Posted by: counselorcarmella | March 1, 2012

Book Review: The Way They Were: Dealing With Your Parents’ Divorce After A Lifetime of Marriage

I recently watched an episode of  Everybody Loves   Raymond in which Ray’s wife Deborah finds out that her parents are getting a divorce.  A previous episode showed them having problems, but  Deborah had  assumed they’d worked things out.  In this episode,  she is dealing with  this news in the middle of throwing her daughter’s birthday party.  Deborah is shown getting angry with her mother and  then breaking down in tears when her father shows up.  She tries to blame her Mom, but her father assures her the decision was  a mutual one. Later, Deborah tearfully tells her husband (Ray) how she always looked to her parents as  an example of a successful marriage and  how upsetting it is to realize that  they  couldn’t make it work.   She expresses her fears about their own prospects if  such a thing could happen after so many years.  The final scene of the episode shows them in bed and she is  asking him to hold her and then hold her tighter. 
On a later episode,  her parents sneak around to have sex while  staying at  her home.  Deborah gets all excited thinking they’re getting back together.   She  is upset all over again when they say they’re not.  Its obvious she is perplexed and  frustrated by their behaviors.  She accuses them of being selfish and  of not caring how their choices impact anyone else.  Clearly, she wanted  them  back together and had her heart set on that outcome.  She didn’t want to hear their philosophical reasons for why this was “really the best thing” or about how they still hook up every now and then for sex because they’re comfortable with each other. Down the road, there is one more episode in which  both parents come to visit for  Thanksgiving and  her Dad brings his new girlfriend.   This creates some awkwardness. In addition to her  own  mixed feelings, Deborah is concerned about her mother’s feelings.     
Even though this is a sitcom, I  think it  deals with this  issue in a realistic way. When we think about the impact of parental divorce on children, we usually think of children still young enough to live  at home. We talk about  how the stress and changes in the home may impact  kids of different ages from toddlers to teens. What we don’t  hear about, or talk about, as much is what adult children of divorcing parents go through. Although more and more people are divorcing after 20 or 30 years of marriage, the scholarly research and  self help  material available about their adult children is pretty limitted. 
Journalist Brooke Lea  Foster discovered this when faced with her own parents’ divorce as a young adult.  Her interest in this topic, and the lack of material available about it,  lead her to write a book on the subject.  “The Way They Were:  Dealing With Your Parents Divorce After A Lifetime of Marriage”  (2006) is the result of her  research and  interviews with 75 young adults who’s parents divorced after they turned 18.  She learned a lot through  hearing their stories and  this book shares  her insights and  the themes that emerged from her conversations with those interviewed. She also includes  information from  psychologists and  other experts, as well as published research findings (what few there are).   She references the work of well-known  marriage and family experts such as  Howard Markman, John Gottman,  Peggy Vaughan, and Frank Pittman. Bravely, this author also  includes a lot of information about her own experiences as her parents’ marriage was dissolving.  In addition to her own story,   interviewees stories and comments are   included throughout the book to give examples of how the topics  Foster  discusses played out in  various  situations.  She describes and provides quotations regarding their thoughts and feelings  around  changing roles and expectations in their families, grieving,   taking sides, setting boundaries, feeling abandoned, getting angry, and so on.  
Foster states that a popular belief underlying the lack of research on this subject is that grown ups can separate themselves more easily from  the problems their parents are having, but this is often not the ccase. Any major event in a family  impacts other family members in important ways no matter their age. For some young adults,  parental separation rocks their world because they  truly thought  their parents were happy and in love. Even if  parents have been fighting and threatening divorce for years,  decisive movement in that direction often comes as a shock to  grown children.  This is because, as dysfunctional as things may have been,  Mom and Dad  kept sticking it out and  putting up with each other so their  kids assume they’ll just keep doing that.  After all, they’ve done it for all these years.   
Adult children of divorcing parents often feel that their worlds and families have been thrown into a state of  complete chaos. There is often plenty of drama, tears, arguing, and sulking. Grown children of divorcing parents can find it difficult to  focus on school or work due to being preoccupied with  their family situation.  A few of those Foster interviewed even dropped out of school or changed  career plans to  go “bak home” to try and help distraught parents or younger siblings.   Many of those  profiled experienced anxiety and depression symptoms.  Some  distanced themselves from their families to avoid dealing with what was  happening. Others became overly involved. Just like younger children,  adult children can take sides, have to deal with too much information about their parents’ personal lives, lash out at one or both parents, and experience fear about the future  and how  their lives are changing. They experience feelings of rejection and   a sense of being uprooted from the  homes, rituals, and traditions that  provided them with feelings of security.  They worry about  practical concerns like  whether or not their parents will still be able to help them with college tuition or other expenses parents had previously agreed to help with. Sometimes, they find themselves at odds with siblings who may  be taking the other parents’ side and estranged from other relatives, including grandparents. Foster stated that many young adults in this situation begin having more trouble with their own  close  friendships or romantic relationships.  She says  adult children of divorce  often become scared of making the same mistakes their parents made.  This time of  upheaval may lead them to question their own choices and pull away from  romantic partners.          
Grown children feel pulled in  different directions,  want to “fix” things,  want their parents to work things out,  want to help  one or the other parent as they’re trying to put  their lives back together,  become confidants and  outlets for venting, and take on all sorts of uncomfortable roles. These young people, who are usually  in the early stages of  getting their  own adult lives established,  aren’t prepared for  what are often huge changes in their family structure and relationships. They are  also often not prepared for  things they find out about their parents, such as affairs, dishonesty, substance issues, or  massive financial irresponsibility. They don’t know how to put this information together with  the perceptions they held for years about  their parents and  who/what they were as a family. They usually aren’t thrilled about the fact that Dad or Mom  are finally doing “what makes me happy.”  They aren’t excited about new lovers  or remarriages or stepsibs either. They often feel as though there isn’t a family home to go to if the home they grew up in was sold,  or if  someone new is living in  it with one of their parents.     
The divorcing parents are often  caught up in their own drama and insensitive to  what their grown children are feeling. Their parents, who used to be the people they turned to during times of personal stress, suddenly seem unreasonable, bitter, childish, and  very self-absorbed.  Young adults want to talk about  what’s going on at college, who they’re  dating,  career decisions, or the stresses of being newly married or  having a new baby.  They also want to talk about how they feel about their parents splitting up.   When they try and  discuss their own  feelings, they often find that their parents only want to talk about themselves and their problems.  Their parents’ lack of interest in their lives and  preoccupation with  their own  interests or social lives can be very hurtful.  Adult children  often feel their parents don’t want to make time for them anymore, that they aren’t a priority, or that they’re somehow a  nuissance or a burden.  People who were  recently eager to  support and guide their little  birds who are learning to fly suddenly push them out of the nest. Or, all of a sudden, the parents are acting like the baby birds and expecting their young adult children to  help them figure out how to fly. At times, young  adult children of divorcing parents feel more like they have become the parent to a Mom or Dad who has regressed and isn’t functioning well or being  rational. They  may feel like they’ve taken on the role of counselor or mediator between their parents, as well.
Planning for holidays and navigating special occasions or  family social events can become very stressful.  Foster gives a good bit of attention to this topic. If  parents are  still angry and on bad terms, there are worries about what will happen if they have to be in the same room with each other.  This  concern takes away from the happiness of weddings, graduations, and  the arrival of new babies. Adult children  resent having to worry about  possible family drama during such  important times in their own lives.
Adult children of divorcing or divorced parents often feel as  though they  are supposed to be in several places at one time  and can’t meet everyone’s expectations. They  are met with anger or made to feel guilty when they spend time with  the other parent. They feel they can’t mention the other parent around the other side of the family or around  Mom or Dad’s new love interest.
Foster  stresses that no one should expect grown kids and new partners to be best buddies.  They are adults who happen to have a loved one in common.  Politeness and mutual respect is impportant, but  grown children shouldn’t feel pressure to be head over heels   for a new love interest.   They should still have some time alone with  their biological parents without the new partner or spouse. Young adults are very sensitive to feeling as though  a “replacement” for their  other parent is trying to   push them out or monopolize their  parent’s time or resources. Young adults often resent  a parents new  spouse getting in their business or trying to push for a closer relationship.  Mixed  feelings  may be especially  strong if  one parent left the other for  a new someone and then expects their  grown children to be accepting and welcoming of that someone.  To the  child, this is the person who broke up their parents’ marriage and  family life as they knew it and  it may take them a long time, if ever, to  be okay with that reality.  They also shouldn’t be expected to treat  new stepsiblings, whether children or adults, as brothers or sisters.  Grown children of recently divorced parents aren’t interested in creating a new family most of the time. They’re having enough trouble with the family they already have. 
Foster stresses the need for adult children of divorcing parents to  set boundaries and to say  what they will and won’t  do or will or won’t talk about.  Parents may not like the limits that are set, but  their children have to  take care of themselves and  their  own feelings.  This may mean not answering  the phone sometimes  or saying  “I’m not talking about this.  This is between you and Dad.” It may mean being more distant from one parent for a while if  that parent is being  particularly nasty and vendictive and   clearly letting that parent know why this decision is being made. Being leaned on too much, listening to   how awful the other parent is and always has been for hours, or    serving as a spy for one parent or the other  are generally roles best avoided.  Showing concern for both parents while not getting in the middle of  their issues is good strategy whenever possible.  Grown children  have to decide  that its okay if  a parent is angry at them or disappointed in how they choose to spend Christmas or  because they still communicate regularly with the other parent. 
According to Foster, the good news is that things usually settle down into a “new normal” eventually.  There may still be issues, but  the initial crisis and  time of raw emotion gradually calms down.  Grown children of divorcing or divorced parents begin sorting out the experience and putting the situation into perspective, according to Foster. These young adults eventually  realize their lives are not ruined and that they can still make  good choices. They recognize that they are not their parents and that they can  choose how  to  relate to the important people in their own lives. They can  be healthy and fulfilled personally and professionally and  use these difficult experiences as opportunities for growth and positive change.  They can let their parents deal with their own problems. They   come to a place of acceptance and often have a more accurate  understanding of who their parents are and who they are not.  They learn to have individual relationships with  each parent and  decide how to relate to  new partners (who are often thought of as  Mom  or Dad’s  new husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriend rather than step-parents.) New opportunities for closeness can  come about in unexpected ways. Over time,  families create new family rituals and talk out what needs to be talked out.  Everyone agrees that it was a stressful time and that maybe no one was at their nicest or most reasonable and mutual forgiveness is granted.   
Some endings are happier than others, of course.  Some of the young adults  Foster interviewed remained estranged from one or the other of their parents  or experienced hurts during the divorce they  felt unable to  forgive.  These often have to do with blatant lies or  financial betrayals. Regardless of whether or not relationships with both parents continue, Foster stresses the need to let go of anger and to not  keep living in the past. She  encourages young adults to  seek counseling or support groups  if the situation gets too difficult or if they can’t seem to take steps towards personally healing from  the experiences around their parents’ divorce.  She hopes her book will be a helpful resource and  provide validation and  guidance  for young adults going through this experience and those seeking to help them  through this difficult transition.  
Sensitive yet practical Writings on this topic are extremely important. I appreciate  Brooke Lea  Foster’s honesty about her own  experience of  parental divorce.  I also appreciate  the supportive tone of her writing and  the  relevant insights she  shares in “The Way They Were.” The stories she includes normalize a range of experiences and  help readers feel they’re not alone in some of the crazy making   situations that come up during parental divorce. It is well-written and  not overly lengthy.  Suggestions are practical and explanations given are easy to understand. Chapter summaries make it that much  more user friendly.  This book  provides hope and perspective and I hope it leads to more  interest in this topic among  researchers and  those in the helping professions.  I hope families  going through this experience can  learn from the mistakes of others discussed in this book and avoid some of the same problems and damaging experiences. 

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