BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’m in my late 20s, and my parents recently divorced after several decades of marriage. The divorce process was initiated about a year ago, and finalized about six months ago. I genuinely feel relieved that my mom and dad got divorced, and I think it is the best thing for both of them. My dad quickly got a new girlfriend, which I expected, and she moved in with him. I’ve met her once, at a large gathering, and she seems fine. My sibling has been living abroad temporarily, so has not yet met her.

For the upcoming holidays, my sibling and I will likely spend half of Thanksgiving Day at my dad’s house and the other half at my mom's house. When discussing Thanksgiving, my dad indicated that he is expecting us to spend time with his girlfriend (who will be doing the cooking) and her family (her adult children, their spouses, and her grandchildren, none of whom I’ve met).

Is it acceptable for me to express that I’d prefer for my sibling and me to spend that time on Thanksgiving with my dad only? Is this a boundary I have a right to set? Or do I just need to suck it up and deal with it? It’s not that I dislike her, or want my parents to get back together, or feel like I’m betraying my mom; this just seems like way too much too soon, and my sibling and I feel like we should have been asked whether we’d like to spend the holiday with these new people.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

A common misconception is that divorce is easier on families with adult children than it is on families with younger children still at home. After all, adult children aren’t at the mercy of inconvenient custody schedules, or fights about what’s allowed at one house or the other when it comes to homework, bedtimes, manners, cleanliness, screen time, or food choices. They don’t have to live under the same roof with stepparents or stepsiblings they may not like, or with parents on the brink of divorce having hushed conversations (or loud arguments) just down the hall.

The thinking goes like this: Having launched their own lives, adult children are safely out of the fray. This is, in fact, why many parents wait until their children leave the house before splitting up.

But divorce is often just as hard on adult children—and what makes it even harder is the assumption that they aren’t affected. The result is that their needs aren’t given appropriate attention—not just by the parents, but also by the adult children themselves.

By that I mean, you may believe that your parents are better off divorced, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing a loss, no matter how on board with the divorce you are. You may have had ideas about celebrating milestones in your own future family with your family of origin intact, and now those holidays and milestones will look different. Perhaps you’ve also lost the home that you grew up in, the place where the majority of your life’s memories reside. And because you’re an adult, your parents may rely on you for emotional support or share information they wouldn’t have if the divorce had happened when you were younger, leaving you lacking a safe parent-child boundary you had growing up—and still should have as an adult.

When parents’ new partners enter the scene, things get even more complicated. Whereas most parents are aware that younger kids need time and care to adjust to new people in their lives, most parents expect adult children to do so with ease. What parents often don’t consider is that their adult children are still adjusting to the losses from the divorce and that they might have complex feelings about the presence of these new partners. For one, they might feel resentful that they have to share their parent with a whole new family. In your case, your dad now has more adult children (and grandchildren) involved in his life, which might compete with the time he spends with you and your sibling (and your future children, if you choose to have any). There may also someday be a financial element. Some of his resources could go to a new family that would have gone exclusively to you and your sibling and your families. This new setup might ultimately affect your inheritance as well. And you might have some feelings about that.

It sounds like what you want to say to your dad is that he is not aware that your parents’ divorce—no matter how “right” it is for both of them—is still a loss for you, and that though you’re an adult, you need him to have the compassion and insight of a parent right now. Tell him that you need time to adjust to these new family dynamics. Let him know that you need to wrap your head (and heart) around the new people in his life, with whom you may not immediately (or ever) click and with whom you didn’t grow up. Tell him that spending Thanksgiving with these new people feels like a lot of pressure and also a loss of alone time with him. Let him know that establishing new family traditions happens gradually, as does grieving the loss of “home” as you knew it. Explain that having two homes during holidays for the rest of your life will be logistically inconvenient and possibly emotionally draining, but that right now it is especially daunting, and you’d like his understanding and patience as you navigate this new normal.

None of this should be minimized or, worse, kept to yourself. You have a right to express how you feel, even if your father wishes you felt otherwise. Divorcing parents need to be parents even when their kids are adults. And sometimes, they just need a reminder that no matter how much their lives change (and no matter how happy you might be for their newfound happiness), you’ll always be their child. Having your parents get divorced is hard at any age, but the benefit of being an adult is that you can articulate your needs clearly and lovingly in a way that younger children often can’t. And once that happens, parents generally take those needs seriously.


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