Child of Divorce: Grownup Edition

I’ve written before about my parents’ separation and impending divorce.

Our family’s situation isn’t a particularly unique one.  Two people got married twenty years ago, spent two decades changing and growing, and discovered that they’d grown apart.  It’s impossible to tell who you’re going to be in twenty years, after all, and relationships can be tenuous things.  I’m of the opinion that this separation is for the best and hold absolutely no resentment.

It’s put me in a hard place, though.

Not that they haven’t been wonderful about it.  The whole process has been fairly painless on my end, probably helped along by the fact that I moved a thousand miles away from either of them.  But being an adult child of divorce, no matter how rough or smooth the transition, puts you in a fairly singular situation.

 

The situation

Stepping away from the idea of a divorce for a moment, we’ve all been in this situation.  I mean, you can take it back to high school.

Two good friends have been dating forever and break up, and suddenly your entire friend group is out of whack.  You have to deal with X not going to Y’s party because Z is gonna be there and they just can’t see him yet, they are so not ready, etc. You get to hear X talk about their newfound freedom and convince Z they need to see a therapist.  You start splitting your social time between X’s friend group and Z’s friend group and suddenly you’re straddling social circles.

This is what it’s like being an adult child of divorce.

You don’t have to deal with two bedrooms, or alternating weekends.  Your parents don’t fight over who gets you over the summer.  You don’t need to pick someone’s house– I mean, you have your own place to live.  It’s not a day-to-day thing.  Hell, if you’re lucky you didn’t even need to hear them fight. But you’re stuck between two people you’ve known your entire life going through a pretty intense breakup.  If you’re lucky, if you have an adult relationship with them, they’re close friends of yours.

It doesn’t matter if they do their best to keep you out of the middle.  It doesn’t matter if you refuse to take sides.  You’re caught between them because, for a very long time, you were a huge part of that relationship.  In many cases you’ve got the best understanding of anyone outside of the marriage: you know their history, their battles, their incompatibilities.

It’s a tough situation to be in.

So for anyone else who’s where I am right now, or who may be in the future, here’s some advice for dealing with it.

 

How to deal with it:

First, talk with them. Set boundaries.

This is good advice for any child of divorce, adult or youth alike. Sit down with each parent separately and tell them  you’re not going to be their therapist. It’s tempting, for them: you know the situation better than anyone else and they can’t talk to their ex-spouse, so they’re going to want to rant at you. Tell you everything they’re going through.

And they can’t do that.  Best-case, you as the offspring cannot choose sides. Worst-case, in a bad situation, you’ve already picked sides– in which case your boundaries are going to be very different.  But assuming you want to have a relationship with both parents, they need to keep you out of it as much as possible.  For some parents that’ll be easier than others.

Second, enforce your boundaries.

Even if you agree with everything they’re saying.  Even if they clearly need an outlet: suggest a therapist and remind them that you cannot fill that role. Even if you know it’s an uphill battle.

This is harder for a young child of divorce, mostly because as a kid you just don’t have a lot of agency in your life, but as an adult you’ve got the benefit of control.  If you need to hang up on someone when they simply won’t respect your boundaries, you can.  That’s okay. That’s allowed.  Eventually they’ll figure it out.

Third, make the effort to get to know your parents as individuals.

It doesn’t matter how good your relationship is with your family, if you’ve known someone as half a couple all your life you’re only going to know them as a pair.  One of the benefits of being an adult is reshaping your relationship with your family, and divorce only makes that process more important.  Your parents are going to need a friend right now, and so long as they respect your boundaries this is the best way you can help them.

Go golfing with your dad.  Get lunch with your mom. This is the upside, and it’s well worth the effort.

 

It’s okay to feel.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I’m not allowed to feel so affected by this.  After all, I’m a grown woman: I’m self-sufficient, I’m competent, I’m relatively emotionally stable.  There are kids out there who are going through far more difficult divorces, under far worse circumstances. Heck, one of my own parents was one of them.

I mean, what right do I have to feel a loss? I still have so much.

Here’s a pretty universally good piece of advice: the fact that a worse situation exists doesn’t invalidate your feelings on the current situation. Sometimes a little perspective is good, but not at the expense of your mental health.

Yes, you’re an adult. Yes, you can handle this.

But it’s alright to feel sad. Take some time and a deep breath, and work through it.

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