The Way Things Weren’t: Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Your Parents’ Divorce As an Adult

I can remember the phone calls that came from my parents that July day. They both called me within an hour of each other to explain to me that they had decided to separate. I could tell they had been to a therapist to hear how best to explain this, and I could also tell that the therapist hadn’t prepared my parents very well. My mother was the first to call me, “I’m calling to tell you that your father and I have separated and it’s not your fault. We can both be your parents even though we’re not going to be married to each other.” It was July 2nd 2002. Almost exactly an hour later the phone call came from my father, “Your mother and I have decided to separate and we both love you very much, we can still I guess, be your parents even though we’re not married to each other.” I remember checking the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fools’ Day. You see, I in my heart of hearts always knew my parents were going to divorce, I had taken a book out from the library at 9 years of age on the subject. I think the book was called When Your Mom and Dad Divorce though I couldn’t tell you who wrote the book. My mom looked at me in horror and asked me something like, “Are you making plans?” Without missing a beat I told her, “I am keeping my options open.”

I hadn’t thought about that trip to the library in years, and yet here I was a 25 year old woman realizing that the family I grew up in was a lie. As I previously stated, I had always known the day would come. I assumed that it was going to come when I was 9 years old and my parents were 36 and 42. After all who divorces at 56 and 62? This is of course a growing trend, but I didn’t expect to be in that statistic. I went to the bookstore the following day, and I saw plenty of books on parenting your child through their divorce, and plenty of books for children on divorce, there was a noticeable absence for me in resources for people that like myself are adults when their parents divorce. I found an online support community and joined it, I noticed that this was a common experience, a lack of resources for this particular demographic. One woman even said, “My parents said I should just get over it because I am an adult and it shouldn’t impact me.” I can remember my therapist mother making similar comments to my brother, and to me.

As part of my membership to that group I wrote the following guidance for my fellow adult children/kids of divorce (ACOD/AKOD):

We as adult kids of divorce declare ourselves independent of the drama that you our parents have created and that society at large does not understand. We declare ourselves separate entities in need of care and focus as we watch the world fall around us. We recognize that as family members there is some relevance and involvement, but we will not own the issues that are unraveling before us nor will we be expected to be completely removed. We expect that our independence will be seen by ourselves and by you and that we will be respected as the individuals we are.

Here is our Bill of Rights

We have the right to not be put in the middle. We love you both as our parents and we have the right and deserve to have a relationship with you both. If you want to fight it out do it directly, we will not serve as pawns.

We have the right to our thoughts, feelings and needs as they relate to the situation. Quit telling us to get over it or forgetting that your actions affect us. We may not live with you, but we have our own process to go through. Telling us to get over it will not get you anywhere and will only hinder our relationship.

We have the right to be happy. Just because you’re not happy doesn’t mean you have to wreck our lives.

We have the right to have opinions and expectations that they will be respected. We have the right to focus on ourselves, we have needs as well and we can not place all our energy on you and your crap. We know, you changed our diapers but that doesn’t mean we constantly have to take your shit.

We have the right to raise our families with both of you being part of it, if you can’t be an adult you explain to the grand kids why you’re not there.

We have the right to privacy in our relationships with you, don’t ask us what the other parent did with us or told us. It’s not our job to report that, we have the right not to be alienated from either of you and to function as people.

We have the right to be heard when it comes to being hurt by you. If we are hurt or angry we have the right to address that with you so that our relationships can move forward.

We have the right to be a priority. Our relationship with you is really all about us as children to you. If we are getting married, giving birth, graduating, whatever the occasion is about us. We have the right to have you both there with us. The same goes for your grandchildren, if you can’t handle it do not put us in the middle. (September 2, 2005)

If you, or someone you know are facing this life cycle event you don’t have to tolerate abuse, manipulation, or emotional blackmail from anyone, and you absolutely don’t have to face these challenges alone. There are people out there experiencing the same pain as you and together we can make a better space for this demographic to get appropriate care. It’s gotten a lot better than it used to be. When sitting down to write this article I googled and actually had a lot of resources come up.

I like to include practical tips with all my articles and here are a few for navigating these waters:

Honor yourself and your limits.

Remember that part of being an adult means not having to tell everything, or being put in a taffy pull.

Boundary setting is a healthy part of life and is meant to protect us and our relationships.

Initially conflict will increase around the boundaries you set.

Remember family dynamics can be difficult even in the best of circumstances.

Your parents have been told that divorce is like a death and are being taught to grieve that relationship. You also have the right to grieve the family that you thought you had.

Divorce is like a birth, it is extremely painful but at the end there is a new life waiting to explore the world. Take this opportunity your parents are giving you to reinvent yourself and your relationship with them.

Fear of failure in your own relationships is a natural consequence of your parents’ divorce, but it doesn’t have to rule you.

Feelings of abandonment are also natural, and don’t have to rule you.

Sometimes taking a break from the entire family for a bit is a healthy step.