There is little compelling literature on the effects of divorce on adult children, though you can be sure there are consequences. Judith Wallerstein’s bleak statistics notwithstanding, no one really knows what’s better for children: staying in a disturbed household with unhappy parents or dealing with the chaos of divorce. Naturally, things are different if the children are adults when the parents split. It’s still no day at the beach, but the issues shift. Certainly, trust, optimism about the viability of long-term marriage, and insecurity play out for almost all children, whatever their age.
I don’t believe the research is comprehensive enough to predict much, but one thing seems clear: if a parent used a child, of any age, to lie to the other parent the child will suffer more. It’s a case of short-term hedonism vs. long-term hedonism. In the short run, the parent who enlists the child to lie to the other parent has the short-term benefit of a sense of closeness and allegiance with that child as they keep secrets that harm the other parent. Clearly, this fosters guilt in the child, no matter what their age, as they know their behavior is detrimental to the other parent. In the long-term, the parent who enlisted the child’s complicity in lying and keeping secrets ends up losing the child’s trust. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the child understands that parent will do whatever is necessary to help their own position, including using their child.
Trust is like a good habit: hard to make and easy to break. When it’s gone, it may never fully return. I remember, when I was a young woman, my father bought a house in England and asked me not to tell my mother. (They were still married at that time, but divorced when I was 33, a long time coming non-event to me.) It was a burden I did not want, but because I so desired a relationship with him, I agreed. Eventually, he told her, but for those intervening years, I felt like a traitor. On reflection, I believe his asking me to lie for him, made me trust him less. If he could lie to her, he could lie to me. A parent intuitively knows the child craves his or her love and respect, and can wield their emotional power to influence a child’s behavior, even if that child is an adult.
I believe that many parents who ask their children to lie for them have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD: all that matters is what’s best for them. It may also be a way to prove to themselves that their child loves them as s/he is colluding with them against the other parent.
The DSM-IV-TR defines NPD as “an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts,” such as family life and work.
According to the DSM-IV-TR, a patient must exhibit five or more of the following traits in order to be diagnosed with NPD:
- grandiose sense of self-importance
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- belief that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- need for excessive admiration
- sense of entitlement
- takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- lacks empathy
- often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
I include all this information only to show that, while divorce brings out the worst in many people, pre-existing personality traits (like NPD, and sociopathy; see “Betrayal” on this site) have a great deal to do with the emotional detritus that gets foisted on children, whatever their age.
Divorcing parents and their children need all the support they can get. It is natural for them to rely on each other. Many researchers focus on the negative effects of a parent’s unburdening to a child; but, if the child is an adult, the same behavior can catalyze a deeper, more mature, differently balanced relationship between them. However, because divorce is a time of extreme emotional instability when poor decisions are the coin of the realm, asking children to lie is particularly manipulative and cruel. Resist the impulse if you want your child to trust and feel safe with you. If not, whatever short-term gain you think you have secured will undoubtedly accrue to your long-term detriment.
“The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” by Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, is based on a 25-year examination of the lives of 93 Marin County adults.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang