“Your mother and I are getting a divorce.”
Hearing these words as a child is devastating, but when you’re an adult who has since moved out and started your own life–how are you supposed to feel, exactly? While your closest friends may empathize with you, you may feel as though your only option is to suck it up. You’re an adult, after all, and your parents’ marital troubles are their own. But not so fast: research on the effects of divorce on adult children is scarce. In truth, there really is no one “normal way to feel,” especially when so many people see their parents split later in life.
Some may choose to see this complicated time in their life through three distinct lenses: past, present and future, all packed tight with their own emotional nuances.
The ghost of marriage past
Adult children of divorce (also known as ACODs) tend to have nostalgic memories of their own childhood. Because divorce rates increased significantly from 1970 – 2010, you likely watched friends’ parents routinely split. You, on the other hand, went through your entire childhood with parents who stuck it through. They had their fights, sure, but they got through the hardest times together. Your friends may have even made comments about how your parents had given them hope for what a marriage “should look like.”
And now this happens.
Your positive memories might have given you a false sense of security, as if you’d forgotten divorce was even an option. You’re left feeling totally blindsided, embarrassed (how will you break it to those friends who looked to your parents for inspiration?) and eventually, you feel guilty.
See, it’s common for kids of divorced parents to ask themselves, “Is this my fault?” ACODs, on the other hand, take on that baseless guilt from a different perspective:
“Did my parents waste the best years of their lives on my account?”
As ACODs reflect on the past, they can’t help questioning if their happy childhood was really happy at all. You wonder what your parents were really feeling after your 9 o’clock bedtime. Did they fight often? Did someone cheat? Were they happy?
It’s normal for ACODs to feel this way. However, just as is the case for kids of divorced parents, you should remember that nothing surrounding your parents’ marriage (whether together or apart) has anything to do with you. That guilt is a sign that you’re thinking more about them than yourself which, selfless as it may be, will only cause you needless pain.
The ghost of marriage present
And then comes the real dilemma: the actual divorce.
You promise you won’t take sides. You promise you’ll stay out of it. You even tell your parents you’ll chip in for the movers so you don’t have to get involved. But then, like clockwork, you start turning into the emotional sounding board for one or both of your parents.
This can be troublesome.
Jenny Kutner summed it up nicely when she said, “Unlike a child, who is usually an innocent bystander during the end of their parents’ relationship, ACODs are, more often than not, active participants; they’re placed in the awkward position of having to provide emotional support for one or both of their parents.”
Divorce is hard at any age, and it’s normal for your parents to want to vent to a friend. And as you’ve grown older, you might have taken on the role of an insightful, empathetic friend rather than an innocent, delicate child. So why shouldn’t you listen?
This question may seep into your mind as one parent leans on you for emotional support. You may start to think that it’s your duty as their child to help them through this difficult time. After all, they’ve helped you through so many.
But the bottom line is that when you’re their kid, then you’re always the kid—no matter what age. It’s important to set boundaries with both parents so they are aware that while you still love them, you can’t get caught up in the middle of their divorce.
The ghost of marriage future
As they question things like their childhood and how they’ll handle the divorce as it unfolds before them, ACODs may wonder what the future of their past traditions will look like.
What will we all do for the holidays? Will I still see dad at mom’s birthday? When my kids graduate, will they be able to be in the same room? These are all events that ACODs come to rely upon; they never imagined them suddenly being taken away.
And now they’re gone.
This brings up the hardest emotion for ACODs to deal with: fear of the unknown. If you are an ACOD, it is impossible to say what your relationship with your parents will look like after their divorce (it may even impact your relationship with your siblings). Rest assured, however: not all hope is lost. Here are three things ACODs can do to make the future a little brighter.
- Be thankful that your parents stayed together as long as they did. Those happy memories you had as a child are very real, even if it was tough for your parents.
- Set clear boundaries from the get-go. Make sure your parents know that you love them, but any details about the divorce (or the cause of divorce) should be discussed with their friends, not their children.
- Accept the fact that things will never be the same but that different doesn’t mean “bad.” You might actually grow closer to your parents when the legal stuff is put to rest and you have time to reflect with them, happily and healthily.
The bottom line?
Divorce is hard, even for adult children–but it certainly doesn’t have to be the end of the world. With good communication, a bit of introspection, and tossing off any of that needless guilt, ACODs can still have a great relationship with both parents.