Lessons From an Adult Child of Divorce

I love serendipity. And, at least today, it must love me back. Just as I was feeling completely overwhelmed with updating the blog, I received an email from Liz with a request to send a guest post. Once she told me the topic, I was sold.

There is no shortage of information and discussion about the effect of divorce on children. But adult children? Not so much. It’s as though we think they are grown and launched and the split does not (or should not) impact them (Just think of how many couples wait to divorce until the children are gone).

But it does.

Liz shares her experience with us to help provide understanding of what it is like when your parents divorce once you are grown.

Lessons From an Adult Child of Divorce

It was the summer of 2013, I was 28 years old and just starting a new career in marketing – and my parents were in the midst of a divorce. Their marriage of thirty years had been slowly dissolving before my eyes for quite some time, but I still couldn’t believe it was actually happening.

Growing up, I had considered myself lucky to live in a two parent home while watching as my friends’ single mothers struggled to balance work, home, and the rigors of parenting. Now I was just another child of divorce – even though I was no longer an actual child.

To make matters even more difficult, I – like many Millennials – was living at home as I couldn’t afford to make ends meet on my own. Helping my mother move out of her home of 20 years and into a small apartment was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. However, it was nothing compared to watching her fall prey to crippling grief.

I Don’t Know How to Feel

It’s hard to truly explain what it feels like to be caught between two parents on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Dad had been bottling his negative emotions for years, and the divorce had in essence freed him to pursue happiness. Mom had been blind-sided, thinking that they were just experiencing a rough patch. She still loved my father as much as she ever had and the divorce sent her spiraling into depression.

On one hand, I was happy to see my dad smiling again. He was cheerful and full of life – something that had been missing for so long that I had almost forgotten what it looked like. On the other hand, I was trying to keep my mom from losing herself to hopelessness and sorrow.

The swinging emotions were taking their toll on me – and so were the conversations both parents insisted on dragging me into.

Part of You, Part of Me

Dad told me how he’d grown unhappy ten years into their marriage and had essentially been a prisoner to his sense of honor. He refused to abandon his children and my mother – even if her wild emotions and poor decision making made him crazy.

Mom sobbed on my shoulder, bemoaning the fact that my father had never expressed his feelings and had refused to seek marriage counseling on numerous occasions. In her eyes, he was an emotional tight ass and the whole thing was his fault.

There’s a multitude of resources for parents of small children going through a divorce. I’ve read many of them, and the parallels between the feelings of both young and adult children before, during, and after a divorce are numerous.

Attorney Cheri Hobbs reminds parents, “remember that a child is half of each of you and therefore when you disparage the other parent the child then believes that one-half of them is bad or wrong or negative.”

Listening to my parents complain about each other was like being stuck with a hot poker repeatedly. Much like my mom, I can be overbearing and spend money unwisely. Do my friends feel the same way about me that my father feels about my mother? Do they just not say anything?

I’m a lot like my father in many ways – both good and bad – but I definitely bottle my emotions. Does my mother hate me for this?

To hear them tear each other down was to hear them tear parts of me down. And the worst part of it was that I didn’t do anything to stop it from happening.

Stuck in the Middle

I remember taking a stand pretty early, telling both of them to discuss what business they had with each other and leave me out of it. They agreed, but I don’t think it lasted for more than a couple of weeks. They needed me, and I reneged on my own ultimatum.

“There are few needs more compelling than those of our parents. And parents going through divorce are just like other people going through divorce: they are a bundle of need with little or no regard for boundaries or decorum,” says Lee Borden of DivorceInfo.com.

My father is pretty good at not dragging me into the middle of it, but my mother uses me as a go between, even going so far as to CC me in all emails to my dad. It’s absolutely maddening – like being slapped in the face every time I open my inbox.

The Lessons I’ve Learned

There are lessons to be learned here – on both sides – but as I’ve only experienced divorce from this side of the aisle, I’ll advise those who are like me:

  • If you have siblings, lean on them. I didn’t speak to my older brother much during the divorce process. I felt like he was so far away from the situation that he wouldn’t be much comfort. I regret that now. He was hurting just as much as I was.
  • Tell your parents to leave you out of the fight and stick to it! It will be hard, I know, but your emotional well-being depends on it.
  • Encourage your parents to seek counseling. My mother still has a tough time with the end of her marriage, but speaking to a psychiatrist has helped her immensely.
  • Get support! Talk to your friends, your siblings, your significant other, a psychiatrist, or others in the same situation you are.

It’s been two years since my parents divorced and a lot of things have changed. It’s the summer of 2015, I’m 30 years old, and I’ve settled into my career in marketing. My dad still lives in my childhood home and is working on renovating it with his girlfriend. My mom has a nice little condo, two dogs, and an active social life. Things aren’t perfect – there are still hiccups, grumbling, and tears from all parties, but it is getting better. Slowly, but surely, things are getting better.

Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.

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14 thoughts on “Lessons From an Adult Child of Divorce

  1. Lisa: Thank you for giving Liz a platform here.

    Liz: My parents divorced when I was 4. Then my mom and stepdad divorced after 20 years together when I was 28.

    The logistics of my parents divorce (they lived 500 miles apart) was harder when I was a kid.

    But the emotional and mental side? Infinitely harder to deal with at 28. Brutal, even.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is hard. It sounds like everyone’s moving toward tomorrow, though. I’m glad to hear that.

    Good luck, miss.

  2. Thanks for sharing about divorce for the older child. When my ex and I divorced it was very difficult for my eldest daughter but a couple years of therapy helped. I know that early on I leaned on my older kids very much. That may have not been the right thing to do but I also felt they needed to know the truth about their dad, about marriage, honestly and commitment. Life and marriage are hard. It saddened me to read how your dad refused therapy and more or less put the blame on your mothers actions. What was he doing to help in the marriage? If you are unhappy then the first place to look is a mirror. For your dad to say he stayed in the marriage pretty much makes him look like a sad victim. No responsibility on him. These are the things I want to teach my children. There are always going to be ups and downs in life and marriage. Sure new relationships are exciting for awhile just like the previous marriage was. But then over time the same issues will arise.
    How will you feel if you were in your moms place?Instead of feeling caught between them, be glad that you can be there and listen.
    Lets stop the continual cycle of divorce and take responsibility for ones actions.

    1. Ellen, thanks for your comment. I didn’t realize my article sounded so one sided, but let me be clear: both of my parents were equally at fault for their divorce. It was not completely my father’s fault, nor was it completely my mother’s.

      I am happy to be there for my mother. However, being there does not mean listening to her rail against the man who lovingly raised me. He’s a fantastic father, and I don’t want to hear anyone besmirch his character.

      For me, supporting my mother means spending time together doing the things that we love, and bonding as mother and daughter. If she needs to talk about her marriage, divorce, and my father, she has more appropriate outlets to seek conversation with.

      I love both of my parents dearly — that is what makes this such a difficult situation. By asking them to leave me out of their fight, I’m looking out for my own well-being. I can’t help others if I don’t help myself first.

  3. Lisa, I LOVE this. And Liz … You rock, girlfriend. You are wise and brave. Thanks so much for your perspective. I am divorced/remarried and am always looking for ways to help my kids through the process.

  4. This is a great reflection of a very overlooked population of people dealing with divorce. My 20-something kids have struggled to watch their dad divorce me after 26 years of marriage, when, as they have often told me, they were oblivious that there were any problems.

    Many of our issues were the same as your parents. However, the one different thing my daughter is dealing with is seeing her father not be happy and carefree, as you saw in your father. She sees an angry and unhappy new dad she barely recognizes. It hurts her to see him. Add to that all the moral implications that aren’t mentioned in your post, and there’s a whole other layer of garbage for kids to deal with.

    More needs to be available for young adults dealing with the divorce of their parents since the over 50 demographic is the fastest growing and largest increase of those divorcing.

  5. It was interesting to read your perspective. While my husband at least made a show of coming to counseling, he admitted to the therapist that he had left the marriage mentally over ten years earlier. It’s a kick in the head to know that someone you loved has been basically living a lie for so long – not to mention the added slap of waiting to leave – basically wasting time that could have otherwise been spent by both of us to build a new life. I try to be as kind and compassionate towards my ex as I can – but yes, despite my best efforts, I still feel anger and sometimes I express that anger to my grown up kids (the two youngest are still living with me). When he first walked out (intending to send me an email to let me know it was over) they were also very angry at him – in fact, I sometimes had to defend him to them! But that support and solidarity gave me comfort. I had focused so much on my husband and our relationship over the 26 years we were together that I had not focused on myself – I had no other support, no real friends, and my parents and siblings were far away. My children (especially those at home) were a balm for my loneliness and grief.

    However, as time passed and he attempted to connect with them, it was hard. On one hand, I know that it is good for my kids to have a relationship with their dad and I want that for them. But on the other, it is hard to know that he wants to put time and effort into his relationship with his kids when he could not be bothered to do the same for our relationship – it makes me feel a bit jealous and sometimes (as much as I hate to admit it) betrayed that they could still love him after he destroyed our marriage in the most uncaring way. But after catching my daughter rolling her eyes when I was complaining about my ex not keeping his promises to help with the house maintenance and upkeep – I try not to talk about him at all when I’m around the kids. I’ve also taken steps to find other support – my therapist, of course, and also making new friends and doing things that I enjoy and was discouraged from doing when I was married.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that divorce is difficult for everyone involved – a parent’s place is not to pull their children into the quagmire and an adult child’s place is not to get involved or attempt to make things all better. But I also don’t think that someone who hasn’t gone through the betrayal or blindsiding of having a spouse leave when you thought it was a “rough patch” and that you were going to work through it and spend the rest of your life with that person, can even begin to know the depth and furiousness of that whirlpool of emotions or attempt to understand it. I’m not intending to invalidate your own grief and emotions – but just saying that its very different from what your mother went through. It’s a learning curve and long-time healing for anyone involved.

    1. Jana, thank you for your amazing insight. I’m so sorry for what you went through — I can’t imagine how hard it was.

      I don’t consider your comment to be invalidating my emotions at all. You can definitely see things from a perspective that I can’t and I appreciate you taking the time to explain things from another perspective.

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