How do you handle a parents’ divorce–when you’re an adult?

We often think of the effects of divorce on children. But divorce affects adult children, too.

It’s Wednesday, the day when we always talk marriage, and lately I’ve had a number of emails from people whose parents are in the process of divorce, while at the same time I’ve had friends walking through this, too. And I thought it may be a good idea to talk about it.

One woman wrote:

My parents have always been together and I felt had a very strong love through all of the ups and downs of life. Lately, though, they’ve been under such stress. My brother has a drug problem. My mom’s sister is terminally ill. My father’s father died. Now my dad isn’t acting like himself. He called me and told me out of the blue that your mother and I don’t have anything together any longer things have changed between us and I am not in love with her like I used to be. I don’t desire her in that way and I’m just telling you so you won’t be shocked if I make a change for awhile. I’m so upset. I told him to not make any big decisions and that I felt he was grieving a huge loss. He says it’s not anything like another woman. Just says they don’t have anything together. My mom is a great wife great mother and was the best to his parents and even took care of his dad the last few months. Why is my dad acting like this? He even told my mom some of this. She is so lost.

I was expecting to write a big, epic Top 10 Tuesday post about this myself, but last month I asked on Facebook about any lessons people learned from their parents’ divorce when they were adults. And so many of you left such insightful yet heartbreaking comments that I decided to let you all speak for yourselves!

Adult Children of Divorce: 10 Tips for Staying Sane when Your Parents Divorce

1. Be Very Clear to Your Parents about How You Feel

I was joking with my girls last week that Keith and I would never be able to get divorced because they wouldn’t let us. Obviously that’s not entirely true–parents can go against their children’s wishes. But I actually like knowing that if our marriage ever got rocky, the girls would sit us down and say, “this is ridiculous. You’re not going to do this.”

This dad may need his kids to sit down with him and say, “we will not support you in this. We will not help you get settled elsewhere. You will have lost our respect.” They need to feel the consequences of their actions.

2. Don’t Take Sides–But We Know It’s Hard Not To

Over and over again commenters said, “don’t take sides.”

Sometimes it’s obvious when there’s a victim. But even then, you don’t need to throw your entire loyalty to one parent. That’s not a healthy dynamic.

It’s a real tragedy, but one of your parents will be going through one of the biggest tragedies of their lives–and the best thing you can do is to step back. Yes, your mom (or dad) may need you. But it’s not healthy for you to be in that situation. So don’t feel like there needs to be a loyalty test, because that’s not emotionally healthy for you.

3. Draw boundaries. It’s okay to have your own life and to not get drawn in to the emotional drama.

My girls call me everyday. We’re really good friends. I’m their support system, and they’re mine. And many of you are like that! So when parents divorce, it’s not just that your family comes crashing down. It’s that your friendship and support system come crashing down, too. And you may need to take a step back and find other people to talk to and rely on now.

And for me I had to pull away from both because I couldn’t support them, but my loyalty stayed with my mom. Remember that you need your own support system away from parents and you can’t allow either of them to depend on you too much – so BOUNDARIES are SO necessary. Remember it’s not your fault. Remember that you really may not know the whole story.

Another commenter said,

Being hurt by them doesn’t mean you aren’t loyal to them. Learn to set boundaries so their roller coaster has less of an impact on you and your family!

Parents may expect you to take sides, to sympathize, or even to be their rock. You can’t do that. Even if your mom or dad have been the victim in the divorce, it isn’t healthy for you to take the on the role of primary support. Your mom or dad needs a friend group. So take a step back and force them to find a healthier way of dealing with this than leaning on you.

One woman sums it up this way:

The other thing I did that I am very glad I did was make strong boundaries. I was old enough to take the stand that I wouldn’t be subjecting myself to running around on holidays and birthdays. Nor would I be their therapist and allow them to talk against the other parent. It wasn’t a popular stand I took but 20 years later I am glad I did.

4. Divorce Splits Siblings, Too

One woman who emailed me privately because it was such a sensitive topic talked about how for almost a decade she and her siblings had no contact with their father, who had left their mom for the “other woman”. Then she felt called to forgive and to reach out an olive branch. She did, and beautiful reconciliation happened. But her siblings, with whom she had always been close, couldn’t deal with this fact. And so she has gained a father but lost her siblings.

Know that this can happen–and put a lot of effort into finding friends to be your support system right now.

5. A parents’ divorce makes you question your good memories of your childhood

This, to me, is likely the most tragic.

When parents divorce, you look back over what you thought were happy memories, and you wonder, “Were they lying to me then? Were they just pretending? Does it mean that that fun wasn’t real?”

It’s almost as if all of your good memories are invalidated.

This may sound harsh, but I’m not sure their divorce will be over until one of them passes. That’s how it feels anyway. Their divorce made my childhood feel like a lie and I still can’t figure out exactly why that is.

Another commenter said:

I’m incredibly sensitive to the topic of divorce, and am terrified of going down the same path. It’s caused me to question everything I thought I knew about my childhood. It causes strife in my own marriage. I hate divorce. HATE it so much.

I understand. I’m watching two people I love walk through this right now. And from what I know of the situation, I would just say this: Just because a parent isn’t 100% perfect doesn’t mean that they didn’t love you at the time, or they weren’t choosing to be with each other at the time. Yes, they are choosing to live apart now. But when you look back on happy vacations, or on family games nights, or on family dinners when you were all laughing, remember: they were choosing each other then. And that was real.

People are neither 100% good or 100% bad. They are a mix. And even if someone is acting badly now, you can still remember times when they acted well. It’s hard to hold two different truths simultaneously, but give yourself permission to. You may be angry at one person now; you may know that they messed up; but that does not mean that they were 100% bad in the past.

This woman summed it up really well:

I also tried to really think through how this would impact my marriage, what I loved about their marriage and what I would do differently. I make a point not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and still try to think about positive things they both brought to my childhood.

6. A parents’ divorce feels like a “little death”

One woman wrote this:

I was 23 and had been married for three months when my parents suddenly divorced. I really struggled because I felt like it shouldn’t affect me as much as it did, because I was grown up! I think giving people permission to feel like a lost child.. or whatever other crazy feelings they have – anger, grief, confusion, hurt, is really important. When your family breaks up it really throws you even as an adult.

It’s like your foundation has been ripped away, and the whole way you imagined your future is gone. That is a death, and you’re allowed to feel that way.

One woman explained it this way:

I think when parents divorce when the kids are grown one thing that goes through their mind (it did mine), was how they will never get to return to “home” again. When they visit it will all be totally different and that link to childhood that they had (their home and married parents) is now gone.

You move away, and now you’ve lost your “home”. Your childhood is gone. That’s just plain awful.

7. Don’t allow your parents’ divorce to make you question your own husband

It’s easy to bring their trust issues into your marriage.

It made me question everything about my own marriage and I realized I didn’t marry my dad and my husband didn’t marry my mom. It’s a constant moment by moment thing to deal with it as an adult.

Another woman said:

Also, how not to project your fears of abandonment etc onto my hubby (I got married during the craziness of my parents divorce).

Finally, one woman left this insightful comment, which cuts to the heart of the issue I think:

I felt everything I knew about relationships, intimacy, and parenting was dysfunctional. I guess I felt trained to just divorce after 18 years of misery.

Just because you grew up in that atmosphere does not mean that you are destined to go down the same road. You have a choice. And you can choose health instead of dysfunction.

8. Waiting until the youngest leaves home to split doesn’t seem to lessen the emotional pain

So many people said this! It seems like a whole bunch of parents divorced right after the youngest left home, or right after a child got married (it’s like they were waiting until after the wedding). And it didn’t seem to help. The overwhelming consensus?

Don’t be ashamed of the pain, or belittle it in your mind because it didn’t happen to you directly and you’re grown now.

9. Sometimes divorce didn’t come soon enough

While most comments were overwhelmingly negative, a few stood out because they said, “it was about time!” In these cases, abuse had been present throughout their childhood.

Research has repeatedly shown that children do better when parents stay married, even if that marriage isn’t happy–unless the marriage is abusive. In that case, children do better if the marriage ends. So it’s not surprising that we see the two different types of comments.

10. You can rebuild a relationship even with a parent who has done something really, really wrong.

One woman said this:
I lost 7 years with my Dad because of this.  This sounds terrible, but I often feel like I have to mother my own Mother.  I wish I had set some boundaries with her earlier.  She talks about things that no child should ever hear, even to her grandchildren.  She talks bad about him in front of them and I’m left repairing the damage.  My children have learned to not bring him up around her.  It’s a terrible lesson to have to learn from your own grandmother.
My biggest piece of advice is to forgive.  It may be hard.  It may be wildly unpopular.  But unforgiveness only hurts yourself.  I’m watching it eat my Mom alive.  Sometimes I have to forgive him all over again, day after day, but I refuse to shrivel up like my family is doing.  My sisters and Mom seem to think that his sin is worse than ours.  They have forgotten how much they have been forgiven for.  Sin is sin.  Dirt is dirt.  We were all once very dirty, but being washed in the blood of Jesus covers all sins, not just the ones they find acceptable.
I love that. Forgiveness. So many echoed it. Not because your parent deserves it, but because you need it.
To all of you who have walked through your parents’ divorce as adults: I’m truly sorry. I grieve with you. And I encourage you to move on, create your own life, and don’t feel guilty for not being there to fully support a parent. That’s not your role, and it’s okay to focus on your own family now.
Did your parents divorce as adults? What did that do to you? Let’s talk in the comments!
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