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When Parents Divorce...And You're An Adult

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Dear Christine,
I just found out my parents are getting a divorce which has totally caught me off guard as I thought they'd be married forever. Although I am a married adult with my own grown-up life, this is still really affecting me. I am sad for both of them and I want to step in and try to help them reconcile. On the other hand, I am a bit angry too because they are giving up on a 35 year commitment. I am torn and feel ten years old again. How do I handle this?
- Adult Child of Divorce, 29, Atlanta

Dear Adult Child of Divorce,

Your parents getting divorced at any age is going to be difficult, so do not expect to be unfazed by this just because you are an adult. It's natural to have feelings of sadness, confusion, and anger. Your desire to help them stay together is also very normal and is probably two-fold. First, you hate to see their marriage end because it represents the foundation on which your life was built. Second, by focusing on what you can do to get them to stay together, you can ease and/or avoid your unsettling feelings about them splitting apart. But here's the truth: you really do not know the intricacies of your parents' marriage and this separation may be the best possible thing for both of them.

They've been together your entire life so it's incredibly difficult to see them apart. But a key point to keep in mind is that they are people aside from being "Mom" and "Dad" with hopes, dreams, and frustrations just like anyone else. Your mother and father each have their own identities aside from being your parents. And because you love them, it's important to put aside your judgment, to try and not think of them as one parental entity. Support them as individuals who are searching for a way to be happy and complete even if it's not in the way you envisioned.

Understand this probably wasn't an easy decision for them either. As an adult you have the ability to go to people other than your parents for reassurance and support during this difficult time. Lean on friends, a counselor, a mentor, and/or a religious or spiritual advisor. Don't expect your parents to be able to make this "okay" for you.

That said, being an adult child of a divorce can make you feel like a child again as it triggers all sorts of feelings and memories. It's important to keep in mind that their divorce has absolutely nothing to do with you - you did nothing to cause it and can do nothing to prevent it.

Heed the advice of Brooke Lea Foster author of The Way They Were: Dealing with Your Parents' Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage and editor at Boston Globe Sunday Magazine: "Divorce hurts at any age so allow yourself to grieve. When my parents first split up, I felt like my family was dying and the truth was. It's really tough when you know you'll never spend Christmas as a family again or even eat breakfast on a Sunday together. So give yourself time to say goodbye. Adult children and young children experience our parents' divorces differently. No one covers the adult child's ears or lowers their voices if we walk into the room when family matters are being discussed. Parents openly burden adult children with their problems, treating us like friends. On their own for the first time in twenty years or more, parents need guidance and support. We teach Dad how to do laundry and cook a red sauce. We counsel Mom on dating. But adult children struggle in these roles so the earlier that you set boundaries and learn how to say no, the better off you'll be."

Avoid talking about the divorce with either parent or listening to any type of "he said/she said." It's common for parents to want to vent to their children, especially if there is a lot of anger between the two of them. If one, or both, of your parents begins to talk to you too much about the other, or you feel like you are in a conversation where you are feeling pressured to pick sides, I encourage you to put a stop to it. Say something along the lines of, "Mom or Dad, I love you but it's really hard for me when you talk negatively about my other parent. Can we just talk about how you are doing instead?"

Also, it is imperative that you nurse your own marriage right now. Seeing your parents go through a divorce stirs up many questions about the institution of marriage and the commitment that was modeled for you. This may put a strain on your marriage which is another reason it's important not to become the mediator in your parents' relationship. Keep your focus on your relationship and use this as an opportunity to have some very open, honest, and intimate conversations with your spouse about any fears and concerns. Just because your parents are splitting up does not mean you won't get your "happily ever after."

Any way you slice it, this situation is not easy - you just have to get through it. Remember the good memories you had growing up as a nuclear family and be grateful that you had that experience for as long as you did. Things are just going to be a little different moving forward than you planned on, so be gentle with yourself and your parents during this transition. Let go of your expectation that they were supposed to be together forever. Who knows, apart your parents could blossom into happier individuals and your relationship with each of them may be even better.

- Christine
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