How do I best support my father through a tough breakup?
June 25, 2012 7:36 AM   Subscribe

How can I support my father through what's likely to be a really painful breakup? What support do you wish you had, or were you grateful to have, from your adult children while going through divorce?

My father has been with his girlfriend for over 10 years. Although they never married, I've been referring to her as my stepmom for a long time. She is a very caring and loving person, and I'm very glad that she came into our lives; I lived with her, her daughter who is near me in age, and my father through my adolescence.

My stepmom and my father have never had the kind of relationship that I would want to have with a long-term partner, but they seemed to be making it work and helping each other be happy. I was really surprised when my father called me yesterday to say that she had left him.

Their breakup is likely to be very painful and logistically complicated. We don't live in a state with common-law marriage, but they do own land in common, and have a shared house and a whole mountain of stuff that they've bought together over the past 10 years. Their families - our family, really - is pretty intertwined. While it's not legally a divorce, I think it will bear a lot of resemblance to one.

I have a lot of trouble imagining either of them alone, but I particularly don't know how my stepmother is going to manage without my dad. I think she will need a lot of support from him just to disentangle, which will be hard on both of them, but especially him. The only concrete way I know of to help both of them is to try to take on some of this burden, but I feel like I should know how to provide more, and better, emotional support.

I know how to support my friends who are going through tough breakups - moving trucks, ice cream, lots of beer, "well fuck 'em!". I don't know how to support family in the same situation, particularly parents, particularly emotionally. I was really young when my mom and dad split up, and they were both mature and reasonable enough not to lean on me for that kind of thing. I'm all grown up now and I have good adult relationships with my parents and stepparents, but those relationships aren't like the ones I have with friends, and it's clearly not appropriate to act the same way in situations like this.

Were you in a similar situation? How did your adult children support you? What do you wish they had done for you?
posted by yomimono to Human Relations (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Call. Listen. Leave him alone if he asks for that (men tend to ask to be left alone when they're hurting, I've found).

Mostly, make sure he knows you're available and that you love him and will be there for anything he needs. I'm sure he knows it, but it's important to remind people when times are bad.
posted by xingcat at 7:57 AM on June 25, 2012

Don't say anything negative about her. If he starts it, just demur.
posted by Etrigan at 8:11 AM on June 25, 2012

My parents separated for a few months a while back, and my dad went to live in a room in someone else's house during that time. I had gotten divorced myself about 18 months prior.

A lot of the emotional support I provided for my dad took the form of logistics and physical comfort. That's what my mom had done for him so that he could continue being the "ideas guy" that he is. It saddened me to see him living in a single room, using a woven blanket that we'd previously used as a wall hanging. The same thing happened when my ex-husband moved out.

It made me feel a lot more settled in both cases knowing that my dad and my ex were in comfortable living spaces with the things they needed. So I helped shop for things like a new TV, a coordinated bedding set, a microwave, etc.

And then there was the day that my dad fell off his bike and didn't realize that sticking your hand in an ice bucket all day probably means there's something wrong. I had to convince him that he needed to go to Urgent Care; after we got confirmation that he'd broken his wrist in three places, we went out to dinner while he waited for a prescription, and I had to butter his bread for him.

So there are a lot of things that on the surface might seem like basic human tasks or reminders, but both of them will be in a headspace where normal life alone will be a completely alien thing to them. And with good reason. Ask caring questions and offer to help -- or just go ahead and help, because they will have no idea what they need.

I had a lot of anger at my mom for the way she was dealing with it. Eventually, though -- and this was a ways down the road -- I came to see that it really does take two to tango. They're entangled in such a way that there's really no way to say "she's a bitch" or "he's ignorant" or anything so cut-and-dried one-sided. They both engage in a continual game: complaining about the other person while not doing simple things on their own that could fix the surface problem.

It's really hard to separate your relationship with one or the other from your relationship with them as a couple, or as parents. It really is mourning. There's a lot of comfort in just doing what needs to be done, whatever that is.
posted by Madamina at 9:14 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone involved is part of your family. You might want to reach out to your step-mom and step-sib to get a lay of the land. Also, it wouldn't hurt to let them know that they are your family and that you do want to keep in touch. (If you do.)

As for your Dad, you know best if he's one of those guys who doesn't know how to take care of himself. (I don't think my Dad does, and I knew Husbunny when he was a bachelor and he was terrible at it.) If that's the case, perhaps step in with some common sense stuff. Point him to fluff and fold at the local laundromat, find out what places near him deliver decent food, help him find someone to come in and do the housework, that will at least keep things from spiralling into hoarder/pig-sty oblivion. Ditto for your step-mom, also, get your step-sib involved in something similar for her.

As for the legal entanglements, those will require a lawyer to disentangle. The courts don't deal with shacking up the same way they do with marriages, so the division of non-real property is best done privately. Suggest that they each make up a list of what they want to take from the house, with any luck there wont be too many overlaps.

Let's hope that while it's painful, that there's no real acrimony here. If it's just two people who have decided to split, it may be sad, but it won't be awful. If it's angry and hurt people, that will be different.

Offer to be there to help no matter who needs it. Be prepared to draw your own boundaries. If you don't want to hear about their issues in the bedroom, just say so. If you feel that anyone is getting too needy or intruding on your life, pipe up.

Everyone will live through this. You're doing the right things here.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:47 AM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Listen, just listen - don't say any more than you have too. It's not your problem/hurt, it is his, let him solve it/heal but be there to comfort him whenever he calls.

Don't take sides, don't criticise her.

If there is a practical matter, do what you can to help (moving, temporary accomodation etc.)

If you are close to her, a call saying you are sorry about the breakup would be a nice gesture, but, without taking sides, your focus needs to be your dad. Be careful about giving him any basis for feeling you might be doing anything disloyal to him.

Good luck
posted by GeeEmm at 4:03 PM on June 25, 2012

I think it might help your father to hear that this situation is not bringing up weird painful divorce issues for you (unless it is, but it doesn't sound like it.)

Many divorced parents feel guilt over laying pain on their kids, and he may feel like he's doing this to you again, especially since you were close with his ex. Also, I don't think you can go wrong hugging him and telling him you love him.
posted by msalt at 7:46 PM on June 25, 2012

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