My life has always been divided into sets of two: rooms, toys, clothes, chores, moms, dads, hugs. I am the child of divorced parents. In many ways, I consider myself to have been lucky that my parents divorced before I was old enough to have memories of them being together. I was not witness to their separation, though by now I have been given their (different) explanations as to why. Each party remembers things differently- but they didn’t divide me up over it. Both have since remarried and I have had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of having a lot of support on the parent front.
I remember being a kid and hearing my peers discuss divorce in hushed tones, whose parents were going through it and why. I remember the way teachers, somehow informed of events outside of the classroom, would sometimes pull certain kids aside to ‘see how they were doing’ and offer them the opportunity to talk. When divorce impacts children, society worries. Laws are written to protect kids. Extended families intervene with the best of intentions. Lawyers, mediators, and therapists weigh in about the ‘best’ way for divorcing parents to talk to and treat their young progeny.
I am an adult now, and I find myself having to truly navigate divorce for the first time as my father and step-mother begin the process. I do not remember going through this when I was younger, but I believe that the things adult children struggle with during divorce are unique. I feel like am moving blindly through a landscape without a map. My own research led me to this paper, which studies divorce in middle-aged and older adults. The phenomenon is called ‘grey divorce’, and between 1990 and 2010 it doubled as “roughly 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 occurred to persons ages 50 and older.”
It is not as if I didn’t see this coming. In fact, it has probably been needed for a long time. As I have grown older and experienced my own mistakes and hurts in the realm of love, I have come to understand that marriage doesn’t always work out. I don’t hold it against people who want to get divorced: life is short, so why waste it being unhappy? I look back on my childhood and I can see pieces that are not exactly rosy: moments of weakness where someone said something in anger, subtle manipulations, and lies. I try not to spend too much time dwelling on the faults of my parents and our past or on opportunities to connect and heal that were missed, but it can be hard. I don’t advocate people staying together if things cannot be mended-I advocate people not wasting their precious time in unhappy relationships. With two younger siblings who will undoubtedly walk away from this experience very much changed, I can also feel myself trying to work to protect them from hurt. To be honest that protection doesn’t involve staying together ‘for the kids’.
I am struggling with my role in all of this. I am an adult: I live far away from home, and am financially independent. I have had an increasingly fraught relationship with my father for several years, though to my dismay I do not believe he sees the growing fractures between us. I have been privy to far too many intimate details about my parents’ marital issues, on both sides. From financial information, long and impassioned recaps of arguments, intimate details about sexual relationships, to the rehashing and outlining of each of their flaws: I have heard it all. I have acted as a confidant, and as a therapist. I have made statements insisting I will not choose sides, I love them both, I only want what is best for the children. I have witnessed my parents enrage, cry, embitter, and delude themselves about one another for too long. I have been self declared, and appointed, protector of my siblings. I advocate for divorce because I was not fucked up by it (much). I advocate for particular legal language because it was what benefited me best, 25 years ago. I am biased.
I am in pain.
To be perfectly honest, I have wanted to write this out for some time. I have tried creating a practical helpful post for all of my other friends in pain out there: How To Deal With Your Parents Divorce When You Are A Fucking Adult, It is hard to be practical when you are in pain. It is hard to find strength when you have been dumped on, and faking being ‘okay’, and trying to be the ‘stable and responsible’ adult that you are supposed to be when a major part of your world is being rocked. How can I even begin to offer advice about something with which I have only minimal experience, on something in which I am currently deeply embroiled? I hope that there are not too many of us who can say they have ‘a lot of experience’ in grey divorce.
There aren’t many resources out there for the adult children of parents who are divorcing, and our roles are often blurred. As children, talking about our hurts was easier because we were allowed to be the mushy, emotionally developing versions of ourselves. Now, as an adult, I sometimes feel like I am not able to hurt properly about this divorce. I grieve a home and a normalcy I once knew. I struggle to find even footing with either of my parents. I have to temper or smother my own anger at their behavior during family gatherings. I have to figure out and sometimes defend boundaries with them for my own mental well-being. Negotiating these new aspects of our relationships is hard. They guilt, and manipulate me into moving my boundaries back just a little more, sacrificing just a bit more of my stability to have this or that conversation with them. One of them is better at respecting my boundaries than the other, but one is also my ‘birth’ parent and there are some crazy assumptions about how I should act towards my biological parent versus my step-parent. Both have had very different, very important roles in my life. They are equally my parents.
Dealing with divorcing parents as an adult is hard. I cannot offer you a guidebook, because every single situation is going to be different. But I can tell you this, because I tell myself these things every day:
It is okay to feel hurt, and to stop pretending that everything is okay.
It is okay to do what you want, and not what you feel you are ‘expected’ to do.
It is okay to feel relieved if something awful and painful is coming to an end.
Your parents failed marriage does not necessarily make them failures as parents, or your childhood a lie, or your own relationships doomed.
It is okay to put up boundaries and to resist playing parent, mediator, friend, or therapist.
It is okay to embrace your autonomy and do what you want to do for special holidays and events.
Stay at a hotel, stay at a friends, don’t go home: the choices are yours and you should feel free to make them.
It is okay to feel bewildered and lost about what is happening, and how it happened.
You are not responsible for your parents’ happiness.
You are not responsible for making your parents do the right thing for your siblings.
If your parents cannot respect your boundaries, you have every right to be heard. If they cannot hear you, it is your prerogative to re-evaluate your level of communication to them.
It is okay to grieve. It is okay to tell people that you are hurting, especially your parents.
In fact, whatever you are feeling about this is okay. You are not silly, or childish, or emotionally stunted, or cruel. It is okay to embrace the truth of your feelings, and find your own way to move through them.