Separation with Adult Children

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

Center for Growth / Separation and Divorce Therapy in Philadelphia

A Parent’s Separation: Through the eyes of an adult child. This is a vignette written by an adult child’s perspective.

Some would say I am one of the lucky ones, someone who experienced her whole childhood in Philadelphia and beyond in a two-parent household. My parents were married to each other when I was born in Philadelphia, and they were still married when I graduated from The University of Pennsylvania. Other childhood friends of mine who were children of divorced parents or separated parents were shuffled between two houses, were treated as messengers between parents, and saw the silver lining of two sets of wardrobes. I was unable to relate to these friends. I knew a life of family dinners, waking up to all appropriate cars in the driveway, and having only one place to go on holiday celebrations. So when my parents separated well into my adulthood, it was a major shift in my worldview and a huge adjustment in my family dynamics.

When my parents began living their life as a separated couple, one of the hardest parts for me was family gatherings. For over 20 years I was used to both my parents being there. Whether it was going to watch a baseball game, or going on vacation, planning thanksgiving dinner, or even a simple dinner out, arranging such events came easy to me. Which made it even more difficult for me as an adult planning and attending family functions and get-togethers. Either I felt I was excluding a parent, or I felt uncomfortable when my parents would try and put on a brave face and attend the same event. Often, the latter would occur, and so would some type of conflict whether between my parents, or siblings, or both. It was as though our old protocol and family traditions had been tossed out the window, and we all had to start from scratch without any model.

Communication was often hard with my parents to begin with (which was one of the reasons they separated). Often I was caught in the middle between between my parents; triangulated and used as the buffer, the mediator, etc. However, this type of role and communication only intensified during the separation. My parents’ hot and cold approach to each other often lead to me intercepting messages for my parents, or “refereeing” their conflicts. It reached a point that when I would cringe at my caller id when either of my parents’ numbers would appear calling me. I began to doubt the intentions of my parents’ phone calls; wondering the call was genuinely to touch base with me, or if was for my father to find out where my mother was, or for my mother to complain about the latest mistake my father made. I assume my parents found it easier to go through their children like information booths instead of having to face each each other. As a result of becoming an information booth, to protect myself from this unhealthy dynamic, I began to grow more distant. I assume they had no idea because their separation was so intense it overshadowed everything else in my view. This poor communication began to effect my role as the adult child in the family.

I no longer felt I had parents I could bounce ideas or questions off of, often I felt if I did there would be an emotional price to pay; basically if I asked for a favor in return I would have to serve as my mother’s therapist on the phone for the next 30 minutes. I was becoming parentified as an adult. As I felt older in the situation I saw my parents behaving younger. Sometimes behaving in a very self-involved manner, forgetting my role or feelings, or those of my siblings. The change in communication, the shift in roles contributed to me distancing myself from my parents. I no longer felt as valued by my parents, and their conflicts and issues began to follow me (mentally) everywhere I went: work, home, the gym, etc. My parents’ separation was now impacting my personal life and my well-being. I was drained, stressed, and had a very low tolerance for anything less than perfect in my own life. I felt like I was forgotten, which was a new for me. For the first time I was going to have to figure out this one on my own, because my parents were detached from anything else going on in our lives. I experienced part anger, part guilt. Anger because I felt emotionally abandoned by my parents who were supposed to be older, wiser, grown. I felt guilt because part of me thought I was being selfish and one-sided, to want the support from my parents, without reciprocating such support.

In the initial stages of a separation it’s almost inevitable that those involved “pick sides,”  this is especially so for siblings. Depending on the initial setup of our relationships with our parents, we all gravitated to different parents/ aka sides. In my case this began to impact my relationships with my siblings because either we didn’t share the same view on what our parents were going through, and often there was jealousy. For me a separation didn’t occur for just my parents, it occurred for all of us siblings, and in the end we began to separate for each other. This was most likely the case because again, we had no model, no one demonstrating to us what a united front looks like.

It took me a long time to learn to let go of the false sense of power I thought I had, and let my parents handle their issues on their own. Part of me believed I could control how they treated each other. I had hope my parents could make their marriage work, and was under the impression that I knew better than my parents. I slowly took myself out of the equation by establishing my own boundaries. I was fortunate because it was easy to focus on my own world, I was recently engaged and had many upcoming positive events to focus on. I began to pick and choose which family events I wanted to attend, as well as what phone calls and conversations I wanted to engage in. Through my actions I demonstrated my new limits to my parents and to my siblings.

In an ideal world my parents would have approached their separation completely different, and I wouldn’t have had to figure out my role in the separation the difficult way. If someone were to ask me what this ideal world looks like, I would say it looks like my parents approaching my siblings and I together, as a united front to announce their decision to separate. My parents would have remained a united front in most areas, meaning they would sit down in private in advance and come to an agreed upon arrangement as to how they would like to handle family events, vacations, sharing information of the separation with the kids, etc. I wish my parents would have explained to me ahead of time that I may lose my relationships with my siblings. Without my parents as the glue of our family, I was unaware that some of my siblings would lose connection and go in opposite directions. I wanted more preparation for that change, and instruction from my parents on how to prevent such a loss with my siblings. With feeling so disconnected from my parents, it was the support and unity from my siblings I needed the most at that time.

I wish my parents would have at least pretended that they were intact and handling the separation well. On the days they couldn’t do that, I wish they would have given me verbal permission to not involve me so I didn’t feel the need jump in and fix things. I wish they would have withheld details of the separation, including the “who did what to whom” talks.  I believe it is possible to communicate honestly with your kids without overwhelming your children with information and over sharing. My parents often over shared. I wanted to know how they were doing, and if they needed a hug, but I didn’t to know the latest example of how my dad is inconsiderate. I wanted my parents to be consistent. If they couldn’t be around each other for events with their children, I could have accepted that. Instead they would constantly change their minds, and try to do things separately, then go back to attending events together, and most of the time there was always an issue. Overall, I wanted my parents to handle the complications of a separation behind closed doors, and protect the feelings of their children, no matter what age we are.

Struggling? Call a therapist at The Center For Growth / Separation and Divorce Therapy in Philadelphia 267-324-9564 and schedule an appointment.  We are located in Center City Philadelphia.