Divorce and Estrangement: An Interview with Joshua Coleman, PhD

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

An interview of Joshua Coleman Ph.D., by Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW on February 5, 2015

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert in parenting, couples, families, and relationships. His advice has been featured in the New York Times and he has appeared on the Today show, 20/20, Good Morning America, Sesame Street and many other programs. He is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including The Marriage Makeover, When Parents Hurt, and The Lazy Husband. He has three grown children and lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay area. His new book is: “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties & How to Heal the Conflict.” You can order it here.

Terry: Why is estrangement so common in divorced families?

Joshua: Divorce greatly increases the risk of estrangement. It often creates a fundamental reshaping of alliances and can place parents at risk for greater distance from their children. Whether it’s a grey divorce or a breakup when the child is young, it often causes a child to see parents as winners and losers. Second, it can create the opportunity for parental alienation where one parent consciously or unconsciously (covertly or overtly) poisons the child against the other parent. Children, especially when they are young, are very vulnerable after divorce. Next, divorce can also bring new people into a child’s life (new sibling, half sibling, step-parent) and they may feel they have to compete for love, attention, or resources. Finally, in our culture, divorce can cause a child to see their parent as an individual with their own attributes and liabilities—and less of a family unit that they’re part of.

Terry: I talk to many parents that tell me their relationship with their children is greatly altered after their divorce. Can you explain why this happens?

Joshua: The parenting environment has become much more intense in the past half century. For instance, prior to the 1960’s, parents were more likely to be more disengaged or detached. However since that time, parents tend toward being too worried, too concerned. Many adult children reject their parents or become more irritable with them as a way to create a boundary with them or to develop immunity to their feelings. For single mothers who have custody, divorce may intensify an already intense relationship. You can’t really predict how a child will react to divorce, even if parents do a “good” job with the divorce. You never really know with any certainty how your divorce will shape your relationship with your child over the life course.

Terry: What can parents do to protect their relationship with their child from being estranged given all of the challenges you’ve just mentioned?

Joshua: The hardest thing for today’s parents is to accept that their adult child’s relationship with them is primarily going to be determined by whether or not that adult wants the relationship. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, divorce may create more ambivalence in the parent-child relationship. Adult children have a lot of power in relationships these days and parents may not get the same level of respect from them that they once did. The main tool that divorced parents have is to be empathetic and to take responsibility for their actions. They also need to get into a more egalitarian way of thinking about their relationship, one where their child has a lot more say about how they’re treated. The more defensive you get, and try to prove they’re wrong, or try to convince them of all the good things you’ve done, the more they’ll feel unheard. Strive to avoid confiding your feelings or opinions to your child about the divorce or the other parent. It can make them feel burdened with worry or responsibility for you, or the other parent, and place them in a loyalty bind.

Terry: Great points! What can a parent say to their adult child when they want to rebuild their relationship with them?

Joshua: First of all, stay committed and interested in improving your relationship with your child. Take responsibility for your actions when you speak to them. Definitely don’t get defensive when they complain. Try to show empathy by saying things like: “I recognize how my behavior may have been hard for you;” or “I understand how you could feel the way you do and I’m sorry our divorce put your life on a harder course.” This may be especially challenging if you weren’t the one who wanted the divorce.

Terry: Can you say more about this approach? It’s so easy for parents, including myself, to get defensive at times because we feel guilty.

Joshua: One of the most important tools you have to improve your relationship with your adult child is facilitating an open dialog. You want to make it clear to your adult child that you’re open and willing to listen to them. Be empathetic and realize things aren’t going to be or feel equal. Family therapy with the right therapist can help parents with this because it’s not easy. But if you strive to understand your child and prize their perspective, they’ll be more likely to remember the good times of their childhood than the bad.

Terry: What can parents do if their child shuts down or refuses to engage in a dialog with them?

Joshua: It’s important to realize that facilitating an open dialog doesn’t need to happen just once or twice – you may need to have versions of these conversations for many years to come. Some parents are completely estranged from their adult children and those children respond to the parent’s attempts at reconciliations with threats of restraining orders or calls to the police. In those cases, I recommend parents give things time to cool down, and discontinue reaching out for at least a year or so.

Terry: In your book “When Parents Hurt” and in your webinars, you talk about the importance of apologizing or writing a letter of amends. What is that?

Joshua: A letter of amends or an apology can be really helpful for parents who want to reconcile with their child. It’s a letter that shows you care and it contributes to clarifying what you’re responsible for and what you’re not. I offer samples in “When Parents Hurt” and on my Webinars. The key is to find the kernel of truth in the child’s complaints, show empathy, take responsibility for whatever ways that you did let them down, and offer a commitment to work on a healthier relationship going forward.

Terry: Are there any other kernels of wisdom that divorced parents need to keep in mind when fostering a positive relationship with their adult child or trying to reconcile with them?

Joshua: In addition to facilitating an open dialog and not getting defensive, don’t bad mouth your adult child’s other parent. The main thing that all parents need to recognize is that when you complain about your child’s other parent you’re putting them in an awful position because they love them. You may think that you’re protecting your child by telling them bad things about the other parent but you’re poisoning them. Their other parent is part of them and you can’t separate them from your child’s identity. Keep in mind that there are many people who are great parents, who are crappy spouses!

Terry: Thanks so much Joshua! What’s the best way for parents to reach you and learn more compassionate strategies to use when they don’t get along with their grown child? I just read your new book Rules of

Joshua: You are welcome Terry! Parents and adult children can reach me at www.drjoshuacoleman.com or email me at drjoshuacoleman@comcast.net

P.S. I just finished reading Joshua Coleman’s new book Rules of Estrangement and highly recommend it for families who are dealing with estrangement. It offers valuable insights and tools to parents and adult children alike. Don’t hesitate to order it here.