What I would’ve done differently when my parents divorced

Credit: Kelly Sikkema

Going through a divorce has been likened to being in a car crash. Every day. For years. When my parents divorced it felt like I was strapped into the back seat of their car, colliding daily with bitterness, misery and shattered illusions.

That was ten year ago. Even though I was an adult, it was still one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. If I had my time over, this is what I would have done differently.

1. Don’t become the parent

Divorce can reverse the usual child-parent relationship dynamics. Parents often begin taking the role of the child because they’re hurt, vulnerable and scared.

After thirty years of marriage my mother had to find a way to live without my dad. She had lost so much confidence and self-esteem that simple things like redirecting mail, banking and cooking for one overwhelmed her.

I rushed in and did whatever I could to make her life easier. Before long, I found myself making important life decisions for her. But far from helping, I was enabling her to remain passive and helpless. I was keeping her trapped in the familiar comfort of victimhood.

Eventually I stopped being her crutch because I couldn’t live with all the misery and I wanted my own life back. At the time I thought I was being selfish and my mother felt hurt and betrayed.

Looking back, it was the best thing to do for both of us. She had the chance to reinvent herself and I could go back to being the daughter instead of the parent.

2. Create firm boundaries about what you will and wont talk about

When relationships break down people need to talk. A lot.

Divorcing parents can forget that their adult children are still their children, and try to turn them into confidants. Both my parents went to great lengths to detail the alleged transgressions of the other one. I learned things about both that I would prefer never to have known.

I should have established rules about what was appropriate to discuss. Not only did I not want to hear it, re-telling the past kept both of them trapped there — far longer than necessary.

3. Don’t take sides

When your family breaks up and triggers unimaginable pain for one of your parents, it’s natural to be angry. I was furious at my father for leaving my mum and I said all sorts of thing to him that I wouldn’t have said under other circumstances. Things that will never be forgotten.

With time comes perspective. Even though I can’t condone many of the things that were said and done, both of them are still my parents.

It’s not uncommon for divorcing parents to demand the absolute loyalty of their children, and to regard any contact with the other parent as a betrayal. While these demands come from a place of desperation, it’s unfair for parents to enlist their kids to the frontlines of their personal battles.

It’s also unhelpful to the recovery process. While they may take solace in punishing the other parent by withholding the kids, it keeps them trapped in a place where their own wellbeing is linked to their ex-partner.

4. Allow yourself to grieve. It’s your loss too

When the parents of young children divorce people are, with reason, concerned about the impact on the children. There are psychologists, books and even Sesame Street segments devoted to helping children come to grips with the transition.

The impact of divorce on adult children is, in contrast, barely acknowledged. But it is devastating to watch the foundation of your family crumble — no matter how old you are. It’s heartbreaking to see your parents suffer so much, knowing that they are doing it to each other.

5. Get out of the car the first chance you get

I felt trapped in the backseat of my parents divorce car for years. But no matter how long I stayed, I couldn’t prevent the inevitable. It wasn’t possible for me to save either of them from their pain. They had to choose to move on in their own way and in their own time.

And they have. But if I had my time over I would never have gotten into the car. I would have offered support but not co-dependency. It would still have been painful, but it might have been over sooner.

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