How To Talk To My Adult Children About Leaving My Unhealthy Marriage?

Dear Beloved Readers,

Welcome to November, dear readers, and greetings from the sunny state of Arizona! As the rest of the country begins to bundle up against the chill of autumn, we here in the Grand Canyon State are still basking in the warmth of our desert paradise. November is a month of transition, where the scorching summer heat gives way to cooler, more comfortable temperatures, making it the perfect time to explore all that this unique world has to offer. So, grab a cup of your favorite fall beverage, cozy up, and join me as we address a deeply sensitive topic that many Christian women find themselves wrestling with. It is a heart-wrenching dilemma—how to talk to your adult children who've grown up witnessing the storms of an unhealthy marriage. 

Question: “What do I tell my adult children who still live at home and who have seen a very unhealthy marriage their whole lives and choose to believe it's because I don't like their dad? I can no longer stay. What they don't know is he's an alcoholic, sex addict, controlling, emotional abuser who won't get therapy and is just trying to stop or cut back on his behaviors now that he knows I'm ready for divorce.”

LeAnne’s Response

Dear sister! I see you, hear you, and feel you. Thank you for the courage to show up here to seek support. It's not just about your children thinking that you don't like their dad. I too am a Christian woman acquainted with divorce, alcoholism, sexual addiction, as well as the power and control dynamics. The ripple effect of each is devastating and destructive. 

Your children are witness to the external stresses, yet are unaware of the inner struggles both you and their dad are battling. My mother was an alcoholic, my family members have been abusive. I was aware of the bad behavior. I didn't want to admit it. I was afraid to acknowledge the harm and the hard. Yet, I lived it. You, your husband, and your kids are living hard and harm too. 

Your husband is responsible for his behavior. You are responsible for yours. I pray that he will take the steps necessary to get healthy. He cannot do this work without support and help. These behaviors are destructive. They are destroying families by the thousands. 

Adult children may not be able to fully grasp the depth of the issues within their parents' marriage. In fact, many do not want to believe that either of their parents would embrace destructive habits. It is easier, (although not healthy or true), to say someone dislikes another human than to accept that abuse is happening. The truth is that abuse and addictions of any kind are harmful and destructive. 

Before discussing what to say, let’s explore WHO you want to be and HOW you can prepare yourself for this crucial conversation.  I pray it will be the first of many meaningful moments.

It’s time to gather up your courage and share the truth.

There are steps you can take to have a courageous conversation with your kiddos. Let’s start there.  

Pause. Take a breath and spend some time to get clear about the challenges you have been wrestling with. How have his choices impacted you?

As you pause, focus on understanding, not blame. Even though it may be a natural impulse to cast blame, avoid that strategy. 

Pray. Ask God for the courage to see and speak the truth. He will give you wisdom to know what to say and when. Ask Him to give you a heart of humility so that when you speak the truth, you will do so with grace and love. James 1 says that if we lack wisdom we can ask God and he will give it to us. 

Preserve your Identity in Christ. Take time to reflect on your own life experiences, beliefs, and values. Consider how your faith in Christ has shaped your identity and influenced your decisions, virtues, priorities, and relationships. Remember that your identity in Christ is not based on your performance or achievements but on God's grace. It's about who you are in Christ, not who you are in your own strength. Who does God say you are? Take ownership of your worth.

Listen to my interview with Leslie for some guidance and direction here: We talked about values and virtues! 

Prepare your words. Hard words need not be harsh words. This is too important a conversation to leave to chance or emotions. Take the time to write out what you want to say and rework it until it says exactly what you want it to say. Rehearse what you’ve written at least 20 times. This is a difficult conversation and you want to make sure you say what you want to say without forgetting something. You may only get one shot at this kind of conversation, do everything you can do to say it well (Psalm 141:5). 

As you plan and prepare, provide information about the challenges your family has been wrestling with. Share specific instances without casting blame. This approach will help your adult children understand the gravity of the situation without feeling pressured to take sides.

You may want to include something like:  “I am aware that you have seen and felt some of the difficulties in our family, especially in my relationship with your father. I need you to understand that what I am about to share is not easy, and it's not because I don't “like your dad.” 

 “There have been issues in our marriage that go beyond personal likes or dislikes. Your dad has been struggling with addiction and emotional issues, and this has created an unhealthy environment for me.” I love our family. I am no longer willing to live with the unhealthy choices your father is making.

Prepare your heart. As you uncover these truths, approach the conversation with honesty and compassion. There may be a wide range of emotional responses from your children—confusion, anger, sadness, and even denial. Hold their emotions with patience and empathy. Get curious and if appropriate, ask them how they have experienced their father. What they have noticed about their dad's behaviors, and habits? Be willing to answer their questions when appropriate. You can validate their feelings, even if you don’t agree with them. Reassure them that your love for them remains unwavering. 

Be prepared for their reactions, which may include confusion or questions.

Practice. Rehearse out loud what you’ve prepared. Listening to yourself say what you want to say over and over again will help your emotions calm down and better prepare you to speak calmly, clearly, and firmly. Your words will be better received if you are direct and not overly emotional. 

Don’t forget a conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.

Plan the time and place. Don’t initiate this difficult conversation when you are tired, hungry, or distracted by other things. After all your prayer, preparation, and practice, ask your children for a time to be set aside to talk where you can ensure the best chance of being heard. 

Place the Outcome in God’s hands. He is faithful. You can’t control another person’s feelings or reactions, but you can control your words and your voice tone to make a positive outcome more likely. However, the scriptures remind us, “As much as it is up to you, be at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). 

My friend, there are times when humans do all of the right steps, and yet our loved ones are unable or unwilling to hear what we have to say. This is not the time to return to your own unhealthy ways just to keep the peace or preserve the relationship. You must persevere in your own growth yet show patience with your children, asking God to help them see.

When you’re finished, respectfully listen to what they have to say, yet don’t allow yourself to be mistreated.  Extend the benefit of the doubt and when you don’t understand ask curious questions to clarify.

Your decision to have conversations that matter takes courage. I believe in you! 

Knowing what you will tolerate and what you will not can be one of the most loving things you can do for your relationships.  Living in alignment with your values is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself and your family.

Addressing this situation will call you to greater patience, love, and an abundance of compassion. It won't be easy, but it’ll be worth it! With God as your guide and support, you, your husband and your children can find a healthier way forward. One step at a time.  Please let us know how your conversation goes!

My friends, How have you prepared your body, mind, heart, and words for difficult conversations?

9 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on November 8, 2023 at 9:26 am

    What great advice LeAnne! My kids were 13, 16 and 18 when I got a restraining order and had their dad removed from our home. They were stunned. I had to keep this a secret beforehand for my safety. Two of my (now 30 something) kids have never acknowledged that their father was abusive. One of them does understand, and realizes she was also abused by him. It is hard to not have the acknowledgement of my other two kids. We are still on good terms, but I cannot be fully honest with them because they refuse to hear it. I pray, friend, that your children are more able to see what was truly happening. But even if they don’t, you can still be a loving mother to them. Blessings to you.

    • Kelly on November 15, 2023 at 9:48 am

      Caroline, I did the same thing. I couldn’t tell my adult son (26 yrs old) because I was afraid that he would confront my husband and they would physically fight. When I tried to tell my son the truth it was too late. His father had already told him lies about me (they work together so he has a lot of influence on him). My son has cut me out of his life and i am devastated. It has been 7 months and I am hurting so bad.

      • Lisa on May 2, 2024 at 12:08 pm

        Hi Kelly,

        I am reading this much later, obviously, but I’m curious if your son has come around. My biggest fear when considering leaving is exactly this. My two sons are the most important things in my life, and I don’t know if I could go on without them.

        Lisa

  2. Michelle on November 9, 2023 at 10:29 am

    I love LeeAnn’s advice. I do know that they don’t always view the situation as you do. As adults we seek to protect our family and that may be hiding the ugly secrets plaquing your marriage. Your family may see you as breaking up their family and resent it. I was a classic people pleaser and tied my self-esteem to that role. I would never have foreseen my kid’s reaction to the news of divorce. Also, if your spouse realizes you are leaving, they begin to do damage control. You are in a very vulnerable position during a divorce. I filed for divorce as I saw no remorse after his affair, no change, lied to marriage therapist. Lied to everyone. My advice is to get your own therapist. I was very angry. Get your children into therapy as they will be angry too. You will need to be strong as it does sometimes get worse. It can be a long road to navigate. My ex played all sorts of game with custody agreements, paying for braces, and divorce agreements. I hope this will not be the case, I really did try to make it amicable. Sometimes you see the real person as you are no longer in denial. Sadly, my kids were the collateral damage. Prayers for Strength and Truth,

    • Laura Petherbridge on November 9, 2023 at 12:59 pm

      As a person who has worked in divorce recovery for 25 years you, marry one person and divorce another. Especially if they are in a new relationship. Kids are fiercely loyal to a parent especially if they view one parent as being a “ victim “ to the other. Their perception might be waaay off from the truth, but it’s how they process it. The key is to speak truth without bashing the other parent.

      • Connie on November 9, 2023 at 2:11 pm

        How can you speak the truth without appearing to bash an abuser who has cleverly convinced them that he is the victim? Subconsciously the children know that if they support you and acknowledge the truth, the abuser will somehow punish them, but if they support the abuser, you will continue to love them. They desperately want to keep both parents, so throwing you under the bus is the only way that works. It’s the myth of ‘not taking sides’. Somehow they need to discover abuse from someone other than you or you make it worse. These guys are clever, smooth, and believable, and will use any crumb to vilify you. 28 years later and I’m still waiting. A few of the younger ones have figured it out, but not all. I have to trust that God will still work it out, maybe not in my life. And go on. I found out my mother’s sorrow years after she was gone.

  3. Sally on November 12, 2023 at 11:29 pm

    I agree with Connie, I’m in the same place dad is so “wonderful” when the adult kids are around or in the honeymoon phase he plays the weak, victim. My kids are always saying oh, poor dad . How am I going to tell them without them thinking I’m being selfish and leaving poor dad by himself . He is smart and knows how to work the kids and even me.

    • Caroline Abbott on November 15, 2023 at 9:51 am

      Though it is difficult, we sometimes have to accept that others won’t know the truth, and will think badly of us. This is a hard truth. We can know that God sees what really happened and accepts us no matter what.

  4. Charlene on November 17, 2023 at 1:47 pm

    34 year marriage; adult daughters ages 31 & 28 at the time I decided to divorce and tell them why (situation sounds similar to the woman asking the question plus cheating).

    It killed me to have to tell the girls the whole truth of their dad’s longterm bad behaviors and addictions, even though they knew some already. The oldest said she wished I would divorce her dad and never remarry him (she experienced emotional abuse from him) and the youngest initially was really hard on me (she was his little buddy and pities and defends underdogs – just like her mother), but since has experienced him in same manipulative ways and our relationship is being rebuilt.

    His attempts to make them think he was innocent and I had mental problems have fallen through as I recover from the pain and stress of this whole thing. My girls have become more tender towards me as they see this.

    We reap what we sow, even if it takes a while. I realized that I sowed lots of unconditional love during their growing up years and have apologized for ways I operated that were unhealthy and unhelpful to them. They received it with forgiveness towards me, for which I am grateful, and I hope to keep the dialogue open as they have need!

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