How to relate to my parents during their divorce?
June 30, 2008 8:35 AM   Subscribe

My parents are getting a divorce. How do I support them? How do I relate to them without it being terribly weird on me? How do I stop worrying about them so much?

I'm 30 and live on the opposite coast. They've been "working on things" for a couple years. Neither was that satisfied, but my mom was more willing to do something about it, and she made the final decision against his will. I can completely understand her decision. My dad moved into his own apartment in early June. She feels relieved, mostly. He feels rejected and mad. He is also being something of a martyr (reminding us to call her, "letting her have the church"). I'd rather he just get on to being selfish and hurt and mad, but I guess everything has its season.

My first question is fairly simple -- imagine you're 58 and ending a 38 year marriage. What support could a daughter who lives across the country provide? Emotional support? Magazine subscriptions?

My second question is longer. Feel free to skip it if you want. How do I relate to them? I call them, but I don't exactly know what to talk about. Mainly, I ask how things are and listen. But with my dad, I also remind him we can help and give unrequested advice, like "I heard the two most important ways to avoid depression are exercise and socializing." The entire conversation has this subtext: "are you going to be okay? I want you to be okay." I don't want to turn into the nagging, caretaking oldest daughter. I want to be cool and give him space to feel whatever he's feeling without having to reassure me.

Talking to them sends me into a funk afterwards. I keep thinking about what they're going through and imagining them upset and in pain, my dad especially. I try to remind myself I really can't know what it's like, and that me making myself depressed doesn't help anyone. How do parents deal with watching their kids go through pain? I suppose my own sadness must be tied up in there, but if they were fine, I think I'd be 80% happy with it, too.

Then, there are the details, like have they spoken? I don't ask for them, but I don't discourage them. I have this perverse desire to know how bad it is really, to make it real for myself. They don't give that many, so it seems okay. But then I hear the details from both sides. My dad told me he sent my mom an email about logistics. She said she "got an email that said her haircut is matronly and she should wear her hair like she did back when she was in her twenties." WTF? It's a bewildering statement, but if you think about it for a minute or two, it's also really sad in several ways. So, maybe I should say I don't want to know any details, but then do we just talk about the weather? "I hear your house just burned to the ground. So, hey, can you see any birds from there?"

Plus, I feel like I have more experience with breakups than either of them do. They got married when they were 20. I know my several one- to four-year relationships are not directly comparable, but I still want to send Jon Cusack to watch over them. Since I can't, I watch the details I get like a doctor watching for early signs of breakup infection. Then I remind myself, who am I to say what's best, and didn't I survive doing stupid post-breakup stuff, and what would I do anyway?

Can anyone advise me about how to think about this and how to relate to them? I'll be seeing my dad, along with my brothers, for a week in mid-July. Sorry this is so long, and thanks for your help.
posted by salvia to Human Relations (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh, man, I am so sorry you are going through this. I can relate; my parents split when I was in my early twenties. I can tell you some things I discovered as I went through this situation that may be of use to you. First, to support your parents:

(1) Care about them as you normally do, but try not to discuss the breakup. Danger lies here. This is what their friends, minister, psychologist, or grocery-bagger is for; not their children.

(2) Check in and ask generally how things are going and if each one needs anything. Prattle on about your fabulous life. No matter that the marriage didn't work out when they've produced a happy, successful child/ren. Keep the focus on this successful parenting they accomplished.

(3) You are not their friend, you are their child, and those boundaries should be kept. I know you want to help, but you can't solve their problems. (I tried. It backfired big time).

Now, for YOU:

(1) You will be shocked, horrified, and saddened to see your parents acting like immature tools. (I see they have begun already given the details of your post). This requires repeatedly accepting the fact that they are human and that when people - even parent-people - are hurt, they often act strangely.

(2) If they start playing the game of competing with each other for your attention and scoring based on how many times they've received emails and/or calls from you, everyone loses. This sucks, but when I call one, I call the other. When I email one, I email the other. This is over a decade later. I hope yours don't do this; mine still do it.

(3) Where to stay: this one is tough. I always stayed with my mom when I visited their town, using the excuse that we were both females, but that's because my dad stresses me out (more). You might want to split any stays you have between them so they feel you are being "fair" and not taking sides.

(4) You may not be able to avoid this, but don't get into it with them. There is nothing worse than hearing about your parents' breakup feelings. It isn't healthy and you will feel pressured to agree with whomever you are speaking to. This will, indeed, as you noted, be very hard for them - they've created an entire life together, the duration of which exceeds your entire lifetime! Untangling this and adjusting, for both of them, even your mom, will be a looooong process. Just be there for them but refuse to hash the specific details. (TRUST me that the details will damage you psychologically! Learn from my mistakes.)

(5) Focus on you, really. This is going to be tough for you and you need supportive friends to talk to and lean on...I admire your worrying about your parents, but this is going to be hard for you as well. Sometimes vent sessions with sibs can really help if your brothers are up for it. My sister and I would deal by poking fun at the entire situation and laughing through it.

Good luck, to you and to your parents. Hope my view wasn't excessively negative, but that's my honest experience.
posted by Punctual at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2008 [10 favorites]

I am sorry you are going through this but I do not think you should be their sounding board or trying to get details. You are going to drive yourself crazy if you try to mediate between them. And do you really want to hear details of your parent's sex lives? Send gifts to both of them such a movies, music or books as a distraction and keep up the contact but limit conversations to what else is going on in their lives and your life. Your parents sound like they are doing a pretty good job of trying to not involve you (with a few understandable slips) - let your curiosity rest. It IS sad their relationship is changing, but try to look at it as a positive change for both of them. You seem pretty self-aware about your role as a daughter, not a friend. Relating your own break-up experiences will probably not be helpful (unless your break-ups also included lawyers, children, 30+ years of entwined finances, and ALL of your friends being long-time mutual friends).
posted by saucysault at 9:17 AM on June 30, 2008

Great advice from Punctual.

I went through something similiar. You need to just let it play out and not give the impression that you are choosing a side here.

This isn't your cross to bear. So don't make it your problem. It isn't that much different from some of your break-ups, in that it still can be painful for everyone involved, but most people get through it and are able to move on.

Your parents may need to grieve for their dead relationship in the same way that people mourn the actual death of a person, they will experience all or many of the stages normally associated with losing a loved one.

Like everything else, it gets easier as time passes.

Best of luck to you,
posted by Mr_Chips at 9:22 AM on June 30, 2008

I was also in my early twenties when my parents divorced. First, you need to look out for you. Second, you need to trust that as each new and interesting situation comes up, that you will be able to handle it. Finally, you must always and forever refuse to become a conduit of communication between them. If either of them says "Tell him (or her) X" just say that they need to communicate between each other and not use you, as you can't be expected to take sides and it isn't fair to you. Maintain these boundaries under all circumstances. If need be, cite the Seinfeld episode where George and Kramer represent a couple breaking up to explain your position.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:34 AM on June 30, 2008

My parents divorced when I was 21. It is really really awkward in the beginning but it slowly gets better. It definitely changed my relationship with both my parents, but for the better.
posted by radioamy at 6:09 PM on June 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks a lot to all of you who made it through my long post and took the time to reply -- I really appreciate it. Good advice, I'll be thinking about it. Thanks.
posted by salvia at 10:05 PM on June 30, 2008

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