Your Parents' Divorce is Always Painful
Relationship breakdown and divorce seem to be sadly ubiquitous in our times. It wouldn’t be unusual, then, for someone to write a blog saying that “I’ve been affected by the breakup of my parents”. But my case is somewhat different… bearing in mind that my parents divorce happened not in my childhood, but relatively recently. I was 38 years old.
Adult Children of Divorce (sometimes known as ACODs) are growing in number, but are not well represented or understood in our culture. We think a lot about young children, who of course are greatly impacted by the separation/ divorce of parents. We are rightly concerned about the practical and psychological welfare of these youngsters. What’s less well-recognised is the very real impact that adult children experience during and after a divorce. In fact I’d suggest that there are more complex and wide-reaching consequences for grown-up kids.
In some cases, the parental relationship is mortally wounded by a traumatic event such as an affair. This trauma can of course spread out to the immediate family, causing much heartache as a knock-on effect. In my case, I knew that my parents’ relationship had been going wrong for quite some time; several years in fact. I had long left the family home and so was a little more removed from the day-to-day tensions. My siblings, however, remained there and became more caught up in the ‘unfolding’. One common experience in these situations is that a child is ‘recruited’ by a parent to become a supporter, confidante, or (at worst) accomplice in the various confrontations and disputes. Younger children are usually more protected from this, but in grown-up families it can cause major tensions, which may lead to grudges and estrangements.
As my parents’ divorce proceeded and the family relationships became more strained, I started to react in ways I hadn’t foreseen. I was shaken-up emotionally; variable in mood and manner. I became demotivated and lacked focus at work; my manager at the time turned this into a disciplinary issue, which added to my stress. Looking back, I see that I was actually suffering a kind of grief, but at the time neither of us knew that, and so it was badly managed. Another common experience for ACODs is that their emotional reaction is not understood or validated. As with other experiences of grief and loss, the wider world tends to take a view that “life goes on” or even “you should be over that by now”.
Following the divorce, the adjustment process continues – and does so for me, even to this day. Various challenges arise from being an adult child of divorce. Family events such as weddings and Christmas can become an emotional minefield, especially when a parent has a new partner. Rifts and estrangements can be difficult to heal. And there may be a kind of retrospective re-viewing of the family history and of one’s childhood; after this huge event, one’s narrative is changed forever. It can be a source of great sadness.
Talking through all the sadness can be helpful, if there are good people around who are able to listen with compassion. Finding a therapist may also be a useful choice. There are online groups which can be a good support. For me, the resource I turn to again and again is the book “The Way They Were”, by Brooke Lea Foster, which uses personal examples from interviews. I’ve found the best healing comes from knowing that this pain is - yes - actually real and valid, and that I’m not alone.