It is a surprisingly common experience to have parents going through a divorce — but that doesn’t make it any easier.
The Pew Research Center confirms that divorce for adults older than 50 has doubled since the 1990s. Empty Nest Syndrome contributes to this, with many married couples realizing that they have little in common once their adult children have left home.
Whether your parents’ divorce blindsided you or it was anticipated for many years, there will be new dynamics that you need to navigate. You may be attempting to play Switzerland and see yourself in a neutral role. Or you may feel that one of your parents is more “at fault” than the other in the circumstances that led to the divorce. Either way, navigating this breakup causes a lot of pressure and emotional stress.
If you find yourself frustrated or disappointed by your parents’ decisions and behaviors, express those concerns calmly when you feel that your parents are in a space to receive that feedback. Regardless of how they feel about each other, they share love and concern for you.
Regardless of your personal feelings, the distress your parents are going through is real and you might find yourself mirroring their various emotional states. You could also be further drawn into family drama by a younger sibling who still lives at home and is processing the divorce from a closer vantage point. Even if you haven’t lived at home for many years, this still qualifies as a drastic change in your family life.
The divorce of your parents can be destabilizing, regardless of your age or life circumstance — here are some approaches to help you navigate this difficult time.
Establishing and enforcing boundaries is critical to maintain a sense of your own balance and wholeness when in crisis. This may sound harsh — especially in a relationship to a “wronged” parent — but you are not responsible for his or her healing. You are not their friend, counselor, or lawyer, so it is important not to be dragged into any of these roles.
What might it look like to create boundaries with divorcing parents?
Decide how much time you spend discussing the divorce with either of your parents. Setting aside intentional time once a week for an hour may feel reasonable. A daily call with the expectation that you will drop whatever you are doing to listen to their divorce woes may not be acceptable. If one of your parents needs more time than you can give, gently remind them that you are also processing this new reality, and encourage them to seek a therapist who can be fully attentive to their emotional needs.
Determine the type of information you are willing to discuss. It might be gratifying to talk about positive coping skills and new post-divorce activities with your parents. Dad always wanted to join a local softball league, but Mom thought it was too much of a time commitment — now he can! Alternatively, there may be certain details of their marriage that should remain off-limits. Remind them that you didn’t want to hear details of their sex life at 15 and nothing has changed.
Strategize around holidays and milestones (birthdays, graduations, weddings, etc.). Check your calendar for upcoming family events and encourage a unified response from all the siblings. Does it make sense to have multiple holiday functions? If so, what will this look like? If your parents are going to be at the same gathering for a family event, it may be a good idea for you and your siblings to have a conversation with both of them regarding “ground rules” for being in each other’s presence.
Disparaging the other parent is never okay. When my own parents divorced during my childhood, my dad was still regularly criticizing my mom well into my teenage years. He only succeeded in driving a huge wedge in the relationship I had with him. Remind your parent that the person that is being disrespected is still your mom or dad. If your parent needs to vent, friends or extended family are a more appropriate outlet.
Whenever you determine exactly what these boundaries will look like, it is important to explicitly state them to your parents with the expectation that they will be respected. If one of your parents violates your boundaries, it is incumbent upon you to enforce consequences for those violations. In more extreme cases this may include taking “a break” from your parent(s) until he or she has successfully demonstrated that your boundaries are understood.
Know that you are not alone
There are a number of national ministry resources dedicated to helping people cope with divorce. The people in these organizations are trained and passionate about helping people like you move forward through such a difficult experience.
The mission of Life-Giving Wounds is to help people with divorced parents give voice to their pain and find healing. The organization was founded by Daniel and Bethany Meola (who are also Grotto contributors) and offers peer-led retreats and support sessions. The Meolas have also assembled a comprehensive list of additional resources (books, podcasts, videos, articles, etc.) for adults of divorced parents on their website.
Restored helps teens and young adults from broken families heal and grow. Founder Joey Pontarelli offers an engaging podcast and is a frequent speaker, and he has cultivated an online community for those needing support after parental divorce.
Grieve your parent’s divorce
No grieving process is linear — there will be inevitable ebbs and flows. At this point in your journey, you may simply need to grapple with shock or wrap your mind around the divorce’s immediate implications. Know that there will be time to process longer-term questions pertaining to how the divorce will affect your life and relationships.
You may eventually choose therapy as an ideal venue for exploring those types of questions. If your parents recently divorced, I recommend prioritizing your own self-care in the weeks and months ahead:
Pray: God hears and understands our needs and emotions, even if it seems like no one else can.
Journal: This may be an effective and low-risk strategy for exploring your own emotions in regards to the divorce. If you are particularly angry at one or both of your parents, journaling or writing an unsent letter is a healthy way to express yourself without significant consequences.
Spend quality time with friends: If your family feels dysfunctional and diminishes your energy, now might be the time to lean into more carefree relationships. Alternatively, you might have friends who have experienced parental divorce and whom can offer you some real talk.
Find life-affirming activities: Enjoy the activities — exercise, music, cooking, reading, etc. — that offer positive distraction from the weight of your family’s circumstances. Do what nourishes you today: Your parents’ divorce is likely to have significant impact on your life. Feel free to take this transition one day at a time and recognize that the healing is a journey that is best guided by intentionality and develops with the help of God’s grace.