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Coping with Your Parents' Divorce
by Jennifer Orleans, PhD

During my years as a staff psychologist in college counseling centers, many students have come in to talk to me about their experience of their parents' separation and/or divorce. It's something that students frequently present as a concern in their lives. I don't have statistics on it, but I wonder how often parents "wait until the kids are in college" to end their marriages? It seems to happen often; parents think that if they wait until the children are older, it won't hurt them so much. Perhaps this is true but, unfortunately, it still hurts when you're older.

Students also talked to me about parental separations that took place years ago. They seem to come to a point at which they're ready to think, feel, and talk about them in a way that they couldn't when the separations first happened. Maybe they see the impact it's had on their lives, and want to sort that out.

The break-up of your parents' marriage is a huge and painful thing, even in those situations where you feel like it's been a long time coming, or it's better for everybody concerned. When your parents split, the fundamental fabric and structure of your life is forever altered; it changes all of the relationships in your family. I'm not saying that you can't adjust and heal--you certainly can--but it is a significant event, and shouldn't be minimized.

The following are issues or feelings with which you might be trying to cope in the aftermath or in the midst of parental separation and/or divorce:

You can't help but wonder if you have anything to do with it.
You've probably heard that kids should always be told that divorce isn't their fault--and you know that's true. But there may still be a small part of you deep down inside that wonders if you don't figure into this somehow. It's a normal reaction, and it's a way of trying to deal with the helplessness and lack of control you may feel.

If you can, talk to your parents about it. Even if you "know" it has nothing to do with you, it can be helpful to hear it from them.

There are changes in family roles; for instance, you become a "parent-figure" to one or both of your parents.
With the sadness, anger and multiple stresses involved in parental separations, it is common for you to get pulled into a care-taking role with your parents. Although it may feel unavoidable, this is ultimately not a good situation for you to be in; you have enough stress in your own life without having to become a parent to your parents too. Don't feel guilty for not taking this role on. There are other people around who are more appropriate to support your parents through this. Encourage them to seek out sources like their friends, clergy, or a counselor or therapist. There's something of a Catch-22 in this (you don't want to be a parent to your parents, so you advise them to see a therapist, which is something like being a parent to them, etc...), but do the best you can.

You feel like you're being disloyal to one parent if you care about the other.
It's incredibly hard to be a "neutral" party when parents are hurting each other, and they may be asking you to take sides. But that's not fair to you; you love and need both parents. To the best of your ability, try to keep their relationship with each other separate from your relationship with each of them (easy to say, hard to do, I know). You will always be their son or daughter--nothing changes that. You have a need and a right to have a good relationship with each parent even if they can't continue their marriage.

You feel angry at one or both parents, and very down, sad, hurt, confused.
These are normal and legitimate reactions. Try to give yourself some time. As stated previously, this is a big thing and there's a lot to adjust to. You may feel like you have to be "strong" because your parents are falling apart, but you need time and space for your feelings, too. You may need to take a break from your relationship with one or the other parent--you may even feel like you want to end your relationship with them. You certainly have a right to make that decision, but take some time with it. Try to remember that this whole thing is a process, and you'll go through a number of different phases with it; you may feel differently about it later.

Your relationship with your siblings changes too.
Your brothers or sisters are also a part of this process. You might become closer to them, or you might find yourself growing apart from them. You may find that your sibling feels differently than you do about the situation, and that affects how you get along with him or her. It can be terrible to feel like you're losing a sibling as well as a parent. Remember that your sibs are going through a lot, too, and will need time to adjust just as you do. They may make different choices than you. Do your best to accept their decisions, just as you want them to accept yours, and try to keep the lines of communication open between you.

You become a "messenger" from one parent to the other.
Sometimes, parents who are angry and hurt stop talking to one another. Instead, they may start talking through you, relying on you to transmit messages back and forth. Obviously, this puts you in a very difficult position; you have to make sure to remember what it is they want to tell each other (or what they don't), and if they use you to tell each other bad news, it can be particularly awful. Try to get yourself out of this spot by telling your parents they need to talk directly to each other.

You have to hear one parent say bad things about the other.
The pain experienced by your parents can lead to them sniping at one another. It's not helpful to you to hear them saying nasty things about the other. Again, your goal here is not having their relationship with each other affect your relationship with each of them. Request that they express those things to someone else, because you want to continue to be on good terms with both of them.

You feel like you have no one to talk to about this.
It can be helpful to talk to friends about what you're going through, but sometimes it's more helpful to talk with a counselor or therapist. You may worry about whether you are burdening a friend with your concerns, or your friend may be sympathetic, but not really understand what you're going through. And you may need to talk about this for a while. With a friend, you might feel pressure to "get over it already." Talking to a counselor frees you from these issues to some degree. A counselor understands the situation you're facing, and will never be "burdened" by you, plus you won't have to rush. A counselor can help you sort through the range of feelings you have about your parents' separation, and help you decide what you want to do about your family relationships.

You feel like it's been a long time coming, or it's really all for the best, so it's no big deal.
Even if your parents' split was no big surprise to you, or even if you genuinely feel everybody is better off, it's still a significant event in your life. Letting go of a wish that things were different (and who wouldn't wish that their parents' marriage had been a good one?) is a difficult and painful process. Try not to wave this off. Acknowledging your deeper feelings is a healthy thing. Ignored feelings tend to surprise you later.

You feel like you'll never completely trust men or women again.

It's not unusual to be deeply affected by what happened between your parents. Perhaps you find that your own relationships with romantic partners are effected by your parents' break-up. It makes sense; your parents' relationship was your most significant model for how romantic relationships are supposed to be, so it is understandable that you would experience some personal fallout in this arena. Again, I'd recommend talking to a counselor or therapist; it's an important issue to explore.

I've found that when students are ready to look at their feelings, they often become aware of a variety of deep emotions about their parents' separation. Sometimes they know the ways in which they've been affected, while other times, they've had vague, nagging, bothersome feelings that they've tried to keep down, but the feelings kept popping up until they realized they needed to address them.

Talking about your feelings, whether with a close friend or a counselor, leads to understanding them more thoroughly, and that enables you to put them in perspective. Anybody can benefit from doing that. It's a tough thing when your parents split up, so be good to yourself, and reach out. You don't have to go through it alone.

Article courtesy of
"Where Health and Reality Meet."

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