“It doesn't matter how old you are when parents divorce, in my opinion. It's always painful. It's a break, a rift, a severing of what was…” Lisa
This is the first in a series of blogs on this topic.
In Massachusetts, parents going through a divorce are required to take a parenting class. I’ve been teaching this class one to two times a month for the last year and I find that when I share with the participants that I’m a child of divorce, and have been for 45 years, they have a lot of questions for me. They want to know if their children are going to be okay, how long does it take to adjust, what can they do to make it work for their children, etc. These questions inspired me to ask questions of other adult children of divorce in the hope that parents getting divorced can learn from all of our experiences.
I had close to 50 respondents answer my questionnaire and they are different ages, from different backgrounds, live in all parts of the United States, and their parents divorced at different times in their lives. Author’s note: Several respondents have the same first name as each other.
In class we discuss best practices for telling children of the impending divorce. We stress the importance of parents both being present, to have a script, and to make sure you are on the same page. It was interesting to me that almost half of the respondents were told by one parent, and some weren’t told at all.
Jessica shared, “My dad told my brother and me, I won't be coming home for a few days. I really don't know why he said it like that but they made it sound very temporary. They never used the word ‘divorce’ when they first told us.”
Tovah said, “They didn't really tell me. My mom tried to protect me and didn't want me to get hurt. I just figured it
I was curious if people were surprised when they found out their parents were getting a divorced. Almost half said yes.
Jonathan said, “At the time, I was absolutely floored. In hindsight, I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised.”
Isabella said, “I was extremely shocked when my parents said they were getting divorced. I definitely cried and thought it was the worst thing in the world.”
Susan said, “Yes, I was shocked. I thought my parents had a great marriage. I was living away at college and had no idea my parents weren’t getting along.”
Stephanie said, “Yes. I was quite surprised when they told me they were getting divorced. They had never argued or fought in front of us and (we) were confused.”
In the Parenting classes, we teach that a “happy divorce” is better for children than a high conflict marriage. In these cases presented above, and maybe it was the generation we lived in, the couples kept their conflict away from the children. Other people shared that they weren’t surprised, that their parents were fighting all the time, and some were even relieved when their parents finally separated.
I was also curious about how their parents told them they were getting divorced and how it felt to have divorced parents. There were a few themes that I found in the responses; some people felt ashamed or embarrassed, others felt that they had become more resilient as a result of their parents divorce, and others shared positive outcomes due to the divorce.
Patrice said, “Socially, it was difficult at school because very few mothers were single at that time (1960s). I was openly excluded from social events and some children were not allowed by their parents to socialize with me. I was ashamed of my situation at school and in church situations.”
Stephanie shared, “At this point, so many of my friends parents were getting divorced that it started to seem normal, I didn't really feel like I was the only one dealing with it.”
Amy said, “It was hard. I lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone and everything. It was also incredibly rare for people to get divorced back then and still a bit of a stigma.”
Geoffrey said, “I remember feeling rushed and tense a lot of the time growing up. We never had very much money. I loved sports, but my mom had no real interest in them, so I wasn't very good. We'd always be the last to sign-up, I never knew what sort of equipment I should have, etc.”
Liz said, “I was embarrassed. We were forced to sell our house and move. My mom had to get a job. I started a brand new school in a new city. My life turned upside down.”
Anonymous was raised by her dad, “People had reactions to a single father raising an only daughter. They assumed my mom had died. It was strange for most people to think of a father being awarded primary custody, especially of a daughter.”
Nancy became more resilient: “I felt weird but my best friends’ parents were also divorced and we formed a divorced parents club in my basement. We would talk about our feelings and rant. It was very therapeutic.”
Patrice said, “My parents always spoke highly of each other. They were friendly and we had holidays all together when I was older, including step parents.”
Susan shared, “One thing I'll give them, they never put me in the middle of whatever went on between them. I was smart enough to know my father never paid the dentist or my mother didn't invite his family, etc., but if I ever said something nasty about one in front of the other I was told to watch my mouth and parents were to be treated with respect.”
Jonathan has a positive outlook: “I'm lucky my parents stayed close friends after they split. I've never had to take a side.”
Since the classes I teach are required, we assure parents that they are probably very good parents and we want to talk with them about how to have a successful ongoing relationship with their co-parent now that they are separating. The dynamics in their relationship have changed into more of a “business” relationship. If they can be successful, they will have positive outcomes with their children.
Upcoming blogs will focus on difficult situations and positive outcomes that were shared with me by the respondents. I look forward to your comments below.
Jody Comins, MSW is a Divorce & Family Mediator and Collaborative Coach in the Greater Boston area. She is an adult child of divorce and uses her experience to create a child-centered practice at A Better Way: Divorce Mediation. She is a mentor for volunteer mediators in the Norfolk Probate & Family Court and a court approved facilitator for the required parenting classes in MA.