Coping With Your Parents’ Divorce

While the trauma of parental separation can be experienced at any age, sympathy tends to be reserved for the young. If you are an adult, most people will assume that you are either too mature to be upset, or too old to care.

In reality, being caught between warring parents is difficult no matter what your age. In some respects, it can be even harder on a 20 or 30-year-old than on a young child. And late-life divorce is becoming more and more common. Though the total divorce rate has dropped in recent years, among the over sixties it has shot up. So striking is this new trend (which most put down to longer, healthier lifespans) that these older divorcees now have their own nickname – the ‘silver splitters’! When journalists write about this phenomenon, they tend to treat it as something positive. But it should not be forgotten that their middle-aged children can find the whole process surprisingly painful.

Robbed of Happy Memories

Imagine a thirty-three year old woman named Sarah. Sarah grew up in the countryside with her parents before leaving for college at 18 and then moving to London to pursue a career in fashion. Her childhood was a happy one, with trick or treating at Halloween, lots of presents at Christmas, and annual family vacations. As she struggled with college, relationships and the stress of building a career, these memories were a happy place into which she could escape when things got tough. And the knowledge that mum and dad were still there in the family home gave her a sense of security. One day, just as she is about to leave for work, the phone rings and her mother tells Sarah that she is filing for divorce. Once the initial shock has subsided, Sarah begins to ask herself painful questions: were they ever happy? Did they just pretend for me and my brother? If they were pretending, what else were they faking? Suddenly, all those memories of laughter and joy at the beach or around the Christmas table seem hollow and unreal.

The Longing to Regress and the Need to Grow Up

Most adults, no matter what their age, find they regress when their parents divorce. Though on the outside they may appear stable and mature, a small part of them usually wishes to yell “I hate you” or “it’s not fair” and slam the bedroom door. Children, even grown up ones, tend to forget that their parents are human. Your mother and father are just as fragile, weak and vulnerable as everyone else. Instead of sulking, you must now be a go-between and support to both of them. You may also have to update your image of them. All your life they were just mum and dad. Now that unit has broken apart, and, as things settle down, they will start forging independent lives. Indeed, they may be the ones who regress – contacting old friends, maybe even old lovers. You may see a profound change. Of course, this may be for the better or worse: you may have to adjust to a father who changes from strong and dependable to weak and helpless, or a mother who transforms from a shy, selfless housewife into a born again teenager. Your parents will discover and develop new parts of themselves, and you may have to get used to a parent you hardly recognise.

How to Cope

Coping with your parents’ divorce is difficult no matter what your age. Though sympathy may be offered to children and young teens, those older than 17 or 18 will be expected to just make the best of things.

1) Recognize that it really isn’t about you. Small children are invariably told the same thing: “None of this is your fault. Mummy and daddy still love you very much.” And, of course, this is usually true. As an adult, however, you need to remind yourself of that fact. They are your parents, but they are also individuals who had lives and relationships before you even existed. And their relationship with one another is its own unique thing, something about which you have no say. You also have no right to try and manoeuvre them into getting back together. Maybe a separation will actually make them happier.

2) Don’t take sides. You have no right to interfere in your own interest, but your parents have no right to demand you pick a side – even if one is clearly the victim. Time and again, a parent disowns their child because they continue talking to their father or mother even though he or she had been unfaithful. You need to assert yourself, to explain that their relationship with one another is not your business and that you still love them both.

3) Be prepared to establish a new kind of relationship. Your parents will probably change after the divorce. This change may be for the better or the worse. For example, one parent may feel utterly lost and helpless. Men in late middle age generally cope very badly. You may find that you have become more of a carer than a son or daughter. Or the opposite may happen: your father or mother might behave like someone just released from prison. Instead of obeying a sober, responsible parent, you may find yourself trying to rein in a wayward teenager.

4) Be careful what you say. Your parents will continually ask you whether you have seen their ex. In general, it is best to say something neutral – tell them that he or she is “fine” or “ok”, nothing more. Your father almost certainly doesn’t want to hear that your mother is dating one unsuitable man after another, and vice-versa.

5) Keep your distance. Coping with change is rarely easy. It will probably take your parents a long time to adjust to this new situation – even if it is what they wanted. If you have left the family home, are raising children of your own, or pursuing a career, you will not be able to be there all the time. Sooner or later your parents are going to have to establish a new routine and a new life.

Coping with your parents’ divorce is never easy. Many children feel as if the ground has gone from beneath their feet and often wonder if their own marriage is destined to end the same way. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of late life divorce is here to stay.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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