Ugly Divorce
August 11, 2011 11:37 PM   Subscribe

How does an adult child deal with the divorce of their parents?

My mom broke the news to me today over the phone that her and my dad are going to be getting a divorce. It's one of those things that has happened to so many people that I know, but I never thought would happen to me, and I'm really struggling with it. She started off by saying that they haven't been getting along well lately... and with that I just knew. It was COMPLETELY unexpected, so my initial reaction was to cry-and I hardly ever cry.

She told me that they haven't been happy since I was about 5 or 6 (I'm 18 now) and that they tried to keep things together for me and my older siblings all along. She then told me that she wouldn't be coming home tonight and that she was staying at an extended stay hotel. I felt like everything was just happening way too fast. I mean, last night she was at the computer and I was sitting on the couch talking to her, joking around. Everything was so normal. And tonight, she's not coming home... and she never will again.

She said she wants to take me out a few nights per week to eat or go shopping since she's not at an established place right now, but all I really want is to watch tv with her, paint nails or help her do dishes, or just do something NORMAL with her, like it's been for my whole life. She says that she doesn't want me to have to choose between them, so she wants me to still live at home (where my dad is staying). But, the thing is, I see that I'm always having to make a choice because I want to spend equal time with them, and when I'm with one parent, I'm choosing not to be with the other.

I hate it. But, when I got home to face my dad (who I have a great relationship with), I wasn't expecting to hear another side of the story. He told me that the affair my mom had (long story, I don't feel like explaining, but I have a link to a question regarding it - never actually ended, and that she is actually staying at his apartment currently. The other man is newly divorced, and his ex-wife has been giving my dad information now for six months about their whereabouts. Back in February, she had obtained some kind of recording of my mom and her ex having sex and told my dad about it. Since then, my dad has actually had a tracking device on her car and it has shown that she has been lying about where she is going almost every time. He started doing it to obtain the truth at first, and now is using it as evidence against her if she tries to say anything bad against him. My dad is in a bad way right now (he keeps everything bottled up inside) and he told me that I am the only one he can talk to about it. He says that he isn't intending for me to be against my mom, but that he wants me to know the truth. He also told me that he is worried about me going to see my mom if the other guy is there, because he has been accused before by his nieces of putting moves on them. Honestly, it's just a horrible situation that I had no knowledge of even yesterday. I know that people's parents get divorced all the time, but how do you deal with it as an adult child? I wish I could talk to my siblings about it, but they only know my mom's side of it-they don't even know about the affair. My boyfriend and friends have been really awesome about it, but their parents are still together, so I feel like I don't have anyone who can relate-plus it's not even a normal divorce situation. I guess I just need some guidance on what to do, what the pros and cons of divorce are, and how to control my emotions. Any ideas?
posted by xopaigexo to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Woah. Your dad is being really inappropriate. I understand that he's hurting, and it's kind of you to want to be there for him, but he needs to find someone else to talk to. It sounds like he is trying to get you to side with him and not visit your mom, and he should not be putting you in that situation. Consider telling him the next time he tries to talk to you about this that you really do not want to know and that you will always love him, but you can't be his support right now.

I'd also consider telling your siblings what you know so you can get support from them. It is not okay for you to be isolated and alone with this information. It was not okay for your father to tell you about it in the first place in such graphic detail, but now that he has, you do not have the responsibility of keeping it a secret in a way that keeps you isolated.

I'm so sorry. Hang in there.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:02 AM on August 12, 2011 [12 favorites]

my parents got divorced when i was in college so it helped for me that i was away at the time it was happening. the divorce, however, was no surprise. it should have actually happened at least 10 years before it actually did. my father was abusive, both emotionally and physically, and my parents fought all the time, and pretty much nearly every week throughout my high school years. my brother and i were never close as we got older so i could not go to him for support. college was the first time i went to seek therapy and let me tell you, i have been a big proponent of therapy ever since. given your circumstances, reach out to your siblings, but also look to get counseling. i promise that it will help you not only to cope with what you are going through in dealing with your parents' divorce, but you will also learn how to draw a line with your parents should you need to.
posted by violetk at 12:20 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey there, first up, it will be all right. They will both move on with their lives eventually, and so will you, and things will change and it will be all right. And they will still love you and you will still love them and you will still have a family - just a different one. When things get tough, remember it will all shake out okay.

I'm the youngest of four and was 12 going on 13 when my parents divorced. My elder siblings were 17, 21 and 22 respectively. Out of all the siblings I would argue that I rolled with it the best out of everyone. The shaking of foundations that had been set through their adolescence affected my siblings much more than me, in ways that are still playing out over fifteen years later.

Some thoughts:

he told me that I am the only one he can talk to about it.

This is really bad. Bad for you, bad for your dad, bad for your relationship. In the coming months and probably years prepare yourself for a few things:

1. Your parents will - either subtly or nakedly, consciously or unconsciously - attempt to get you to take sides. I was 13, and they tried to do it with me, and they tried with the rest of us, too. It made things very difficult sometimes, and sometimes, it was actually very tempting to take sides when I felt things were wrong etc. Until the years had widened the gulf enough for me to gain some more objective insight, I took a zero tolerance approach. Attempts by my parents to get me to take sides were instantly and clearly rebuffed. This didn't mean I rebuffed their oft-times genuine anguish, or their love for me. But damned straight I refused to become a pawn in their game, and would brook absolutely no discussion of the divorce, the marriage, or negative statements about the other parent in my presence. I did not want to know, and as their child I had the right not to know. This meant walking away sometimes, terminating visits, hanging up whatever. But it didn't take that long. Never forget you have that right; because your parents may forget their primary roles as parents and yours as child sometimes.

And I tried not to engage in it, inside myself. My view of my parents' marriage was and is a limited and flawed one. I cannot know the feelings and facets of their relationship and am not really in a position to judge well. Both parents harmed and did harm, no doubt, and both deserve to be happy - whatever follies and foibles may have been committed.

2. Prepare for your parents to find the freedom of their new lives exhilarating, almost intoxicating, and for your needs to become - to one degree or another - subservient to their exciting new lives, living out the dreams they put on hold, their new partners etc etc.

This was hardest for me as the youngest, I think, though everybody got it to some extent. At times I found playing second fiddle - when I had always felt like first - hurtful, frustrating, and frankly shitty and selfish parenting. This means that one or both may move away, may suddenly adopt the habits and lifestyles of any partners with an almost alarming speed, and leave you feeling that they are trashing family traditions and institutions and your own needs without regard.

For me, this was certainly true to some extent. But by the same token, I always had to remember that my parents had been unhappy for a long time, and they deserved happiness just as much as I did.

With hindsight I wish I had been more forthright about setting what my expectations and needs as their child was, rather than just going along and applying the brakes on a case-by-case basis. Your parents will look after themselves, have no doubt, you need to do what they will do, and put yourself and your needs first. Don't let your own feelings about the divorce/marriage etc become subsumed in the intensity and pervasiveness of your parents' emotions.

You're allowed to feel your feelings and do what you need to do, to be okay and feel okay about this, at all times. I know you're 18, but compared to them, you're still the child - their child - and you are totally allowed to act like it. Don't fall into the trap of parenting your parents; it's a thankless and unsatisfying job that will lead to resentment.

3. Prepare for your siblings to act in different ways. One of mine immediately moved away and tried to stay away as much as possible - for years - subsequently. One went off the rails, dropped out of university, drugs, dodgy lifestyle, angry at my parents for years and years afterwards. One had huge fights early in the piece setting their own expectations of my parents behaviour, but now has totally rich and rewarding. I found myself - as the only one still living at home full time, playing the Henry Kissinger of the family (and I don't mean funding death squads to get the outcome I wanted; I mean tonnes of equivocal shuttle diplomacy and - somewhat unfortunately - dealing with a lot of my own feelings by myself and privately rather than in what would have been more helpful environments. Your siblings will be your greatest allies during this time - they will have more understanding of the situation than anyone else; and they may need you, even if you're younger. Don't run away if you can, and try not to leave other siblings who are struggling hanging. In subsequent years, I have really valued the sibling who helped me through the divorce the most, and we have the closest relationship in the whole family in no small part due to this.

4. Gird your loins for replaying family traditions (christmas, birthdays, etc) in new, weird and unsettling ways. Your parents will still want to play out these traditions, but with a post-divorce twist that may include different partners, different locations, and totally different rituals. No matter how old you are I think it can be genuinely disconcerting, and quite upsetting as pre-divorce comparisons are inevitably made. And thinking about christmases when you're a kid to ones where you're an adult - even if your parents are together - is always gonna make for a sad comparison. Additionally, expect heightened emotional fragility at these times from everyone in the family, and unreasonable demands from parents. For example, I once spent three and a half hours on the train on christmas day because both parents demanded I see them "on the day" (I did that once and once only!). Don't buy into that bullshit. New family structures require new arrangements and traditions, and it's okay. Combat the inherent conservatism and nostalgia.

Sorry, I know this is an absolute shitload of info. TLDR: Don't forget yourself and your own needs in this period ahead. Don't let anybody make you think your needs and emotions are not as important as theirs and don't be afraid to ask for help, talk about what you would like to see happen, and - crucially - to back away when you need to, either conceptually or physically or emotionally. Your parents - especially if they married young - are going to go through a kind of second adolescence right now. This will make them quite self-orientated as adolescents are wont to be (and have to be), and will have an effect of trying to squeeze you into the "adult", non-self-orientated, "parent" kind of role. Well, you don't have to do that. You have every right to be scared, upset, angry, sad, hurt, happy and needful as an 18 year old, and as your parents' child no matter how old you are. If you ever wanna a chat for whatever reason, feel free to reach out for me. You don't need to feel guilty about anything, and divorces are turbulent times no matter how old you are. Good luck and hang in there.
posted by smoke at 12:24 AM on August 12, 2011 [18 favorites]

Oh wow, I am so, so sorry this happened. It makes complete sense that you would be sad, upset, confused, and so much more.

It sounds like you're feeling such loss right now, and really missing your mom. It might help to ask her for what you need, e.g., "to be honest, it's not that I want to go shopping; I want to hang out together, watch some TV, and just feel normal." The good news is that things really will be normal again one day; there will be another couch. It'll just take awhile to get there. You might let your mom know that you know, and that you want her to be honest with you about her life, and that you still love her and want to paint your toenails together.

It sounds like your dad is feeling a lot of pain, betrayal, and anger. It's hard to see your parents in pain. Especially while you're feeling your own sense of loss and share that same source of pain. Try to keep your greatest care and attention focused on your own healing and comfort, and let your dad's pain be his own. Sometimes when someone stuffs down their feelings, it's easy to take it onto yourself, because someone has to acknowledge how sad/angry/whatever they obviously are! But try to notice if that's happening and remind yourself that he's an adult and can take care of his pain. Ultimately you can't do it for him.

In his anger and pain, it sounds like he's flailing around and not exactly knowing what to do or say, and some of what's happening isn't really what's best for everyone. That's understandable. But I would tell him that he needs to find someone else to talk to because you don't want to hear those kind of details. I agree with TYRR that you don't have to keep secrets. And disregard the badmouthing of the other guy (not that you need to ever see him! just ignore your dad's word on this one). You have enough going on without needing to know any of those details. Think of any relationship you had and how few of the details they knew. You don't know 98% of those details for their relationship either -- and now is not the time to find out! Ignorance is bliss.

I want to spend equal time with them, and when I'm with one parent, I'm choosing not to be with the other

Yeah, this sucks, and it'll kinda stay that way, but as you get used to them being apart and they begin to get over the divorce (read: 1-3 years from now), it feels less like a betrayal or taking sides. You eventually develop a new mental map of what the family looks like where it's not like there is one bubble that someone (one parent or the other) is being left out of, but instead there is you and the love that connects you to them both in some complex shape, and it stops feeling like your own heart is being torn apart by the whole thing.

If it's any comfort, my experience was that both my parents are still the person I knew them to be, only maybe a bit happier, and it's been a blessing to get to see them figure out what they'll do next with their lives. They are in relationships they like. Both did something that they really wanted to do that they wouldn't have been able to do if they were together. I just spent some great time with them both, and after the upheavals of a few years, they are happy again, and it was great to be with them now.

I'm so sorry. Whatever you do to take care of yourself, now is a good time to do it. Some of what lies ahead might be bumpy, and if you can find a therapist to help guide you through it, s/he might be a really good ally.
posted by salvia at 12:59 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

My parents are still together, but have been through a lot (not part of their marriage, but stuff they faced together.) I was a 20 when we did a massive move, and I became "the family therapist". This caused me all sorts of issues, and when I went to see a real therapist (psychologist) he reminded me that I didn't have to be the family therapist and that my parents needed to find people of their own age to vent to, to talk to.

So yeah- don't let either parent vent to you- it's not your job, and if they need to vent they should see a therapist or whoever- and you can totally say: "hey, I'm your kid, not your therapist, so I don't want to talk about that." And leave the room if he/she continues.

Now is a great time to build some positive sibling relationships.

Sorry you're going through this, hang in there.
posted by titanium_geek at 1:04 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I posted a question about this way back when, and Punctual gave an amazing answer there, with some good advice from several others as well. You will see where my "focus on you" and "protect yourself from the details" advice stems from.
posted by salvia at 1:30 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

My parents got a divorce when I was about 25. It was a shock, to everyone. One day my mom announced to her coworkers at Happy Hour that she was leaving my dad and the next day she did. I actually think she kinda did it for the attention and was shocked when he wouldn't take her back. But anyway... I took it really hard. I remember people saying that it was good that my sister and I were both grown and out of the house, that made it easier but it didn't in a lot of ways. It just meant that the world I'd lived in for the last 25 years and gotten real used to was disappearing... didn't feel so lucky. Your dad shouldn't talk to you about it but he probably thinks that since you are an adult, the rules are different. And he's in a bad place too so he isn't likely thinking much beyond his own suffering.

What I did with both my parents was set some hard and fast rules right from the beginning. When Mom smacked off about Dad, I told her to knock it off and walked away. When Dad complained about Mom, same thing. I enforced those rules ruthlessly-even sticking my mom on a plane and sending her home from a visit with me once because I was done listening and she wouldn't shut the hell up about how Dad "drove her" to do what she did. I skipped Xmas that first year because I was unprepared to deal with the back and forth. And it hurt and was painful but long run, our relationships are better for my setting of barriers---they both know that when they talk to me, they'll keep a civil tongue and I won't tolerate them acting like children and treating each other like crap. They were in love once----I won't let them revise our family history such that it is all about how unhappy they both were and nothing else. So here we are seven years later and they can behave for short periods of time, they visit my kids together sometimes, they try to meet for lunch to trade photos of the kids and catch up once a month. They recognized early on that they were hurting us with their inability to remember that they were once a family and that there would be harsh consequences from me (and my sister once she joined my merry bandwagon) if they didn't learn to ease up on each other around us.

So I'd say---don't worry about your emotional state just yet. You've been through a lot. It is perfectly okay to be sad, pissed, hurt, confused, surprised, and to mourn for the family that you used to be but aren't any more. Even families that stray far from the Norman Rockwell picture are families of value and you miss them when they fall apart. So do what you need to do, address your needs first, and create the expectation that they will be respectful in front of you from the very beginning.
posted by supercapitalist at 5:03 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

You need to insist that neither of your parents trashtalk the other to you, and in fact that they avoid talking about the whole divorce issue altogether when you're around. It is just completely out of line for them to put you in the middle of this. No parent should ever be emotionally dependent on his or her child, or make a confidante of them. They need to turn to their friends or siblings or parents or professional counselling for that kind of thing.

I'm so sorry you're going through this, and it will cause difficulties, especially when you're so young and still living at home. Try to spend time with each of your parents doing the kind of things you've always done, and otherwise focus on your own life. Take care of your own needs, and get counselling if you think it'll help.
posted by orange swan at 6:04 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh possum, I'm so sorry you're going through this. I don't have any pearls of wisdom. But I have one little nugget that might reassure you that you're completely and utterly normal.

A few years ago, research was published here... it made the news and the authors were interviewed... basically saying that adult children of divorce faired just as badly emotionally as minor children of divorce.

At the time I absorbed this research very particularly because my parents were only able to hold it together till my oldest sibling was finishing high school....I was still very young and felt particularly pissed off that the couldn't wait till I'd left home.

So my sweet, your take home message is that you are normal, human and very much at risk of being quite scarred by this. Dad needs to get some adult confidantes and a psychologist.

And Mum needs to not expose you to the new amour until you're ready to meet him.

One little thing I will's not a crime to end a fall out of love..or even fall in to hate. It's just not particularly classy to have an affair unless the other partner has agreed. Don't you get involved. They're not gifted or exceptional people. They're just two flawed people who no longer want to be together and are not being very special in ending it. Of course you love them. And they will love you till the day they die. But they're both struggling with the right thing to do. So don't be hard on yourself.

Have a massive hug. It's patronising and annoying to say this...sorry...but you'll all find a new groove over a few years and it really will be all right. Take care.
posted by taff at 7:01 AM on August 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

...when I'm with one parent, I'm choosing not to be with the other.

This is not true. When you're choosing to spend time with one, you're just choosing to spend time with one. It has nothing to do with choosing one over the other. Don't tie yourself up in knots over that one. You can still love both equally.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:05 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're still living with your Dad, maybe you shouldn't think of yourself as an adult child. Yes, you're old enough that there's no custody battle, and grown up enough to understand that everyone has their issues, and grown up enough that they're not trying to shelter you from the situation, but they are still the only family you've got (i.e. no spouse/kids of your own) and you still live in "the family house" which has just become your Dad's house. I'm not trying to say "you're just a kid", I'm trying to say that it sounds like you think this shouldn't affect you, and that's very much not true. It would be a major life-changing event even if you were all the way out of the house, and if you're still living at home, the only thing your age is buying you, is getting treated like a shoulder to cry on instead of an innocent to be protected - and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

In some sense, they're flinging you into adulthood by not giving you any shelter from these events. It's hard not to be the "family therapist" - I found it flattering when my mom wanted to talk to me as a real person and not as a kid, but in the long run I find myself really wishing she hadn't. For a 15-year-old (I was 17 when my parents split up, but I'd been getting Mom's woes for a while at that point) there's definitely such a thing as too much information, and the burden of secrets, and the battle to keep neutral. Not to mention the feeling that by giving you information, they're asking you to do something about it. It is perfectly acceptable to step back and request not to have a conversation that's going to put you in an awkward (side-choosing or otherwise stressful) position.

I would encourage you to move out if you can (financially, logistically), just to get space from both of them, and to have your own neutral ground that doesn't feel like you're choosing one over the other.
posted by aimedwander at 7:12 AM on August 12, 2011

Don't get in the middle of their relationship. I know that is easier said then done, but try. If they bring it up, say "I am sorry, but that isn't any of my business nor do I want it to be."
posted by Silvertree at 7:55 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have older siblings - TELL THEM. Even if you don't get along with them all the time. They are the only ones in your family who might be on your side. And it's not fair to you or your dad that you are the only one who knows.

Ugh, horrible thought, are you 100% sure your dad is telling the truth about your moms behavior? If she is lying to you about staying in a hotel, and is instead staying at her new bfs place, I would not put up with that. Call her on it. But find out for sure if it's true first. Go there and see, or ask her and see what she says. One if them is lying to you.
posted by bq at 8:25 AM on August 12, 2011

It's a big change for you, and a huge change for them. You're an adult, and your adult parents are going to live their lives. It will be okay. Don't get dragged into taking sides, develop good boundaries, and be kind to them, as this is a big transition.
posted by theora55 at 11:45 AM on August 12, 2011

I've found that with time, I got used to it.

It took a few years for things to settle down and I mostly dealt with that by spending as little time as possible with my family. For example, I spent 3 Christmases elsewhere. But now, it's ok. My parents can be civil with each other, but my dad is still a little bitter that my mum left him.

The whole thing was more difficult that I would have expected it to be, and it too me a while to come to terms with the fact that there was going to be a new normal. I found a great deal of comfort in reading about the experiences of other adult children of divorce.

You do need to find a way of stopping your parents using your as emotional support. My parents tried not to but failed. That has damaged our relationship more than their divorce.
posted by plonkee at 2:45 PM on August 12, 2011

I'm very sorry this happened. It's painful and, through absolutely no fault of your own, your entire family foundation is being shaken up and turned into something else. Everybody is up in the air right now but you will all land on your feet. It just takes a little time. You would have been leaving home before long, anyway, so just carry on with your plans for school and a career. You are not the target of any of this shaking up and you don't have to lose anything. You've got all the memories you've made of a childhood with two parents and a comfortable life. That's yours and you get to keep it.

Now these two adults, who are your parents, are going into another chapter of their lives. Your dad has started his chapter with angry details from the wronged wife of your mother's lover and he's collaborated with her by spying on your mom and gathering evidence and generally acting as if she is the enemy and this so called new man of hers is an untrustworthy person for, as gossip has it, he is all pervy with the wronged wifey's young relatives, the inescapable conclusion being implied by your dad is that you need to steer clear of your mom and her association with that guy. Your dad, of course, is seeing himself as without fault in this entire disaster and that's how he is framing it for you. He is not without fault--maybe not that particular fault but maybe so. It doesn't matter.

I call B.S. on him. I know he is hurt and needs help but, sweetie, he should never have dumped all that on you. Maybe he was insensitive and starved your mom for affection for most of your lifetime. Maybe he did this same thing to her long ago. Whatever your mom did, she didn't dump those details on you, so I have to say, while one certainly should break up with one's current partner before taking up with a new one, she behaved better with regard to talking with you about it than your dad did.

Stand up for yourself and tell them both that you don't want to know anything about their complaints against each other. You can't help with that and they should honor their responsibilities as parents enough to refrain from dragging you into it. Tell your siblings the same thing.

Get a therapist to help you work through this because you do have to grow up now and you're bound to be angry, too; be close to your good friends, get busy working to become the best adult you can be. You sound like an awesome daughter and I know they must both love you very much.

I wish you strength and wholeness to let them fight their own battles while you love them both the same and get on with your life. Don't be afraid to referee and call foul if they try to drag you into it.

It's going to be ok. It could even be fun one of these days. It was never going to stay the same, anyway. Life never does.
posted by Anitanola at 2:53 AM on August 14, 2011

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