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Speaking Out: Voices of Adult Children of Divorce

“The divorce was officially referred to in our house as "the war." If something was gone and missing it was "oh well, we lost it in the war." Amy

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on this topic

Children of divorce may feel like they have two separate identities. The child may behave or act a certain way depending on which parent he or she is with at the time. Given the freedom to make their own rules, parents are setting up their homes the way they wish to for the first time. They may create new rules about bed time, what to eat, what chores children do, etc. and this may vastly differ in each home. Children need to navigate their new landscape and understand what is expected of them in both of their homes. In this blog, I wanted to look at how adult children of divorce felt in regards to divided loyalty between their parents and whether they felt they had to take sides with one parent or another.

For Jessica, there was fear of being disloyal to her mother, “I never used the word "step-mother" until I was an adult. I thought that was a betrayal of my mother.”

“G” said, “Even now, at 31, I hesitate to talk about one in front of the other.”

Similarly, “B” said, “My defenses go up for either one when they mention something about one another or one another's family.”

And Traci shared, “To this day, when my mom "bad-mouths" my dad, it makes me uncomfortable. Now that I'm older and more confident, I have no issues asking her to stop.”

Susan found some positive in the division: “Would I have been independent if I didn't need to divide myself between parents, quite literally? Who knows.”

For some children, their parents might not have asked them to take a side, but because of the circumstances around the divorce, the child sensed that they had to out of loyalty. This seems to correlate with the child wanting to protect the parent who was more “wounded” by the divorce.

Take Kristen, she felt “We will forever be on our mom's side. She is the one who selflessly and tirelessly took care of us and did everything for us.”

And Isabella, “I was always a daddy's girl but living with my mom I felt like I had to have her side. I felt like if they were arguing and I would take my mom's side so she wouldn't be mad. She never did get mad but I didn't want to hurt her feelings.”

Faye felt similarly too, “I always took the side of my mom because she took such great care of us... I wanted to protect her and show my appreciation for her.”

Lisa’s mom let it go, but Lisa felt guilty, “…there's always guilt. I was absolutely devoted to my mom. She had been wronged, right? ... I knew it was upsetting for my mom but to her credit and incredible strength, love, and concern for me, she gritted her teeth and didn't stand in my way.”

While some people said that they had to take sides with one parent, another woman (also named Lisa) said, “I didn't have to take a side, but at the time of their separation and divorce, I sided with my father. In retrospect, I now have a more balanced view of the situation, but at that time I was more upset with my mother's out of control, unpredictable, irrational behavior, and so empathized with my father's decision to move out of the house.”

Jessica also worried that she had to choose her dad’s side, but it was based in fear, “My Dad always made me feel like I had to choose sides. I was so scared of him that I didn't trust anything he said, so I never chose his side for sure.”

And Heather said, “yes, I did take my dad's side because he was more vocal to me about the situation which resulted in me being very upset with my mother. As an adult, I see that he shouldn't (have) done that but he didn't have the capacity to handle it any other way.”

Angela was torn apart by it, “My mother tried to make us take her side. It was a gut-wrenching experience.”

And Geoffrey thought he was protecting his dad, “I'm still not sure why I stood up for him, but I think I sensed how sad and uncomfortable he was picking us up and dropping us off. I think he didn't know how to overcome this.”

In the Parenting class, we teach about the importance of communicating with one another directly and not using children as “messengers” or playing “I spy” (asking children what’s happening in the other home). The responses that I’ve shared in this blog show a side of hurt by children whose parents were distracted by their own emotions around the divorce and may have been unable to see beyond themselves to the affect their behavior was having on their children. My hope is that current families going through a divorce will learn from these lessons of the past.

In my next blog I will continue to address how it felt to be caught in the middle when raised by divorced parents.

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.

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