Stop Telling Adult Children Of Divorce To ‘Get Over It’

Divorce for an adult child is many things, but easy isn’t one of them, says Chelsea Cristene.

I remember, clear as day, the moment my parents told me they were getting a divorce. Which was odd, considering my head was as fuzzy as the view out of my windshield, wipers ineffective against the rain, as I drove across the state line to the apartment of my childhood best friend.

He bought me a very large, very strong margarita at the Applebee’s down the street and I sat with him at the bar, feeling rooted, feeling thankful, for the constancy he provided. My parents were ending their 30-year marriage and my father was moving three hours away to a strange city. But for the moment, I could relax because the friend I grew up with wasn’t going anywhere.

Sounds like a strange way for a child to deal with divorce, doesn’t it? Driving in the rain? Drinking cocktails? From all that has been written of children of divorce—custody battles, alternating weekends, shielding them from the details—you would think this experience is unique to the younger set. But I wasn’t 7 when my parents split—I was 23.

Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University’s sociology department found that in 2010, the number of divorced adults had doubled since 1990, and that approximately 1 in 4 divorces in 2010 were “gray divorces,” or divorces between couples older than 50. Despite these rising figures and the subsequent rise in the ages of children affected, most “divorce talk” is still geared toward families with smaller children. 

There is clear-cut advice for dealing with a child’s reaction to divorce. Make it clear that divorce is not the child’s fault. Don’t share the intimate details. Don’t blame or badmouth the other parent. Form a united front. Interestingly enough, when the “child” is an adult, sometimes living on his or her own or even with a family of his or her own, these rules often go out the window. I wish that I had a dollar for every time I was treated as a confidant and not a daughter or wanted to plug my ears during my parents’ uncomfortable over-sharing of personal and financial issues.

One of the most confusing parts of the process was that some people whose parents had split when they were very young were eager to tell me that I shouldn’t be grieving in the same way, because I was older. Comments like “You’re old enough to handle this” and “You should feel lucky that you had a family as long as you did”—even my own doctor casually remarking that he didn’t see what the big deal was—made me wonder if I was maladjusted and off-base for struggling to come to terms with what had happened and how my life would change.

Divorce for an adult child is many things, but easy isn’t one of them.

It’s living in the house you grew up in with two parents who no longer love each other—for an entire year. It’s the new segregation of one parent upstairs, one parent downstairs, and the silent dinners held when it’s most convenient for all three of you (because everyone has to eat, speaking or not), that make you want to tear off your skin.

It’s realizing that certain memories are now off limits—you can no longer talk to your parents about how they loved watching you bop along to “In The Summertime” by Mungo Jerry on long car rides or the time they bought you that red princess hat at Disney World. It’s blocking out chunks of your childhood because it’s easier to try and forget than to address the memories’ new meaning, or lack thereof.

It’s driving three hours to stay with your cousin so that you won’t be there when your dad moves out, and when half of the items you grew up with are loaded onto trucks. It’s returning home to see that your mom rearranged everything to fill the empty spaces as best she could, hopeful that it will lessen the blow.

It’s not being able to complete your coursework in an environment of tension or arguing, or later in the “new office” that, despite your mom’s good intentions, will always be dad’s old room. It’s having to take an additional year to earn your degree and start your career.

It’s watching friends of your family choose sides between your parents like kids on the playground. It’s wondering why they avert their eyes when they see you out and asking yourself if there really was a time when they offered you a place at their table on holidays or a spare bed to sleep in when the fighting was too much.

It’s watching the main focus of your graduation drift from your accomplishments to the logistics of your parents’ interaction, and dreading future celebrations for fear that they’ll be more of the same.

It’s hearing “When you do that, you’re just like your mother/father” more times than you can count and wondering how you can avoid being too much like one or the other when you’re a product of both and when it was never such a bad thing before.

Kasey Edwards said it best in The Huffington Post: “Watching the family home and assets being packed up and fought over shatters your world, no matter how old you are. It was as if my safety net in life had gone.”

I realize now that my first sentence contains a half-truth. My parents never “told me” that they were getting a divorce. There was no formal announcement made together, as is suggested with younger children. Instead, they retreated into separate rooms and met my questions by telling me to ask the other parent. I had to assemble a new reality from the pieces I was given. 

And in a way, I still am.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.

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