to do. This is especially true when they are trying to reconcile with their spouse. The potential for increased problems is much greater than the benefits. 

If you confide in your adult children the wrong way, the end result can be not only a worse relationship with your spouse, but a worse relationship with your children as well. They will have their own opinions about what you should do. If you don’t follow their opinions, you risk alienating them.

You may even find yourself in the difficult position of having to choose between alienating your spouse and alienating your children.

Saying nothing isn’t a good option

It might seem ideal to say nothing to your adult children and simply work on your relationship. If your children live far away and are not in touch with your spouse, this could work. While you wouldn’t get support from your children, you could get support elsewhere and work on your relationship without having to have your children involved.

Unless your kids are far away and have no contact with you, they will learn that you and your spouse are separated or having severe problems.

If you tell them nothing, they are bound to come to their own wrong conclusions based on their observations or things they are told by others. They may also feel that you don’t trust them or believe that it must be really bad if you can’t even talk about it. In the absence of correct information, people create their own false narratives. Once people believe a lie, it is much harder for them to discover the truth.

Giving only a little information can also cause problems. For example, just saying something like “Your mother’s mad at me, but I can’t talk about it,” will lead them to think that you have had an affair, hit your wife, hit the bottle, or any number of things.

Too much information, too little information, and no information all have the potential to cause problems. This is not true only for adult children. It applies to parents, friends, and other family members as well.

The key is to provide balanced information rather than detailed information and to emphasize solutions rather than problems. This will help to avoid creating sides which can make reconciling more difficult.

Avoid complaining to your kids and alienating your spouse

I have often heard from my clients that they are blamed for saying bad things to their kids about their spouse. In actuality they may have said both bad and good things. The child passes the complaint on to the other spouse. The spouse then just sees the other spouse as alienating the children from them. In return, they say bad things about the spouse to their children. This can derail attempts at rconciling, particularly if the kids don’t want the parents to reconcile.

No matter how much you would like your kids to be on your side, imagine how you would feel if your spouse were saying bad things about you to your adult children. Getting your kids to side with you against your spouse will make your marriage worse. I have worked with many people who tried to use their adult kids to shame their spouse into working on the relationship. Shaming or pressuring your spouse directly or through your kids will only make your spouse want to get away from you more.

Even if your kids could make your spouse feel guilty, it would not have the effect you want it to. Guilt does not motivate people to reconcile. Guilt motivates people to further justify their behavior, which then relieves their guilt. How much would you want to visit a friend who makes you feel guilty for what you enjoy doing?

Parents of young children often blame the other for the harm they are doing to the children. Even when true, it does not improve the relationship. Saying , reconcile with me rather than being a lousy parent is not something that is ever going to create a desire for you in your spouse.

Don’t damage your kids relationship with your spouse

Whether you want to reconcile with your spouse or not, blaming your spouse for your marriage problems can damage your children’s’ relationship with their spouse. Your unhealthy example for your adult children is no better than it is for minor children. And, if your kids disagree with you, that could damage your kid’s relationship with you.

Emphasizing your spouse’s good qualities will be in your best interest, and your children’s, regardless of the outcome you desire for you and your spouse.

Saying, your father is a horrible selfish man who doesn’t care about me and dumped me for another woman may help you to express your anger and even get sympathy from your kids. However it would be much better to say, your father was unhappy in our relationship for a long time and has found someone else. This is far more likely to be truth than that your husband is a monster.

Confessing to your kids burdens them with your secrets

If you confess to your children about things you have done to create marriage problems, that puts the burden of your secrets or problems on them. They are not counselors and cannot be objective. They are emotionally involved in the situation. They will either share the secret with your spouse or they will suffer with the secret.

They may also pressure you to share your secret, even though that may be the worst thing to do for your marriage.

For example, imagine that you share with your adult children how you cheated on their father after you were first married many years before. Your kids, being much more clueless about reality, urge you to share your secret with your husband, which you subsequently do. The result will be continually broken trust in your marriage and your husband having an affair.

Relationships don’t work the way they do in the movies, though kids often think they do.

You do not owe your adult children your confession–in most cases it is a selfish thing to do unless you have done something directly to your children. And NEVER tell your children secrets about your spouse. You will betray your spouse and that will damage your marriage or burden your children with the secret.

If you are going to do anything secret, be prepared to keep the secret to yourself all of your life. I have seen relationship after relationship fall because of the sharing of secrets. God will hear your secret, which He already knows about anyhow.

So, what should you tell your adult children about your marriage problems?

When you are with your kids, focus on your relationship with them–not your relationship with your spouse. If you must talk about your spouse, keep it positive or neutral. “Your mom and I see things in different ways, but we are working on them.” If you need to say something bad about your spouse, say something bad about yourself as well.

I neglected your mother, focusing mainly on my job. She has become more cold and distant.


Your father and I have become very different over the years. Both of focused on what we wanted rather than keeping our relationship alive. Now, we are not sure if we can get it back.

Notice in that example the use of the words our, both and we. Even if it was your spouse who mainly was the one who didn’t maintain the marriage, it will be much better for everyone if you share the problem.

It is pretty rare to have a marriage problem that both people didn’t contribute to, even if one contributed more to the problem than the other. Be sure not to vilify your spouse or make excuses for your behavior.

Try to keep your explanations general. “Mom and I are having marriage problems right now. We are both working, in our own way, to make things better.” This is balanced because it does not point a finger at your spouse. It also doesn’t give much detail. In addition, it points to things being solved or at least improved. It will help keep your kids from becoming reactive.

Although your kids are grown, it is not their turn to be your parents. They continue to draw on you as a model for what a healthy man or woman does in your circumstances. That is important whether it is your son or your daughter. Mature people work on problems–they don’t panic, retaliate, or avoid them. That model is important for your adult children because they may be in the same situation some day.

Deal with their questions honestly, but not openly

If your kids ask you something about your spouse, for example, “Does dad want to…?,” or “Did dad, …?” avoid answering the question. Tell them that they are free to ask their dad anything they like, but it’s not your place to talk about him behind his back (which it isn’t, regardless of the outcome you are seeking). Be consistent in your refusal to answer for your spouse and they will stop asking you.

If they ask you direct questions such as, “Are you planning to get a divorce?” “Are you going to give mom a chance…?” or any such questions, then tell them the future is not written in stone and you will deal with things as they come. If they push, assertively tell them to drop it. You are still the parent, not them. And, it is your life, not theirs. Kids often feel they have a right to know, which they don’t.

When your kids have their own marriage problems they will want the same respect from you to let them work it out without prying. If they want your help, let them come to you. That respect needs to work both ways.

If you need marriage help, don’t go to your kids

What your kids know about relationships mainly comes the model you and your spouse have given them. Going to them for help will reinforce many things you already believe, but is very unlikely to provide any good solutions. Relationship coaching is the tool to use for learning skills to reattract, reconnect, and have proper boundaries with your spouse. These are skills that anyone can use to improve their relationships without wasting time in marriage counseling.

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