This is the second in a series of blogs on this topic.
In the first blog of this series, I wrote about how parents told their children about the divorce (from the adult child's perspective) and how it felt to have divorced parents.
As I mentioned, I am a teacher for the court-required parent education classes for divorcing or never-married parents. The goal of the class is not to teach people how to parent but how to co-parent with their ex-partner. I liken the relationship to one of a business relationship and stress the importance of respect in communication. Statistics show that 75% of children of divorce do fine, but the other 25% are directly affected by their parents’ level of conflict post-divorce. I remind people that if they disparage the child’s other parent, it’s as though they are taking a direct hit on their own child.
I asked people what was the most difficult situation they faced as a result of their parents’ divorce. The responses are raw:
Mike said, “The most difficult part is my father not really wanting to see us.”
Isabella shared, “Difficult situations would be calling my father to remind him that the weekend was coming up and asking if he was gonna pick us up.”
Tina wrote, “I felt abandoned and discarded. …. I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I hate surprises- since the ultimate surprise was the abrupt end to my parents’ marriage.”
Liz, “I felt so much pain. When my parents split I was highly angry and took it out on my friends.”
It's understandable that parents need emotional support while they are going through a separation, but it’s important not to be dependent on their children for emotional support. This was difficult for Lisa who shared, “The most difficult situation was feeling guilty about my mom being hurt by my wanting to still see him.”
And for Rachel who hated holidays, “Thanksgiving was the worst. I always felt like I had to choose where to be and was leaving someone out when I did.”
Divorced children often feel pulled between their parents’ new and different lifestyles. As a result, they need to compartmentalize life with each parent:
Jay said, “I think the hardest thing was getting mixed messages from each parent. Even though they were divorced, it seemed like they had different values and parenting styles and were not on the same page on most things.”
A number of people wrote that it was hard to be in the same room as both parents at the same time.
Trine shared, “When I got married it was very awkward having them in the same place.”
Ari said, “…for years they couldn't be in the same room. If there was an event of some sort, there was tension. We worried for weeks if they would be able to get along. Sometimes they would act like the other one wasn't there; sometimes they would openly fight wherever we were .”
And life cycle events and celebrations became cause for worry and concern:
Faye remembers, “My Bat Mitzvah...my Dad moved out just before my Bat Mitzvah. I remember telling my Rabbi that without a happy family, I did not want to have a Bat Mitzvah.... But, my parents and the Rabbi insisted and I did have one....”
Anonymous said, “Big life events were never easy. When I completed my college degree and my doctorate, I naturally wanted my family there to celebrate but I was also anxious about having everyone in the same place. It's been easier to keep them separated in my mind.”
Amy coached her parents on how to behave at her college graduation: “I had to actually talk to each of them individually, before they traveled out to see me, and lecture them on behavior. I had to point blank tell them that this was one of the most important accomplishments in my life, and if they couldn't be civil not to bother coming and ruining it for me.”
Divorced families need to make financial adjustments to support two homes. Geoffrey remembers a dramatic change in his family’s financial situation, “We were pretty middle class before the divorce. … After the divorce we were POOR - government cheese and big patches on the knees of my pants poor. …She was working as a teacher-aid and that year we put up a construction paper Christmas tree because our place was too small for a tree. I remember that my present that year was a plastic army helmet.”
Dawn felt rejected by her father, “… he would not walk me down the aisle with my mom at my wedding. I am Jewish and traditionally both (parents) walk the bride.”
People think about their divorce in the here and now and not how it will effect them in the long term. I like to ask, “Think ahead to your child’s wedding. Do you think you and your ex can stand on either side of your child and walk him/her down the aisle? And how do you think your child will feel standing between you?”
This question helps people to understand that they will always be connected to one another through their children and how important it is to try to maintain a civil relationship despite how difficult it may be. Society no longer believes that a couple should stay married for the "sake of the children", but I strongly believe you need to stay civil for your children's sake.
I’m learning from my study participants and hope that you are too. My goal is for people who are thinking about separating, are in the midst of a separation, or already divorced, will read this and think about how their adult behavior impacts their children's lives not only during the process but going forward too. My next blog will address positive outcomes of divorce as felt by the adult children of divorce.
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.