I'm an adult, my parents are getting divorced. What do I do now?
April 18, 2010 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Just received an email from my dad that my mom has found someone else and he's asked for a divorce. I need some advice on best practices for dealing with this.

They've been married 30+ years. My sister and I are late 20s/early 30s, so there's no young children involved. I live in a different country and I haven't spoken with the three of them much by phone in the last few months, just general check ins once a month or so and silly emails back and forth (mostly pictures of food). Sister lives in same country as parents, but some distance away.

I woke up this morning and found the email from my dad. First thing I did was call my sister. She's said that she's talked to both of them and that I need to call the house (they're both still living at the house for now) because she wants me to hear it straight from them. She sounds a bit shocked and wanted to me call back as soon as I've talked to them so we can hash things out with each other. Fair enough - I'd probably say the same thing.

This isn't much of a surprise. We've always been a happy family, gotten along well, enjoyed spending time together. I love the three of them more than just about anything and I've loved growing up and developing a more adult relationship with all of them. But the marriage has always seemed a little cool and I've often felt (even since I was in primary school) that they were together out of habit and convenience more than anything else. But they've never been nasty to each other (to my knowledge) and they've plugged along and the years have passed.

I'm a little surprised at how much this has hit me. I'm not a really emotional person and yet I've been in tears for a few hours now. It's not entirely unexpected, but I've felt like that for years now so now that it's actually happened it feels fairly shocking. Surprisingly so, considering how little this actually affects my day to day life. And yet I feel as if I'm grieving a death in the family.

So I'm putting off calling. I know they're both still living at the house, so when I call I'll get them both. It feels incredibly overwhelming and I'm sure I'll hardly be able to talk because of sobbing. I don't even know how I feel really. I'm kind of excited that they both might be able to move on to more exciting or fulfilling things. I'm sad that things that I've always taken for granted are going away. I know theoretically that it's not that big a deal and that this happens all the time - although it's never happened to my parents before. I'm curious about the future, especially how the finances are going to work and if there will eventually be acrimony about that (I've read enough AskMe to know that many divorces that start out amicable enough can quickly turn acrimonious especially with a lifetime of assets to sort out). At this point, I'm not at all mad about the possible infidelity (whether it's purely emotional or actually physical). I always kind of figured it would take something major like that to break them out of the convenience and comfort. Besides, I know that they're both great, kind and loving people who have never been anything but loving and supportive of me, so I really don't have any anger towards either right now. I'd like to maintain that if at all possible.

So, could anyone offer any advice of how I should move forward? What I should do now to prevent alienating anyone in the future? Boundaries to create? I love both my parents and I want to make sure I maintain good and loving relationships and friendships with them independently. What should I be doing right now to help that happen 6 months, a year, five years down the line?

Most importantly right now, how do I make myself call home? I kind of don't want to, but also know it's just putting off the inevitable. Is it okay to wait until I've gotten over the initial shock? Will I even get over that anytime soon, or without talking to them?

Throw away email: adultchildofdivorce@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, maybe you should call now and just ask for a quick explanation from both of them so you can hear each side. Once. After that, stay out of it. From what you've said, there's no indication that it will be acrimonious....but just in case if one of them starts badgering you for info, exclusive support or wants to bad mouth the other, make it clear that you love and support them both and intend to stay out of the middle.

I'm so sorry you're going through this. My parents divorced when I was a kid, so I'm used to it by now. Maybe it's like learning a new language -- the younger you are, the easier it is to adjust your sense of "normal." You can learn it as an adult, you're just (unfortunately) more aware that you're in a position where you have to.

Some therapy for yourself might be in order while you make the transition. Again, I'm really sorry that you have to deal with this.
posted by motsque at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2010

Parents loom large. They just do, even when we're adults or in another country. They are a huge part of our inner landscapes, our psyches, our selves, fill in the words that fit your world view. This is a huge change, so be gentle with yourself. You sound as though you already have a warm/loving relationship with each parent, just carry on. Don't stray from being loving toward each parent (which it doesn't sound like you would), your relationships will continue and be okay. Take the time you need to re-group. Maybe email your folks and say you'll call once you're ready.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:22 AM on April 18, 2010

Call. Listen. Tell them both you love them and will support both of them unconditionally. Then call your sister. I am the child of divorced parents and a recently divorced parent myself. This should not be about your relationship with them. It is about their relationship with each other. It does not invalidate the good times you had as a family growing up.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:46 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest you treat them as adults, and approach it as an adult. Relationships are complicated.

I had a similar experience, sorta. I was living out of state, and one night got a voicemail from my dad that he had left my mom. They'd been married for 36 years. He left and headed to another state while she was out of town for a conference. I had to call and let her know, then support her during the fallout. It was kinda dreadful. But whatever...

I'm an only child. Had to talk to each of them with great frankness. Told them both that they couldn't talk shit about the other one to me. Said if they did, I'd call them out on it and not put up with it.

Really, it was for the best. They're both happily married now - my dad, to the woman for whom he left my mom; my mom, to a fellow that suits her well. And really, looking back, my parents weren't that great for one another in the first place.

But yes, call each of them and speak as you would to a friend who is going through the situation. Set some ground rules and stick to them. Don't ask details you don't want to know, even though they may share them.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 8:53 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Let me address this from the other side... I divorced after 37 years of marriage.... The best thing my son did for me (he was in his early 30's, and also 3,000 miles away) was to stay in touch with me (and with his mother), not take sides (regardless of who he may have felt was in the "wrong", and there was plenty of "wrong" to go around), and reassure both of us that he still loved us.

And then let them work out how this progresses from there..

Also, yes, that first call is tough, but once you've got it behind you, it will be easier..
posted by HuronBob at 9:09 AM on April 18, 2010

Pretty straightforward: support them both, the way you would two unrelated friends, and always focus on each being happy, individually.
posted by rokusan at 9:12 AM on April 18, 2010

First, stop feeling as if you shouldn't be feeling the way you're feeling because you're an adult and it isn't a big deal. It hurts you, so it is a big deal. It's okay to mourn the death of something so constant in your life.

Call your parents. Don't be afraid to cry. Tell them that, while it hurts now to think about it, you love them both terribly and you always will. It's an emotional time. No need to be stoic...and no one expects you to be. The ground rules stuff can come later...or as it's needed. Not every divorced parent will talk shit about the other.

You called it "calling home"...but it's not home anymore, it's just where your parents live and you lived. And it sucks when that place isn't the same anymore. It's a new chapter in your life, too. Write it well and good luck.
posted by inturnaround at 9:26 AM on April 18, 2010

As another child of divorced parents (although also since childhood, not as an adult), I agree that it's important to make it clear to your parents that you do not want any details and you will not take sides.
posted by Lexica at 10:00 AM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

If it were me, I'd email your dad back (copying your mother, but without his original email included), thanking them for telling you, plus telling them that you're very sorry that they're going through this and you'll do everything you can to be supportive of both of them. Tell them that you'd like to speak with them on the phone about this, but that you need a little time to process your own emotions, so you'd like to wait a few days.

That's what I'd do -- it doesn't leave your dad hanging, and it buys you some time to take care of your own emotional needs.

It's okay to be emotional when you're on the phone with them, but it's also okay to put it off a bit so that you're not sobbing.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:25 AM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

My parents divorced when I was an adult, and through their pain, they both really worried about how it would impact us. That's sort of neither here nor there, but I think it does mean that your emotions are welcome at the table. You're not expected to be emotionless; I suspect they'll be okay if you are sad or upset. My parents were afraid one of us would be furious and that they'd lose touch, but it turned out not to be anywhere near that difficult.

Divorce is hard on everyone, even people who think it's a good idea. It is like a death in the family. In a way, it's like the death OF the family. And to the extent that this family unit is part of your story of who you are and where you come from, it requires a little bit of a change in how you see yourself. Which is hard. When my parents' divorce was final, I spent an hour wondering where all the photographs would go. I realized that what I really was worried about was: who will remember how happy we all once were together? And the answer to that, for me, was we all will. When a relationship ends, it's not like the time gets erased, it still exists there in the past. Just because they're not together anymore doesn't mean that all those memories and experiences you had together weren't happy.

But even the small amount of rewriting and re-understanding that goes on takes work. Even when I was not unhappy about it, I had some of those near-depression symptoms that told me that part of my mind was really working on something in my subconscious.

I agree that the best practice is to continue letting them know that you love them, and to keep in touch even perhaps a bit more, if you can. If not, it's okay, too. You should also decide what details you want to know and hear, and which you don't. My siblings and I all took different stances on that, actually. For me, the hardest part is hearing my mom's anger toward my dad, and while I don't want to reject or squash it as a part of her, I have to be honest about how hard that is to hear sometimes.

For me, the initial call was very much a "get it over with" thing. I had several hours' heads up, like you, so I could pick my time, and then, in an interlude when I felt okay, I was like, "okay, let's do this." My talking points were: "I just want you both to be happy," and "we can still be close." I was honest about being sad, but for me there was a lot of relief, too. I also don't think it's bad if you want some time, but maybe telling them you'll call them [tomorrow] will keep them from waiting by the phone. Good luck. This just happened to me not that long ago, so if you want to chat, I'm happy to MeMail.
posted by salvia at 11:04 AM on April 18, 2010

My parents split up when I was 21 (fall 2004). Same sort of family situation growing up - they didn't seem to be crazy for each other but there wasn't a lot of fighting. I'm pretty sure that infidelity wasn't the immediate cause for the split, but my dad was definitely the "instigator" of the split.

No matter how old you are, or how crappy their relationship is, having your parents split up *sucks.* Honestly I think it might even be worse when you're an adult, because it fucks with your lifelong sense of who you are and where your world is. Your childhood home is either gone (if they sell it), or at least really different (if one of them stays in it). Your parental "unit" is not a unit any more. My dad had the audacity to say "well I didn't want to get divorced when you were little because I thought it would be hard for you." He had no clue that it would hurt me as an adult.

The one thing I envy you about is that you have your sister to share this with. I am an only child, and I felt very alone. There was nobody else (besides the dog!) who had grown up in the same household with me and could 100% understand the situation.

I don't know how often you go back to see your parents, but I can imagine that you're not looking forward to it any more than you are calling them. I'm not going to lie - it's really hard in the beginning. But the more that time passes and the more you see them in their new places and new lives, the easier it gets. I like both my parents' apartments and am proud of each of them for their personal growth these past years. I've actually become much closer with each (especially my dad, who I wasn't very close to in my teens) and gotten to know them better as people. I know that "it takes time" is a crappy thing to say when the wounds are fresh, but it *does* get better eventually. I saw my parents together in the same place for the first time this December, and it was actually okay.

Maybe you could email each parent separately and ask them to call *you* at a certain time, from somewhere private, so you don't have to deal with the awkward calling of the house. My parents stayed in the house for over a month, and it was super-awkward. Fortunately my mom had a business phone line, so I at least knew how to reach each one.
posted by radioamy at 12:19 PM on April 18, 2010

me and my siblings had this happen to us, and although it wasn't totally unexpected (although the circumstances of it were), I can safely say that just because it happens when you are an adult doesn't make it any less painful, and in a way, it would have been easier to deal with when we were younger.

As for advice, there was a lot of putting us in the middle by our parents, so ask your parents not to do that, and I definitely wish we had not been privy to all the details then insisted we be made aware of. All you can do for them is to be there for them for practical things and make sure they know you love them regardless. Your relationship with them may change, if these ground rules are not abided by, so it is important that they don't use you for emotional support in the context of slagging the other one off.
posted by nunoidia at 12:25 AM on April 21, 2010

« Older Driving time, PDX to PSU?   |   What types of items should I keep in mind while... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.