If your parents decide to go their separate ways when you’re an adult it can send your life into a complete tailspin. People, including your dear old mum and dad, expect you to take the news in your stride and shake it off like it’s no big deal. After all, you're a grown-up now, you’ve got your own life.
What they don’t tell you though is that if are unfortunate enough to be an ACOD (adult child of divorce), it can leave a legacy of hurt and chaos in its wake that has far-reaching consequences. You’re not shielded from the heartache as you would have been as a child, in fact you’re in the eye of the emotional storm. And let’s not forget the ‘role reversal’ that takes place almost as soon as the cat is out the bag – you become the sensible adult while your mild-mannered parents turn into squabbling kids.
Divorce isn't easy on a family at any stage, I know that of course, but when it happened to me in my early twenties I wasn’t quite prepared for what was about to unfold. I’d had a ridiculously happy childhood and a seemingly perfect family unit – just me, mum, dad and my older sister. There was rarely a cross word or argument, just fun times as a nice little family. However, on a sunny September morning almost a decade ago my dad woke me up to inform me that mum had left him. After twenty five years she’d left a note on the kitchen table telling him it was over and that she’d met someone else. His best friend, of all people. It was a bombshell that we as a family still feel the effects of even now.
At the time my whole world came crashing down around me. My sister and I were left to pick up the pieces of my mum’s actions, just as I was sitting my university finals (nice timing). My dad, my hero, was reduced to a shadow of his formal self, while my mum acted as if this sort of thing happened all the time. As my dad was crying on one shoulder, my mum was in denial of the destruction she had caused. My sister and I became mediators when the divorce turned ugly and we became counsellors when the realisation of what had happened really hit my dad. It was, without doubt, the worst few years of my life. Had it happened when I was a kid, I would have been shielded from the emotions, the anger, the rejection, but at 21 I was on the front line. I was seeing it all with my own eyes and was fully aware of what it all meant. I just couldn’t believe my lovely, perfect family was now just another sorry divorce statistic.
The aftershocks of my parents split can still be felt today. They sat apart at my graduation, ditto my wedding, and the birth of my daughter was an exercise in military organisation and precise timing, ensuring that neither party saw one another but felt that they were both deeply involved in the first few days of her life.
Although it has been the worst of times, I have also learned a lot from the experience and I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be the person I am today had it not been for the events of ten years ago. I am calm under pressure, I am an expert mediator and I’ve learned just how important it is to nurture and look after my own marriage, not just for the sake of my husband but for my baby daughter. I don’t want her to have to experience what I did. Weirdly, I also have excellent relationships with both of my parents, particularly my dad. We experienced a trauma together, we got through it and we value each other so much more. We see each other in a different light - as best friends who can tell each other anything.
Their divorce is now the new normal and things have greatly improved - my dad is happily remarried, my mum is still married to the man she left my father for, and we, the children, are settled and successful. It’s all worked out ok, but I still find myself thinking how different things could have been.
Going through something similar? Here’s some tips to help get you through:
Don’t Take Sides
Listen to both parties but don’t be drawn into the argument. You are still the child, after all.
Take Time Out
It can be a real strain being the adult in this situation – seek solace in your friends and loved ones. A strong support network is paramount.
Don’t let your parents resort to emotional blackmail. They’re still your parents, no matter how they feel about each other.
Individual or family counselling is a great resource. It can really help to speak to someone who isn’t part of your inner circle. It might also be a good thing to suggest to your parents.
It Will Get Better
However terrible things are in the beginning, it will get better with time.