When you’re a fully-grown adult who (mostly) does your own laundry, the old platitudes regarding your parents’ divorce – “it’s not your fault”, “your parents both love you very much” – can seem all the more hollow. Unfortunately, with the number of divorces in the over-50 population having doubled since 1990, more and more young people are having to deal with the breakdown of their parent’s marriage whilst at university or at the start of their careers.
Modern technology means that parents are generally only a quick text, email, or, in the case of my friend’s particularly tech-savvy mum, Snapchat away. Many students find it reassuring to know that the comforts of home are only a phone call away, but how does it affect young adults when their parents’ relationship breaks down and this support system becomes precarious? It is well acknowledged that divorce can be distressing for children, who lack the emotional capacity to process the upheaval. But there’s little research on the impact on young adults whose parents decide to end a marriage.
It’s easy to think that the older you are, the less impact divorce will have. In theory, a twenty-year-old has a greater ability to rationalise and accept their parents’ separation than a nine-year-old, but being older also has its pitfalls. Whilst in most cases parents will make an effort to protect little ones from becoming involved in conflict, they are more likely to unload their grievances onto their grown-up children as the marriage breaks down. For me, this was entirely the case. My parents divorced three years ago and since then I have had multiple phone conversations patiently discussing Mum’s issues with Dad, Dad’s issues with Mum, and the unending trials of co-parenting my younger siblings. At aged 18, I unwittingly found myself acting as an unofficial marriage councillor. In my first year as an independent adult, this was not ideal.
Tamara Afifi is a professor in the Department of Communication at UCSB who analyses the physiological stress responses in children. She discovered that, regardless of whether the parents are together or separated, the children who display the highest levels of physiological distress are those whose parents experience a lot of conflict. She found that it’s not so much divorce itself that impacts negatively on a child, but the aggressive or passive-aggressive way in which divorcing parents often relate to each other.
Unlike most children, young adults are not subservient to their parents and can have rational conversations with them as equals. This means that young people can end up acting as a mediator or caught in a tug-of-war that requires siblings to take sides. They feel torn between different loyalties, trying to maintain relationships with both parents while perhaps finding themselves defending one parent against the rage of the other. For me, becoming an ally to my mum placed a strain on the relationship with my dad, and vice versa. This can be an impossibly stressful situation, and adds an extra layer of worry onto the already difficult task of establishing yourself as an independent adult.
Afifi advises parents to minimise conflict, but this is not always possible. Divorce is painful regardless of age, sometimes forcing you to reframe your “perfect” childhood or reassess how you feel about marriage and relationships. The impact of parental divorce on young adults is not to be underestimated. However, being an adult child of divorce has its advantages. It means that, rather than relying on parents to set the appropriate boundaries, you can decide yourself how much or how little you want to be involved. I’ve found the best tactic in dealing with my parents’ divorce is to be like Switzerland: remain neutral and refuse to be dragged into the fray. Now, whenever I feel a line has been crossed, I just ask the offending parent “I’m a bit busy with my job/uni/friends at the moment, could you talk to Mum/Dad about this?” Ultimately parents should be able to deal with their own struggles; young adults have enough of their own.
IMAGE: Cordell and Cordell