Reflections of an Adult Child of Grey Divorce

After nearly 35 years of marriage, and a quarter of a century of child raising in their rear view mirror, my parents were successfully launching their young adult daughters into the world. Their youngest was a high school senior holding a college acceptance letter. Their middle was half way through a degree at a four year university. And their oldest was newly married with dreams of a marriage just like theirs. Then things changed. Essentially overnight, I became a child of divorce.

Except I wasn’t a child when it happened. I was a 25 year old newlywed who believed in forever marriages based on the promise my parents had made to each other so many years before. A promise that now felt like a lie. My childhood suddenly felt like a fraud. And maybe for the first time, my future felt uncertain.Reflections of an Adult Child of Grey Divorce

In our family’s case, one parent felt blindsided, confused and heartbroken. The other felt determined, resigned and sure that ending their marriage was the only path forward. The stability we had all known for so long felt rocky and unpredictable. The weight of the sadness and heartbreak was unbelievably heavy as we processed what this decision meant for our family. Each of us felt different emotions at different times. We coped the best we could. Which in hind sight was not all that well.

Even though our family wasn’t the only one navigating the phenomenon of Boomer parents getting divorced as their Millennial kids grew up and left home, I struggled to find support and resources for adult children like me.

I hope if you’re an adult child navigating a “silver split” maybe me sharing some of my story will help you feel less alone. Here are some things I wish someone would have told me a decade ago.

Your parents’ marriage was never about you. Neither was their divorce.

Reflections of an Adult Child of Grey DivorceIt may seem silly to think that at 25 I immediately wondered if I had caused my parents’ divorce, but that’s where my brain went. I had spent the prior 2 years in graduate school learning about psychology and relationships. How could I have not seen this coming? What could I have done to prevent it? Had the stress of putting me through school and paying for a wedding been too much?

As I processed the news that my parents would be getting divorced, I ruminated on these questions and asked them out loud. I laid awake at night replaying decades of interactions between me and my parents in my head wondering when everything went so wrong.

With the passage of a lot of time, the help of a counselor, incredibly supportive friends and family and a very patient husband I came out the other side of my grief knowing none of it was my fault. I needed to analyze and wonder and ask questions that never produced any satisfying answers to begin to accept that maybe my parents’ divorce would never make sense to me.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds but it sure helps.

I’ve been married for 11 years and I’ve never watched our wedding video. My wedding was one of the last major life events before my family, as I knew it, fell apart. Maybe it seems dramatic, but I just can’t bring myself to see and hear my parents together for what feels like one of the last times in my memory. Maybe time will heal that wound eventually like it’s healed many others, but I’m not there yet.

Over the past decade, grief has cast a bit of a cloud over more celebrations than I’d like to admit. However, we have made some progress. We have navigated awkward family gatherings to celebrate college graduations, the births of children, another wedding and our kids’ birthday parties. Through trial and error, hurt feelings and plenty of tears I’ve gotten better about communicating my needs, setting boundaries and adjusting expectations. I’m never going to make everyone happy and that’s hard for me. I’m learning to focus on what works for me and my little family and letting the other very capable adults in my family of origin take care of themselves.

Your childhood experiences and memories are still yours.

My childhood was safe, healthy and happy. All of my needs were met and then some. I felt secure in my relationships with both of my parents. My mom stayed home with us full time and my dad had a challenging, but steady career that allowed him enough flexibility to be very present in our childhoods. We enjoyed spending time together as a family, playing games, eating meals, swimming, camping and traveling whenever we could.

The day one of my parents announced they were divorcing the other, I literally experienced much of my life flash before my eyes. When pressed for reasons “why?” the only reason they were willing to share was “years of unhappiness.” What did this say about the lifetime of happy, joy filled memories I had with my family?

I acknowledge how privileged my childhood was and how fortunate I am that my parents divorcing when I was 25 was probably the first real trauma I faced. That said, I had to do some serious emotional work and therapy to separate my memories, feelings and experiences from the feelings and experiences of my parent. No matter what my parent was or was not feeling, my childhood experiences are still mine. I don’t have to write their unhappiness into my memories.

Your family life may be different than you would have chosen, and that’s okay.

Divorce changes relationships. So do a lot of other life events like marriage, births of children, deaths of loved ones and growing up in general. I never would have picked this. And even though my parents’ marriage ultimately ended in divorce, I imagine if they could have found some way to reconcile whatever felt so broken and to keep their marriage intact, they might have chosen that.

Each of my family members and myself have processed and been affected by the collapse of our family structure in different ways. One of my parents has remarried and that has brought a host of unexpected emotional challenges. With regards to the addition of new people into our family under circumstances beyond my control, I try to lean into the advice a friend offered me years ago- more people to love my kids is a blessing.

My kids {6 & 4} are now aware that my parents are divorced. Sometimes their innocent curiosity about my childhood and our family dynamics stings a little. But over time, I have found healing in being able to answer their questions simply and honestly. When they ask “why did grandma and grandpa break their marry?” I can honestly say “I don’t really know but I do know all of your grandparents love you to pieces.” Answering their questions reminds me it’s okay not to understand all of the complexities of why my parents’ 32 year marriage ended but that they still love me to pieces too.


 

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