Sunday, April 3, 2011

Questions From a Parent Considering Gray Divorce

I commented on a No Fault Divorce article last month, because it had a breakdown of divorce's effects on children, listed by stage of their development, and it stopped at age 18 -  to most of society, the last accepted age of parental divorce's significant impact. I received a follow up comment from a still-married mother of adult children, who after reading some of my entries here, asked if I might address some questions, since she is unsure of the wisdom in continuing her marriage. It feels a little heavy to speak my mind in such a context, especially considering that the last 5 years have been characterized by a lack of consistency in the feelings my parents' divorce has elicited. Much of the time since my dad left has been absolute Emotional and Interpersonal Anarchy, not just in my relationships with my parents, but also spilling over into my relationship with my children's father. I have felt largely and categorically undone, and I will talk about my experiences openly, but I feel pretty unqualified to make sweeping, generalized statements.

I can tell you this: the questions I have been asked to answer have never been asked of me before. And if I were the grown child of a parent with enough compassion and perspective to wonder about these answers for her own children, I would feel hopeful about our relationship's potential.

Here's what she's asked me to address:

"If the past can’t be changed, and assuming your parents never reunite, what would most help you to release anger? What would feel like balm to your heart?
If you were to tell each parent what you most want/need from them, what would it be?" 

 I wish every parent asked these questions. ACOD blogger Grace, of  Life As I Knew It, has just gotten ahold of the excellent and out-of-print book A Grief Out of Season: When Your Parents Divorce in Your Adult Years, which prompted me to start rereading the copy I own. It's been several years since I last picked it up, and this time I'm annotating. I read last night that it's the pervasive attitude that grown children are somehow less affected, even not affected by parental divorce, which may have the most bearing on the fact that adult children are often, unlike their younger counterparts, swept directly into the center of the conflict without pause or remorse.

Parents say, "You have your own family now. You don't have needs where my marriage is concerned, but I do. And if you're a good child, if I raised you well, you're going to support me now while I show and tell you everything that's gone wrong from the beginning." It's not your family. It's their marriage.

Neither of my parents have really voiced concern over my emotional well-being regarding their divorce. It's always been about them: their hurts, their fears, their disappointments. Sometimes they've framed assertions in a cautionary way to me - "Watch out for this, your father's going to xyz," "Be prepared, your mother is prone to <insert accusation here>." I've never thought those comments were altruistic. My mother has said for 5 years that I needed to protect my son from my father's influence. That's the slyness of Parental Alienation, right? Ulterior motives dressed in a costume of concern that they themselves might not even see?


So what would release my anger?

I'm not sure that it would completely eliminate it, but a good start would be listening to me. I really haven't been listened to by either parent. And by "listening" I mean both the act of compassionate hearing, and the act of showing me some respect as an individual. It doesn't change the facts of what's happened, but I could definitely go the rest of my life never again being told that what I just said was off limits and being given ultimatums about our relationship. I could definitely go for a life in which I said, "My children will not be calling your wife 'Grandma,'" and that was respected. I have been treated by both my parents as a guilty third party, with all the disregard implicit in such a position, and I think that's a pretty major source of my anger. So just not fueling that any more would be helpful.

I tried to take a break from my dad beginning last August, but he kept poking at me all fall despite my requests for space. I had to block his email addresses. I had to block him on Facebook. He showed up with his wife at my dear friend's mother's funeral. He showed up at my boyfriend's job. When I finally flipped royally over the whole thing it was Christmas Eve, and I'd just gotten an email confirming shipment of some presents to us, as well as finding out that he'd posted pictures of gifts and stockings for my children on Facebook with captions like, "Christmas is about the grandkids." I fired off a very direct, extremely terse email to him explicitly stating that he was to have no further contact with me or my family in any form. And the "goodbye" email I got from him (in classic form, the last of two he wrote), a clichéd litany of justifications, ended with these words, apropos of nothing I'd said:
"PS [My wife] isn't the other woman, she's the ONLY woman.
Your "loving" earthly father,
Nice, right? That's the last word in our relationship? So I guess I don't know how to answer the question of how to dissolve my anger with him, because at this point I don't believe that there's any potential to change the way my dad treats me. Too many interactions with him have thrown fresh hurt on the heap.

Time, I guess.

Time away, without having people question my choice to be estranged. That's happened too, like it's something I didn't think through. Like I'm a 14-year-old with text message drama instead of a 31-year-old mother of two who's trying to put a stop to several generations' worth of broken families.

As far as my mother goes, she did not initiate the divorce, and despite my dad's infidelity she did not want to divorce. I have had anger with her over the years for what I've sometimes viewed as "doormat" behavior, but our issues have been mostly transitional and we are at a more peaceful place at this point. Becoming a mother myself certainly helped that process. In the wake of the divorce, I view her peacekeeping attempts very, very differently. I see much more clearly what an active thing it can be to choose peace. I do still think that, in terms of chemistry with my father, that tack may have been doomed from the start, because his temperament is such that he needs someone to push off of - an unyielding place to orient himself towards compromise. I see that in the absence of someone who would fight back, he only sought connection further. And that basically meant that the fastest way to escort him to his rage was to stay calm when he was upset.

It was a catch-22: maybe my mom could have jumped in the mud of conflict with him more, and had more intimacy with him in the process. But then they both would have been in the mud, and I'm not sure she could have pulled him out of it anyway. It always seemed like my dad's idea of love was mud. I don't know at this point if I'd even wish for my parents to reunite. I don't think I would.

I think the best situation among less-than-ideal options would have been if my mother had initiated their split and my father's final affair had not been part of the equation at all. In fact, that's the number one thing that has complicated this entire process: the affair. The presence of a total stranger in my parents' divorce.

If there is one piece of advice I can give to a parent considering gray divorce it's this:


I'm pretty sure that if, God forbid, my sister or I died, my mother would not come to the funeral if my dad and his wife were there. She told us explicitly that she wouldn't attend our someday-weddings under those circumstances. I'm fairly confident that if my dad's wife hadn't been involved in the divorce that would not be the case. It's not about weddings or funerals though - it's about this climate, which now permeates our lives in smaller ways ad nauseam.

The other thing I want to mention here is that my mother is now involved with a man whose treatment of my son is rude and unacceptable. He lives out-of-state, and the last time he visited - staying in the house I grew up in - he held the closet door shut while my 5-year-old panicked and cried inside during a "game" of Hide-And-Go-Seek. And then he insinuated that my son was "a sissy." This was the proverbial icing on a very tall cake. My mom has refused to address these types of issues with him, and he's come here every major holiday, so now my children will grow up without seeing any of their grandparents on holidays, even though we're all just a few miles from each other.

To me, someone that shows up in this situation and behaves in ways that foster further distance between us all doesn't belong here. It's bad enough telling my son that the grandmother he adores is gone for 2 weeks because she wanted to visit this man several times a year. Stuffing my feelings about this situation definitely makes things worse.

What would feel like a balm to my heart?

From my dad: 
  • Honestly, asking these questions. Then listening, really listening, without injecting his own feelings or trying to explain or justify anything.
  • I'd like an apology that feels like I'm actually recognized instead being treated as the vessel for his aired conscience.
  • I'd like to have my comfort level in our interactions, particularly where his wife is concerned, to be both considered and respected. 

From my mom:
  • The last time I cried, really cried in front of her about the divorce, she said, "Oh I wish I could just wrap you up like a little girl." I wish she would have. Adults need mothering too, especially mothers of young children. It's sometimes felt like she has rejected that role in the wake of the divorce, and that has felt really bad. I'd just like my mom back, in at least some sense.


If you are still with me at the end of this very long post (whew, sorry!) the last thing I'll direct you to is a link which contains an Adult Child of Divorce's "Bill of Rights," written by Relationship Coach and fellow ACOD Rebecca Fein. I probably should have opened with it, because I have read many stories of every item on it being disregarded by parents choosing gray divorce, and I think it probably could have as much value to parents as adult children. It's included in my links sidebar as well.

Mourningstar, thank you for asking me these questions. I hope somewhere in the post is some nugget that helps you find clarity in your own situation; I certainly feel like writing it helped me.


  1. beautiful. Again, thank you... i'll just slowly read all these posts :) hard day today, and kind of dazed and broken.