Adult children of divorce

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When my dad left my mum for another woman he suggested they didn’t inform my two brothers and me. Why? Because we were adults so it wouldn’t concern us.

Dad figured that because the three of us were now independent adults, small matters like breaking up our family, airing the dirty laundry, selling the family home and fighting over who kept the baby photos were a private matter between him and mum.

The idea that adult children are not affected by their parents’ divorce is not a special brand of crazy reserved for my dad. In fact, when my brother told his friends about our parents’ split — such was their lack of concern and understanding — they laughed. 

And, in a way, it was funny. If our parents managed to stay unhappily married for over three decades why bother to change things now?

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The truth is, despite my devastation — and I really was devastated — I  didn't feel entitled to grieve publicly for my parents'divorce. Unlike when children are young, people don’t concern themselves with the emotional, physical and financial toll of divorce on adult offspring.  I felt silly being so upset, because it wasn't about me. 

At the same time, I kept being drawn into the unfolding drama. Rather than being shielded from much of the conflict, adult children are often conscripted to the frontlines of their parents’ war.

The first battle is over loyalty. You must pick a side. Even if you consciously decide not to take sides, your inaction may still be interpreted as a breach of loyalty. I found this out the hard way.

After mum learned that I had visited my dad she felt betrayed and, without my absolute loyalty, believed she had no reason left to live. She overdosed on sleeping pills and then constructed a noose out of telephone cord and tried to hang herself in the apartment I’d just bought.

Fortunately she didn’t succeed but the image of my mum swinging from a noose in my home is seared into my mind.

And my dad’s indifference for my mum and for his children is burned into my heart. In the heat of the moment, while we were waiting for the crisis assessment team to arrive, my brother phoned dad. We were looking for support and guidance but all dad could offer was bitterness. ‘Well now you know what I’ve had to put up with all these years,’ he said. ‘It’s your turn now.’

The second battlefront adult children are dragged into is not necessarily as dramatic, but just as putrid:  the role of confidante. When people split they need to talk. A lot. The one who leaves needs to justify the decision and the one who is left needs to mull over why they were left and convince themselves — and everybody else — that they did not deserve it.

The moment the door closed behind my father, the boundaries of appropriate conversation between parent and child collapsed. Both parents felt compelled to run down the other with intimate details about their relationship, sex life, and past transgressions.

There are some things you never want to discuss with your parents.

I expected the role reversal of parent and child to come much later in life, when mum and dad were old or dying. Divorce has a way of accelerating this process.

I spent my time either worrying about dad night clubbing and reliving his youth, or helping mum manage the smallest details, like writing a shopping list or feeding herself.

And while I was sorting out my parents’ assets and playing Florence Nightingale to my mother, nobody even realised, let alone acknowledged, that I might be grieving too.

Watching the family home and assets being packed up and fought over shatters your world, no matter how old you are. It was as if my safety net in life had gone. There was no safe refuge, physically or emotionally, that I could run to if I needed it. My parents we so engrossed in their own pain and anger they no longer had any concern for me, other than as a pawn in their own drama.   

No matter what age you are, and what you have going on in your life, when your mum tells you  ‘I wasted 32 years of my life,’ and your dad says, ‘I should never have married that woman,’ you can’t help but reevaluate your memories of your childhood and question if any of it was real.

With the ever-increasing numbers of grey divorce, more adult children will be forced to wade through the debris of their broken families. And for many, their hurt and loss will be just as intense as if they were a child.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

5 comments

  • Oh wow Kasey, that sounds like a nightmare. I had no idea people would laugh if an adult child said their parents had just broken up. Of course that's going to affect you, as their child. Wouldn't you grieve if you separated from a partner? A family breakdown is similar. You're losing something you've always had, always felt secure in and you deserve to be able to grieve (I hope you have now, and that writing this piece helped).

    Taking a broader perspective, I wonder how many of these separations have been a long time coming? I mean, are the older parents those who have stuck it out "for the kids" and once they're raised they feel free to split? Because in my eyes that would be even worse than dealing with it as a child (I was five). I guess what I'm trying to say is that if a marriage isn't working, you can try and make it work for the right reasons, or you can go your separate ways. But the longer you put it off, the harder and more bitter it's going to be for everyone.

    Commenter
    Amy
    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 11:08AM
    • Wow, wow, wow. You put into words almost exactly what happened with me on my parents' divorce when I was nearly 30. Not only did I endure the highly inappropriate conversations ("The night before your mother left, we made love on that rug over there...") and the suicide attempt, but I also had the almost identical conversation: When I phoned my mother, sobbing with grief and looking for comfort, to tell her my father had died, she remained ice cold and said, "Well, if he'd been nicer to me I would be sad." Great role models we have, eh?

      Commenter
      sparker
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 12:15PM
      • Just wanted to offer my condolences, Kasey. I totally agree that parents divorcing when one is an adult is still painful for the child, and you've had to deal with trauma even beyond what (I imagine) is a normal divorce. Hope things get better for you and your family soon.

        Commenter
        meness
        Date and time
        February 21, 2013, 12:46PM
        • Thank you Casey for your courage in exposing your pain. I trust it will help. In our case, our father died, but not before living in a sort of half death marriage for six years (two of those with cancer) after my eldest sister outed at our youngest sister's 21st that he, our father had carried on with insidious sexual abuse toward her for a number of her teenage years. That sort of screwed family life for all of us, shock, taking sides, believing or not believing, and sharing the pain with those who would. I watched my own children's shock as we announced when they were 6 and 8, that we their parents were going to live in two houses. They tell me they weren't scarred by this, but their life patterns suggest otherwise. If only we lived in a society where we could dump all the garbage from family before we trot off down the aisle to work it out with a substitute. Some manage that challenge, others just get born into wonderful supportive families. If only we could all do that.

          Commenter
          OpenWindow
          Location
          VIC
          Date and time
          February 21, 2013, 2:49PM
          • This story has the hallmarks of my husbands life. His parents split when he was 25 and to his mother it was a total shock, but his father had only waited until his sister turned 18 and 'duty done', was out the door. The only family member who was not shattered by the divorce was the father, the initiator and team member who had planned his escape years ago.

            My husband speaks to neither parent now. His father has remarried a woman 30 years his junior, adopted twin boys from Africa and wants to play happy families. Meanwhile he has left his own adult kids, broken and wounded by the fallout, to suffer in silence.

            Commenter
            narelle
            Date and time
            February 21, 2013, 3:47PM
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