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A child of adult divorce

After 27 years of marriage, I thought my parents were safe. I figured we were one of those odd families where the husband and wife stayed husband and wife. So I was rather surprised at age 21 to receive a letter in the mail telling me otherwise.

I don’t know what it is like for little kids who’s parents divorce. I can guess and sympathize, but I’m not sure if it is easier or harder to be an adult when it happens. I certainly didn’t blame myself, and I didn’t have to chose between living at Mommy’s or Daddy’s. Instead, I was left to wonder, “If this was going to happen, shouldn’t it have happened…sooner? Like, in the era of hair bands?” I know sometimes parents stay together for the kids, but I was displeased to be used as an excuse for someone else’s decisions. I’m not sure what life would have looked like if Dad hadn’t stuck around as long as he did. Am I better off because he did? Am I worse?

I certainly lost my faith in the institution of marriage for several years after their parting. Marriage was stupid and dumb if someone could just up and leave like that, telling you he was going on a business trip to North Carolina and never come back. I looked back on the way things had been between my parents and wondered if there were signs I had missed. Was there foreshadowing in the story of my life that I could have caught with better literary analysis? So many things I thought were normal might not have been normal at all. Was Mom supposed to be doing all the cooking and yardwork? Was Dad supposed to spend so much time in the basement, never watching TV with us? It was good they never, ever fought, right?

Even today when I say, “My parents are divorced,” I pause for a second and think, “Oh, yeah, I guess they are. How weird.” Even typing it now it doesn’t quite seem true. Yet I don’t think of them as married anymore either. I just think of them as Mom and Dad. My relationships with them are individual and vastly different.

It was a very clean break, a sudden, yet quick divorce that took all of 3 months. I suppose I should be grateful for that, that it wasn’t drawn out. I guess I am. Yet, after 27 years you’d think there would be more to negotiate. I guess not. It is weird looking back at family photos and knowing the plot twist in Chapter 27. It is strange wondering what everyone was thinking as they looked into the camera lens. Sometimes I see photos of myself as a child, and I don’t remember what I was thinking myself.

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35 Comments

Lisa • February 11, 2009 at 9:47 am

What a thoughtful entry! When I was younger, I thought I had a pretty good eye for who was happily married and who wasn’t; now that I’ve seen friends divorce who I thought seemed so happy and friends who fight like cats and dogs stick together, and now that I’m married myself, I definitely subscribe to the philosophy that no one knows the real dynamic of a marriage except for the couple themselves.

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David Crowell • February 11, 2009 at 10:18 am

My parents divorced when I was five. My mother and step-father divorced when I was a young adult. I’m recently divorced myself now, and my daughters are teenagers.

Lisa above is correct. The only people that really know the state of the marriage are the two people in it.

It sounds like your parents were pretty private about whatever marital problems they had. Honestly, that’s probably the better way to handle it.

You and your mother seem close. Have you tried talking to her about it? Did she know it was coming? Does she not want to talk about it?

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Nina • February 11, 2009 at 10:41 am

Don’t loose faith in marriage. My parents are together after 35 years. x_x It’s just that people are different, you know? These are the things I tell myself when I think about the fact that I’m getting married in July. GOTTA STAY POSITIVE.

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Mara @ What's For Dinner? • February 11, 2009 at 11:15 am

My parents divorced when I was 21 after 23 years of marriage. My mom remarried soon after to a guy who could be my older brother, and it’s still weird to call him my stepfather. I did lose faith in marriage for a long time, but finding the right person who has grown and changed with me has renewed my faith. I’m getting married over Thanksgiving this year!

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debby • February 11, 2009 at 11:21 am

This was a very good post. My parents divorced when I was about 27. For years I knew there was trouble in the marriage, but I didn’t care. I just desperately wanted both of them there.

I do empathize with kids from divorced parents. And don’t even get me started on people who treat the kids like possessions and make the kids move from house to house from one week to the next.

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Catherine Devlin • February 11, 2009 at 11:34 am

My parents divorced when I was 5. Adult vs. child? There is no better, there is no worse, there is just The Suck. *hug*

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Rina • February 11, 2009 at 11:35 am

That was very sad and poignant. Thank you. I always wondered about your parents and how things were for you. You would mention it by the way but not go into it. Thank you for letting us a little deeper into your life.

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Quix • February 11, 2009 at 11:41 am

My parents fight ALL THE TIME but it’s it’s just how they are – it’s just bickering, not real serious fighting (like over purchases being too expensive, giving the wrong directions, etc), and I think they actually enjoy it. They tease each other and poke fun at each other and are super competitive and from the outside, they sound 5 minutes away from a divorce, but it’s just how they are.

I’m sorry you had to go through that, upon first consideration I’d think that being older would be easier because you might understand what it is to get into and fall out of a relationship, but it would also be harder because you’re just used to having parents for your whole life…

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asithi • February 11, 2009 at 11:46 am

My parents are still together after 31 years. But there have been times in my childhood when my mom threatened my dad with divorce. I think it was kind of messed up that my mom asked me which parent I would want to live with if they get divorced. But I was the eldest child, so I was so my mom’s sounding board while my younger brother and sisters never have to worry about that in their childhood.

I have aunts and uncles that have problems, but still are married for over 30+ years. It is very unusual for Chinese families to get a divorced, especially when their families left China only 1 or 2 generations ago (not as Americanized yet, I think).

The way I see it is this: You come to this world alone and you will probably leave it alone. But in between, it is nice to be able to spend time with someone that you care about and who care about you in return whether it be a husband, partner, friend, or sibling. It is just nice to not have to be alone. As for whether you ever find a “soul mate,” maybe it might sneak up on you without you realizing it. The grass is not always greener and the moment does not have to be perfect in order for you to feel joy and contentment.

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EG • February 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I, too, was 21 and a senior in college when my parents got divorced. I’m really glad they didn’t go the letter in the mail route, that’s terrible.

Anyway, I was lucky to be 6 hours away from it all, although I did have to decide whether my bedroom suite should be moved to my mom’s house or stay put at our house which is now my dad’s house. My brother had to choose with whom to live.

They were going to get divorced about 18 months before the finally did. The first time, I did lose faith in marriage. I was crushed, and wondered, “If I came from these people, and all I know is these people, how can I do better?” Somehow in that 18 months I had realized I was already making my own way, and that I am more than the sum of my parts. Not that I was above the pain – I’ve often wondered whether my mom can really love me because I’m similar to my dad. But she does.

I think it’s important not to second-guess your whole childhood based on what happened, as you said it, in Chapter 27. The happy times really were happy.

I’ve been married since I was 22, and now my brother is married, too. We both have kids, and that has really helped our dysfunctional family. When we’re in town we’ll all have dinner together.

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Shades • February 11, 2009 at 12:39 pm

My parents fight all the time and they are pretty nasty about it. I don’t live at home anymore, but i used to wish they would just go ahead and get divorced because it was known that they only stayed together for us. What a rotten deal! Who wants to exist in a vortex of negativity?

But, I have to say PastaQueen, marriage is a fun little invention. Not that I would know, being 18 and all, but it’s just one of those cutsey romantic ideas that I’m sure was conjured up by a woman now lost to history.

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Kate • February 11, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I can completely relate to what you’ve written: my dad left my mom when I was 26, after 30 years of marriage. My mom is morbidly obese and has a panoply of medical conditions and physical limitations as a result, and this was one of the major reasons for the split. My dad moved to Bangkok, married a woman who is my age and had a daughter who is younger than my son. I know exactly what you mean about looking at old family photos. I always wondering if my parents were really happy way back when, or if they were faking for the benefit of my brother and I.

I am very happily married, but unlike my husband whose parents are still very in-love, in the back of my head I wonder if we’ll still be together years from now.

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DonnaLynn in Hawaii • February 11, 2009 at 1:27 pm

You’re thinking through some pretty deep things lately, PQ. The photo albums, children, marriage, your stuff…

Are you okay?

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Wakati • February 11, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Hmmm…I feel like my parents are on the brink of divorce after 34 years of marriage. Everytime I talk to them I can feel the tension. Yet they seem to do a lot together and have fun and enjoy each other. You just never know.

Both my brother and I failed at marriage. I know it was a huge blow to them. I tried to tough it out, but I felt like I was sticking with it for the institution. There was just nothing there. Marriage is very, very, very difficult and only the 2 people in the relationship know what’s going on. Even then, only one of the people might be feeling bad or good about it and if there’s no communication, who knows?

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Abby • February 11, 2009 at 2:24 pm

My parents divorced when I was 5 – there was a nasty custody battle until I was 10. It was all pretty horrendous, but it made me grow up quickly and I feel stronger for it today.

I scoffed at the institution of marriage until my mid 20s. I’m 27 now and am dating someone I love. I still think marriage can be hell but revel in the thought of creating a family together. I have to disassociate the two concepts in my brain somehow.

I think I have a much better understanding of what it is to be married after watching my parents fail so miserably at it. I’m not destined to live out their mistakes, and the same goes for you.

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LacubriousOne • February 11, 2009 at 2:42 pm

My parents divorced 2+ years ago after 37 years of marriage (I’m 38) and while it wasn’t a secret that they fought and had fidelity issues …the thought of my Dad cheating on my Mom really affected me. It is hard no matter what age you are and it really makes you question your past. Was my upbringing built on a lie?

I’ve been close to my Mom since the split, but she divulges too much info to me about the situation…the divorce…and the outcome.

I only recently met with my Dad over lunch with my husband, my brother and his wife. It has been 2 years so I took anti anxiety meds before the meeting and really it was mostly pleasantries and non volatile topics. Not too awkward but not too personal either. I was fine…but it has taken 2 years and antidepressants and antianxiety meds to be able to deal with it. Some may call the meds crutches, but I’m not ashamed.

Again, it’s challenging but I think the biggest impact has been having other people available to support you through this time. I had my husband. The other thing is to realize that you need a life for yourself not for them. So while you can stay connected, you don’t have to be all in their business.

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Kathleen • February 11, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Same boat here. Thirty three years of marriage, and then mom left. I’d been married six months. It messed with me something awful. There aren’t a lot of resources out there for adult children of divorce. And I still, four years later, struggle at holidays. Or any time I’m asked if my parents are married. I forget, and then when I remember I get sad all over again.

But don’t lose hope in marriage. It’s not the institution that is screwed up– it’s the people in the relationship. When it’s done right, and both people in the relationship are willing to do anything to keep the “we” alive, it’s fabulous.

I’m really sorry to hear it happened to you.

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JEM • February 11, 2009 at 3:42 pm

It is scary to see it happen after so many years invested and a family raised. My parents have been married for 30 years last december and I thought if they stuck it out this long, maybe I am safe…but then again, maybe not.

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Ellen • February 11, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Sure our past is a huge part of who we are now. My hope is we take the good part and dump the bad. Sounds so easy, yes?

My folks divorced after 38 years of marriage. When my mother went to court to finalize it, (of course Dad couldn’t be bothered to show up) the judge saw how many years married and replied…..you obviously gave it your best shot. Enjoy your new life Mrs. K.

And that is exactly what happened. My mother blossomed, Dad not so much. Irony at it’s best, believe me.

As stated above, divorce is the suck. And you really don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, some folks are incredible actors.

I’ve been married 20 years to the love of my life. There are some awesome men out there, enjoy the hunt finding yours.

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Lynn C • February 11, 2009 at 4:39 pm

My parents divorced after 25 years of marriage, when I was about 20 or so, and my first words after hearing it were, ‘It’s about time.’

I, too, resent being told ‘we stayed together for your sake.’ Like, gee, thanks, use me as an excuse for you being miserable, really.

My dad and I didn’t talk to each other for several years after the divorce (my mom moved to the town where I was going to college and he sort of took it as me taking her side… I never did take anyone’s side. I think they both acted stupidly and were both equally to blame, and are both now equally much happier in their second marriages.)

My husband’s parents divorced when he was younger, and based on our talks, I think things were harder for him than me, but it might simply be that I never felt all that close to my parents. You know, we just all sort of roommated our way through lives, barely noticing the other people in the house unless there was a problem.

It’s hard to say.

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Kyle • February 11, 2009 at 4:59 pm

My parents tried trial separations and then got back together and then separated again and then finally divorced. Looking back, I appreciate this because I know they really working on making it work. But that was from the years of my 2nd grade to 4th grade life, so it was pretty hard on me as a kid. It made me not trust anybody, to the point of being painfully shy. One of my teachers even wanted to hold me back because I didn’t talk.

And I have to admit that even though they finally did divorce when I was in 4th grade, and I’m almost 25 now, not a day goes by that I don’t wish they were still married. I just love them so much separately, I wish they could love each other, and we could all love each other jointly again. Boo, just typing this gets a knot in my throat.

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Barb • February 11, 2009 at 5:18 pm

I had the same deal, at 21. It was much harder on me than I expected. I come from a broken family–but I don’t at the same time. I always forget I have to coordinate the holidays differently. It’s been several years but it’s not in my head yet.

My younger siblings don’t have anything like the experience I had. I feel bad for them. I was upset, but at least I was old enough to deal with it. My feelings were out there, and I’m okay now. I feel like they might be in therapy for it later.

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Megs • February 11, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I, too, am an adult child of divorce. Growing up in my house, there was so much fighting and emotional abuse going around (and spilling over plenty onto us children) in my family I wished they would divorce with all my heart. But they waited until I was 26, ironically after I thought everything had finally calmed down for the most part between them.

I’m 28 now and occasionally wonder how much improved my awful childhood would have been had my parents not insisted on staying together for the kids. But I don’t dwell on it, it is what it is.

I also am undecided whether I ever want to marry or not. On one hand, there’s the risk that history will repeat itself. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be great to overcome the past and have a wonderful, happy marriage with someone I love with all my heart?

But I haven’t met anyone who I would want to take that risk with. At this point I feel zen, like whatever happens happens.

What about you? I guess as long as everyone in your family is happy now, then that’s good right?

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Marti • February 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm

My mom just left my father on Friday after 35 years of marriage. I just returned “home” one year ago after living 3,000 miles away for 15 years to be closer to my family. Interesting timing for sure. It’s odd. I’m trying to look at their situation as an adult and not as a child. I want them to stay together, but I know they haven’t been happy in years. They’ve been growing apart and living like roommates for at least 10 years. Her leaving might be the most honest thing that has hapened between them for a while. But like an earlier commenter you never know what its like to be in someone else’s relationship even thought you’ve known them your entire life. It just sucks.

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Calidaho • February 11, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Strange how our parents change when it seems like they should always just be what they were when we were growing up. My mom recently remarried (my dad passed away 4 years ago) and it is so weird. Her new husband moved into my childhood home and now it’s his house, too. I don’t feel the same security I did when my parents were there, even when it was just my mom. I can’t walk around in my PJs anymore (that’s just the symbol of all the other things I feel about it).

I always wonder how people split. I can’t imagine being without my husband. I look at people whose relationships fall apart or whose spouses cheat or abuse or whatever and think, were they like me and one day had a big surprise or was there something always there that they didn’t want to think about? I hope it’s the latter because I truly can’t imagine a huge breach of trust happening with my husband. I have trusted him more than anyone, even more than my parents, sometimes.

But, then, people do grow and become different. I am not the same person I was 8 years ago when I got married and I imagine I will be different in the coming decades. I hope that as my husband and I grow that we can continue to compliment each other.

Bottom line, don’t let the worry of a relationship possibly failing keep you from letting yourself get into one. Just make sure the appreciate your quirkiness :)

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Kalexias • February 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm

I kind of can relate to your post but my parents are still married after 35 years together. They don’t always seem to get along and I sometimes wonder what I would feel like if they did divorce. But then again they’ve been together so long so I would think they’d have gone their separate ways by now if they are truly unhappy. I like your reaction -and I guess I would feel a lot like you do.

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Andrea • February 11, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Oh, we have a club! My parents split while I was in college. It was weird, because they never fought, and while I’d known they’d had a rough patch a while before, I never believed they’d really do it.

And after, I think my mom was surprised at how hard it was being single.

My dad remarried faster than I ever would have dreamed, and even 15 years after that, it’s weird and awkward having a stepmother and step-siblings.

I’ve been married 17 years myself, but part of me questions whether I really know what a healthy marriage looks like, if “absence of fighting” and “raising relatively normal children in harmony” isn’t it.

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PurpleGirl • February 12, 2009 at 12:14 am

@DonnaLynn in Hawaii – I second that. Is everything okay in PQville?

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PurpleGirl • February 12, 2009 at 12:38 am

I know how you feel; my parents split up almost five years ago. Actually, they divorced when I was ten, got back together then I was fourteen, and then split up permanently ten years after that.

Actually, they split up for a few months when I was five and got back together until I fourteen, when they split up for a year and then were dating for about a year, and then weren’t for two years, and then got back together for another ten years. Then they split up, and dated other people for four months, then were sort of getting back together for two months, and then everything exploded and they haven’t spoken since.

There are reasons I’m screwed up.

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gknee • February 12, 2009 at 11:45 am

Interesting post. I’ve been contemplating divorce for the past year and one of the main reasons that keeps us together is the kids (16 and 12)— that and the economy. I appreciate your insight– more food for thought (vs actual food that I am trying to avoid!)

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Megan • February 12, 2009 at 1:14 pm

My parents have been divorced since I was 23, which is almost 30 years ago! They’ve now been divorced for longer than they were married, and I’ve been married for longer than they were. I had a very happy childhood although they did fight a lot. They were only 19 and 20 when they got married and I guess they grew apart.

My father is re-married, both my parents are very happy in their present lives, and now I wouldn’t have it any other way. Time can heal many wounds or at least give us a better perspective on things.

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Laura N • February 12, 2009 at 2:40 pm

I completely identify with you. My parents were married for 30 years when my mom left my dad. I was pregnant with my first child, and they were separated but the divorce wasn’t final when Sophie was born (almost 8 years ago). My dad came to the hospital for all of about 5 minutes before he broke down into tears and left, and didn’t come see me or my baby girl for months afterwards. He just couldn’t bare being around a grandchild without his wife. Needless to say, my relationship with my dad is pretty nonexistant right now. I see him about twice a year.

It was no surprise that mom left dad. She’d left him when I was in 2nd grade (my sister was not yet in kindergarten), and they were apart for 3 months but then got back together. Part of me wishes they’d just stayed apart & gotten divorced then. My childhood was not horrible, but not great either. Dad drank frequently & was depressed & moody a lot. Mom was resentful, lived her own life apart from him. They fought a lot. We never went on vacation–one time we went to Chicago & Wisconsin to visit family, and one time we went to Cincinnati to King’s Island, but that’s it. (Looking back, I think this was more because of $ than anything else–it was the late 70s, early 80s & lots of people were broke then.) I was a good kid so they didn’t pay much attention to what I did with my time. They were too wrapped up in their own troubles to bother with me (they were also very young–my mom was my age, 38, when I was 20).

I won’t even go into the 2 husbands my mom has had since my dad (thankfully, hopefully, #2 is a keeper & is a good guy). And my dad’s 2nd wife is a nightmare that none of us will even speak with & he won’t leave her because she’s threatened to kill herself (nice, huh?).

Anyway, you’re sure not alone. Being an adult child of divorced parents sucks. It makes me want to work hard for my marriage & cultivate a relationship with my husband so that when the kids move out, we’ll stick together. Oh yeah, and also so I’ll have a happy life instead of being miserable & feeling trapped like my mom did.

Gee whiz, I’m ready for a drink now. :)

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K • February 13, 2009 at 7:47 am

I don’t remotely fear my parents getting divorced, but I imagine that even if you’re older than you were, PQ, it’s a peculiarly final kind of blow. I think a lot of us, even as independent adults, believe in the back of our minds that if it all went wrong we could go back to Mum and Dad for a bit and have things be the same (even if this is completely unlikely).

My mother often says that when she was growing up, she thought her parents would or maybe should get divorced, because they argued a lot. She married someone very different from her father as a direct result. Meanwhile, my grandparents continued to argue a lot, but also made it to their diamond wedding anniversary and never did split up.

I sometimes wonder (especially if one of my friends has just broken up with a partner) what it would take for me to leave my marriage, and have come to the conclusion that nothing would. Really. I don’t think I’d ever stop wanting to give it a go. Not that this helps if it’s the other person who wants out…

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logtar • February 23, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Also a child of adult divorce and I also have not figured out if it would have been better as a kid or not… I did see their split coming though, it was a relief.

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Tiffany S. • March 12, 2009 at 5:34 pm

@Marti – I’m so sorry this is such a fresh hurt for you. Take care of yourself during this difficult time.

My parents divorced when I was 8, but my mom had already been married before. That was a weird day, being like five and hearing “first husband.” I remember thinking, “What? Who are you talking about? Dad is first!”

Then when my parents divorced, they ended up marrying another couple who had been married to each other (this was the 70’s, in California….) so that was ultra-weird on top of everything else.

The other couple was a horror so my brother and I got gypped twice over. My dad stayed married 10 years and my mom 30 until she finally got a divorce last year. So now she’s 72 and single.

I’m always amazed when people love their step-parents or were raised by them and love them as a parent. I just can’t imagine that. I’m also super envious when someone I know has really terrific parents, but I got what I got.

My best revenge is marrying a TERRIFIC guy at 37. That’s the best I could have ever hoped for.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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