What I Learned About Relationships From My Parents' Divorce

Even if you see it coming, divorce can affect you at any age

Couple sitting on couch with crossed arms

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I always thought my parents were going to get divorced. It was never a matter of if—it was a matter of when. Yet, it still came as a shock when they announced it. My parents (finally?) split up when I was 20, and when they did, I unknowingly joined a select club: adult children of divorce.

I don't even remember the conversation. I remember being gathered in the living room with my siblings first thing in the morning, three days after Christmas. I was packed and ready to head to the airport to go back to college, and the actual words that were spoken, I only recall in snippets. My parents decided to tough it out through the holidays, so we'd have one last Christmas as a family. I thought they were finally getting along, but it turned out, in a sort of cosmic joke, they just weren't speaking and that was why there was no fighting. And at that point, I'd started to believe they were in it for the long haul. They'd already been through so much and had recently moved to a new town for my dad's work.

"What a waste to call it quits now," I remember thinking. And I wasn't alone in feeling this way.

"We feel like our parents' relationship got through all the stages of life, that they were home free, so there can be a lot railing against it," Evie Shafner, LMFT and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, says in regards to adult children of a divorce. "To realize the people who love you most in the world, and who you love the most, don't love each other anymore can be enormously disorienting and painful, however old you are." And while I had detected their unhappiness for years, there was always a kernel of hope in me that believed they still loved each other.

Even though I'd witnessed the unraveling of my parents' marriage in real time, that day made me realize the fragility of relationships. It's scary to think that you can find someone you love, and one day, they stop loving you, or you stop loving them, or some combination of both.

And then came the feeling that it was my fault.

Ever since I figured out that my mom was pregnant with me when she married my dad, I've carried this grain of guilt around with me, which multiplied when they announced the divorce. Perhaps that's why I feel incredibly uncomfortable asking people for help. It's the lingering aftermath of feeling like a burden. And even though I have two younger siblings, the culpability has always felt like mine. I could write an entire dissertation on this guilt, but for the sake of keeping on topic I'll leave it at this: I want to feel worthy of my parents sacrificing years of happiness for me.

After the divorce, I began to distance myself from all relationships, both romantic and platonic. Part of it was, well, what's the point? It doesn't matter because eventually, you're just going to get tired of each other. I'd seen firsthand how you really can leave someone you, at one point, loved. I wanted no part in that.

In the years since they announced their divorce, my parents have both struggled and thrived outside of their relationship. I see now that it takes strength to break apart and to do what you need to do to be happy. When life seems impossible, you stand back up and you get stronger. Sometimes happiness looks different than you originally imagined it, and while my parents' journey was hard for them and for our family, perhaps it was necessary.

"Ultimately, coming to acceptance and peace, and knowing we can have a solid, lasting relationship, no matter our parents' journey, is an important realization to have," says Shafner.

Finally, something had clicked. There was no one reason they stayed together (or got married in the first place), and no one reason they got divorced. Both decisions were the culmination of thousands of moments, big and small. And if I can take anything away from that, it's to be more aware of these moments in my own relationships. It's to recognize when something feels wrong, and communicate to fix it, instead of letting things build up. It's to appreciate the good moments, and not take people for granted, and sometimes, that's easier said than done. But day by day, moment by moment, I'm working on my own journey.

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