You’ve been gone from your family home for a while. Maybe you have a good career. Maybe you’re married with a family of your own. Or, maybe you feel you have finally gotten this “adulting” thing down. Whatever it is, you feel settled and life is good. Then, the bottom suddenly drops out one day when you stop by your parents’ house. Your dad has moved out and after 32 years of marriage, they are getting divorced. Wait!! What’s happening? And just like that life is never the same.
Finding out parents are splitting up can be a shock no matter what the age. Many times, our identity is tied up with our parents and our childhood. So, even as an adult, this news isn’t easier. You can feel the same pain young children face in this situation. Yes, you’re a grownup. But, surviving the separation or divorce of your parents can still have a devastating impact on your life.
Where do I Start?
When parents begin the process of divorce, they are often so involved with their own emotional and financial issues they completely lose sight that you (their adult child) are also dealing with the impact of their situation. Getting drawn deeply into the tornado they’ve created is a real possibility. That can mean being burdened with unreasonable responsibilities that aren’t yours in the first place.
This is why it is important to know what are reasonable and unreasonable expectations from the beginning. Your parents probably won’t be able to understand the importance for you. However, the following are practical and realistic hopes to work toward:
- A calm and peaceful relationship with both of your parents (if that is your desire)
- To stay out of the middle as your parents struggle with each other
- To experience your own feelings whether they are anger, frustration, pain, love, etc., without being told you “shouldn’t” feel this way
- To work through your own feelings without pressure from other family members to respond according to someone else’s expectations
Once you establish in your own mind what boundaries are reasonable, you can set some goals and plan how you will survive the fallout. Here are some tips that may help.
Strategies for Surviving Your Parents’ Divorce
Coping with and surviving the impact of your parents’ divorce will take some time. The push and pull between separating parents can be especially difficult. And, being thrust into the middle by intimidation or by choice can inflict lasting damage to parental and sibling relationships. What can you do?
Don’t try to go it alone. While you may feel strong enough, there is no need, benefit or virtue in going through this crisis completely by yourself. In fact, isolation can raise already excessive stress levels, create regret, delay your healing and possibly leading to later health complications. Support and acceptance by other people are absolutely essential during any huge life change, and particularly this one. “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” Romans 14:7 (NIV)
Choose to NOT take sides. Many divorcing parents can become intent on pitting their adult children against their other parent. They will use criticism, blame, false vulnerability and even guilt to control your loyalty. However, siding with one parent puts you in a no-win situation and can have a serious impact on your well-bring. No matter who you believe is at fault, you will still have two parents. Remember, they divorced each other, not you. So, try to avoid playing that game from the beginning. It may take some time to figure out what the new relationships will look like, but you can do that without drawing a line in the sand. Work to say out of the drama. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Romans 14:19 (NIV)
Take care of yourself emotionally and physically. Adjustment to your parents’ divorce takes an enormous amount of energy. If you don’t take care of yourself, stress may get the upper hand. Be aware of your emotions. There is nothing wrong with anything you are feeling. Don’t isolate yourself but do make time for contemplation and quiet time (which is different). Find safe ways to blow off steam and reduce tension through exercise, rest, or recreation. Even Jesus knew when He needed time alone. Keep in mind there is always a balance to taking care of you. “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” Ephesians 5:29 (NIV)
Expect to experience a wide range of feelings. Individuals whose parents are divorcing or are divorced often experience problems with concentration, feelings of sadness, anger, and depression. They may become preoccupied with anxieties about the future, and with feelings of responsibility for one or more family members. They can even question their own marriage even if it is rock solid. Reactions like these are normal and healing takes time. Sharing these feelings with others who have had similar experiences may be helpful. Most importantly, staying close to the Lord during this time will help. “When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me.” Psalms 86:7 (NIV)
Become informed about what is going to happen. Divorces frequently are accompanied by an absence of accurate, open communication with “children.” You are an adult and can talk directly with each of your parents if you feel comfortable. Discuss such matters as when the divorce will be final, who will be living where, and what changes, if any, will happen with your financial arrangements should there be any in place (i.e., school/college tuition, etc.). Focus on what you need to know for your plans, not on information which is appropriate only for the private domain of each of your parents. “Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value the one who speaks what is right.” Proverbs 16:13 (NIV)
Be open and honest with your parents about your feelings. During a divorce and its aftermath, your parents may have difficulty seeing things clearly or understanding you. Work to be honest about your feelings with love and grace as you are trying to take care of yourself. This may prevent hurt feelings or misinterpretations of your actions. “Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25 (NIV)
Be willing to embrace the new normal. In the midst of the chaos there is one thing that’s certain, your relationship with your parents is going to be different. Dealing with the difference will be determined by how you accept this change. Simply put, acceptance is recognizing the reality of your situation and consenting to it. Struggling against this new normal will be exhausting and take an enormous amount of energy to remain angry and frustrated. Yet, your acceptance is what you control. Purposing to change how you react to the situation will change how it continues to affect you. Remember, acceptance doesn’t mean tolerating something that is clearly wrong or just doing nothing. Instead, it means taking responsibility for the things you can change and having the wisdom to know what you cannot change. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with relinquishing His will to His Father knowing His crucifixion wasn’t going to be easy. In Matthew 26:36-42, He was honest with God about His inner conflict. The Apostle Paul also had to learn to be content and accept his situation by trusting the Lord. “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13 (NIV)
Surviving the divorce of your parents will take time and patience. Adjusting your expectations for them as well as for yourself will help you navigate this unchartered territory. Never forget that life will at some point return to normal, even though the normal will look very different from before. Your newly arranged family can still be strong and loving, and you can still pursue your own hopes and dreams. Learning to be content is a process and seeking God’s strength to face this new season of your life is something that will help you cope. With His help you will move from grief, anger or frustration to seeing your new life with a fresh and hopeful perspective.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference . . .Reinhold Niebuhr