Marriage Problems: What Should I Tell My Adult Children?

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
Even when having severe marriage conflict, it is important to stay balanced in your relationships with the children.

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.

Saying nothing isn’t a good option

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 conclusions and continue to pry for little details about your marriage problems, which they will then misconstrue.  Just saying, “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. A little information can be as dangerous as a lot.  As I describe below, it’s more important for your information to be balanced than to be detailed.  It’s also more important for your kids to know you are getting help than it is for them to know all your problems.

Passing messages can backfire on you

I have often heard from my clients (who are working on reconciling their marriages) that they said both good and bad things about their spouse to their adult children.  Subsequently, they hear from their spouse the bad things that was said about him or her, and none of the good things.  This further contributes to their marriage problems. Imagine how you would feel if your spouse were saying bad things about you to your adult children.  Would it make you want to reconcile more or to get away more?  My recommendation is that you learn how to say things to your spouse directly and take your kids out of the loop.  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.”

Blaming your spouse pressures your kids to take sides

Whether you want to reconcile with your spouse or not, blaming your spouse for your marriage problems can damage their relationship with you, their relationship with your spouse, and further damage your relationship with with your spouse.  This is because if your kids disagree with you, they are more likely to side with your spouse against you.  If they do agree with you, they are likely to side with you, and against your spouse.  Although you may feel supported by that, it is a harmful thing to do to your children and they will internally trust you less.  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.

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. The harder it is for them to know, the more likely they will gradually pull away from you as time goes by.  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.

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

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 shows that you are not out of control about the problems.  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 is like.  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 by telling 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).  Say this a few times and they will get the message.  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 it when it comes.  Both you and your spouse will try to make decisions which are best for everyone.  If they insist, then gently but firmly remind them that your business with your spouse is not your kid’s business.  No doubt they will feel the same way when they are having marriage problems of their own (or at least their spouse will feel it’s none of your business).  Respect with adult children goes both ways.

Further reading

See my book, Connecting Through “Yes!” for help with dealing with parenting conflicts and for connecting with your spouse, even when your relationship is on the rocks.

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