‘Everything Was Suddenly Backwards’: Handling Your Parents Splitting When You’re An Adult

STELLAR contributor Niamh Foran on how she dealt with a heartbreak that was not her own.

I still remember the night my parents broke up; I was 17, my sister 20 and my brother 22. All considered to be ‘adults’ or nearly, but not one of us knowing what the feck we were supposed to do.

I remember thinking that it was something that maybe made me a little bit more interesting to the outside world, but quickly realised there was nothing quirky about having two parents who can’t sit in the same room together – or rather, would choose not to. When you’re a child of divorce, too young to understand properly, I think you begin to adjust to the situation around you and it becomes the norm. But what happens when everything you’ve grown up to know as normality is suddenly completely backwards? My parents who had been married for 25 years were all of a sudden two separate people in my life, and I had to learn how to deal with that.

Sam McGarry, a therapist at Bray Counselling & Therapy Centre and member of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, spoke to me about the ‘lifelong process’ of adjusting to a new way of family life.

Parents splitting up is a life changing event and adapting to it can be a lifelong process, so it needs to be viewed with a wider lens rather than just keeping a focus on the time that the break up happens. It can affect and inform you at different stages of your life, whether it’s now, choosing a partner or when it comes to you having a family of your own. A parental break up involves a reconfiguration of how family and relationships are in your life and takes time to navigate and adapt to.

“Everyone in the family will respond and experience the break up in different ways and at their own pace – it’s okay if there is a diversity of opinion about what is happening in your family, it is still possible to begin a new chapter and a new way of being connected to each other”.

I sometimes think back to how I handled certain situations and think how differently I would do it all now, how it really does matter what stage of life you’re at and what you feel is right to do for you at that time. One of my first thoughts in the days after my dad moved out was ‘What’s going to happen at Christmas?’ I’m sure that if it were to happen now, that would be the least of my worries, but for a 17-year-old it was pretty high up there in my list of priorities at the time.

If I could go back and relive those years, one of the main things I would change is how much of the situation I took on myself, how much of the responsibility I felt for what happened and what might happen in the future. I would try not to worry as much. What’s going to happen to my parents? Are they going to be okay? Are we going to be okay?

Now, as a 24 year-old, those days seven years ago seem like a lifetime ago. It’s still very much a reality and an issue in my everyday life, but I have learned to allow myself to not feel the pressure of other people’s decisions and actions. If I could take away any weight off their shoulders I would, but I can’t. And that’s just how it is. I realised that by carrying around all this anger, the only person I was hindering was myself.

“Of course be there for your parents and other family members, but do not take on too much responsibility for the situation,” advises Sam.

Being part of a support system during this huge change is important, but it’s crucial to remember that the decision to end an adult relationship is made between those two people, and you, as their child, deserve not to feel the pressure of responsibility, you are also entitled to your unique relationship with both of your parents. Feeling that you are caught in the middle is a difficult place to be and can be the cause of distress.

“Also, find time to look after yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup, you can’t support younger siblings or other family members without first caring for yourself. Keep a healthy balance of work, rest and play in your life, talk with friends, grieve and express your emotions when you need to and if you’re are feeling overwhelmed, isolated or alone know that there is professional support out there and accessible.”

STELLAR reader Rachel, 25, reached out to tell us her story of her parents splitting up when she was 13. “I remember very little from around that time, just a lot of sitting in with my mum making sure she was all right,” she says. “I stopped hanging around with friends after school and on the weekends for a while because I just felt like I couldn’t leave her.

“But honestly, the few months afterwards I think were a total blur. I remember friends and family being supportive, but I honestly don’t know how we got through day to day. I just remember feeling really really responsible for my mum, even like doing shopping and making dinners and lunches sort of fell to me for a while.”

My sister is seven years older, so she was going through a different stage in her life, I was still very much in my formative years and she was sort of an adult. It definitely affected me more immediately, but I think it has affected her more in the long-term. But one thing that really stood out to me only years later when someone else heard me say it out loud is that I actually helped my dad move his things out of our house and in to his new house, and only now I realise how f**ked up that is. He should never ever have involved me in that aspect of things, but like I said everything is such a blur that I don’t think anyone thinks properly when these things are happening.

“I asked my dad once why they split, and his simple answer was that he didn’t love my mum anymore, but I saw how difficult the whole thing made his life. I actually remember looking at him in his little house and thinking how alone and pathetic he seemed to me. He told me he would fully understand if myself and my sister never wanted to speak to him again, and for him to risk his relationship with his kids obviously means he was pretty unhappy in his relationship. The older I get the more I realise he was quite brave, and that there are worse things than your parents divorcing, at least they are both alive and in my life, even if they live in separate houses.”

As Sam says, each situation is different and unique to that family, so although I feel as if I am an expert in my own situation, everyone’s experiences are different and may not follow the same pattern. Having said that, my three biggest honest pieces of advice for anyone in similar circumstances who feels lost and unable to cope, would be firstly, be an ally: while focusing on your own emotions is completely necessary, check in with your siblings or anyone else that may have been affected. They’ll appreciate it more than you’ll know.

Next? Talk, talk and talk some more. I’m lucky enough to have a great set of friends who were a huge support system to me – and still are. I felt a bit weird about the idea of speaking to a therapist at the time, but now I would say it could be one the best decisions you could ever make. And lastly? Let go of the anger. is is a big one, it’s not your fault and you can’t change anything. Feel it, and then seriously, let it go.