When You're An Adult And Your Parents Divorce

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
your parents divorce

Your parents were married. You held this as a point of pride even in elementary school, when your friends’ parents were divorced, divorcing, or never married in the first place. Your parents offered advice. “Your mom is my best friend,” your dad would say. You stuck with marriage, they told you. “Marriage is work. And you work on it.” “Make sure you marry your best friend,” your mother told you.

And then suddenly, years later, when you have children of your own with that best friend, your parents’ marriage implodes. Tolstoy says that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but when it comes to parental divorce with adult children, the broad strokes stay the same. Your feelings generally follow the same pattern. And the ridiculous circus — well, that usually stays the same too.

The divorce is usually precipitated by some stressor: a sickness that requires a relative to move in, a death in the family, money troubles, or alcoholism rearing its ugly head after all these years. Spouses begin to turn away from each other in their need to cope and blame each other for the situation. It gets worse.

Then the sordid details begin, the ones you pray not to hear, but hear anyway in excruciating, raw-rubbed detail. Daddy is a drunk. He had an affair. Your mom never appreciated me. I did so much for her, and she never thanked me. You will hear these details. You will want to block them out.

You were always told that marriage is forever. You and your husband have long agreed to go to counseling if anything happens. It’s what your parents taught you — both sets of parents, because his are still married. His parents have celebrated anniversaries in mid-range numbers of five. So have yours. And you’re angry, absolutely livid, because you deeply believe that if you love someone, you fix it. You can only conclude that your parents do not love each other anymore.

Even then, you assume they wouldn’t want to waste all those years, that they would try to recapture the love they felt for so many of them. They saw each other through rich and poor, sickness and health. You will feel violent anger when you think about this.

Your parents will call you — separately, of course. And they will use you as a repository for their misery. Your mother will tell you that your father won’t pay half the rent and help support her, and she wants to take him to court anyway. You will hear all about the woman he had the affair with. Any knowledge your mother can glean, she will pass to you. You will look up the woman and her sons on Facebook. She will seem bland and inoffensive, like someone’s kindergarten teacher. This will enrage you for reasons you can’t understand.

Your father will tell you that this has been a long time coming. He says they would have divorced without the affair, that he went to marriage counseling and she never asked to go with him. She insists she told him they were going to counseling, but he was too drunk to remember. He says she went off on him and called him every name in the book, but he never called her names, not this time, not once.

He will say he doesn’t drink anymore. He wants to get a German Shepherd, to move on with his life. She will want to move. Now. Yesterday. She wants a whole new life, a whole new her. She wants to move hundreds of miles away, to live near you and the kids. She needs a job to do it, but no one’s hiring anyone her age.

Neither of them will discuss this with their friends. They will prefer to use you as a dumping ground for their misery and to attempt to get you to believe their version of the truth. Your mom doesn’t talk about any of this with her old friends. Your dad might bitch to some drinking buddies, but more in a “can you believe it” model than as a plea for sympathy. They will want you to comfort them. You will want comforting yourself.

You will hear all this bouncing off cell towers from far away, and you will begin to dread their calls. When their numbers pop up, your stomach sinks — either someone’s dead, or they want to vent. You will listen. You will verbally nod your head. You will seem like you side with the parent you’re talking to at the time, but really you side with neither of them. You never know who or what to believe, and end up believing neither of them. You will try to keep your side of the conversation neutral enough that your kids don’t pick up on it. But you will want to say the F-word.

When you hang up, your 6-year-old will note that you were talking a lot about Granddad (or Granny). You will vow to never have a conversation in front of them again, even coded. When you eventually have to explain “divorce” to the kids, they will be baffled. “But why are they getting a divorce?” your 4-year-old will ask over and over. All you can muster is, “I don’t know, baby.”

The weight of your parents’ words will sink you for the rest of the day. Your husband will know what happened as soon as you say, “Mom called.” It will enrage him because now his wife is curled in on herself and sad. You will stay this way until you go to bed.

They will begin the slow, sick division of property. She will want the truck, but she says he is going to want the truck, and so she’ll have to fight him over it. There will be a vacation home to battle out. Buy her out or sell it? The personal property was already divided when he moved out. But they will find things to fight over. They always do.

They told you to marry your best friend. They are no longer best friends. They told you marriage takes work. They stopped working. Now you’re explaining divorce to your children. You’re looking at your husband in a new way. If your parents — who seemed like such bedrock — if they can split up, what about you? What about your marriage? It seems fine. Happy, even. But one day, so did theirs. So did theirs.

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