When Parents Clash

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Saving Your Sanity

By Michele Bloomquist
WebMD Feature

Jan. 8, 2001 -- When Lindsey went home for Christmas during her freshman year in college, her world changed forever. Raised by two parents who were the model of Catholic family values, it came as a complete shock to discover that her father was leaving her mom to marry his secretary. Now 25 years old, Lindsey says she still feels she's always in the middle. "Every vacation, I have to split the time between them equally or there is jealousy. I dread going home," she says.

Nigel can relate. His parents split up during his senior year in college. More than 10 years later, they still aren't talking. His father didn't go to his college graduation, fearing he would run into Nigel's mom. Nigel's mother boycotted her son's surprise 30th birthday party, fearing she would run into Nigel's dad. While both managed to attend his wedding, "the thing my wife and I both remember the most is how stressful it was because of my parents," he says.

Just because a child reaches the age of 18, it doesn't make them immune to the effects of their parents' break-up, says Spencer Eth, MD, a child psychiatrist and vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center in New York City. "In fact, as adults, children are often less shielded from the conflict," he says. The pattern can continue for years, making events like weddings, birthdays, graduations, and holidays fraught with tension. "The first rule," Eth tells WebMD, "is that there are no rules." However, the following suggestions may help the adult child of divorce devise a personal battle plan.

Don't Take Sides

Eth warns against taking sides in the divorce, even in cases like Lindsey's, where it would seem easy to label one parent good and the other parent bad. "You have two parents, and you always will," Eth says.

Lindsey was very upset by her father's affair, the impact it had on her mother, and the way that it turned her own life on end. She admits that for several years she considered leaving him out of her life altogether. "But I knew I would have regretted that decision down the road. It isn't always easy, but I'm glad we still have a relationship," she says.

Don't Play Games

Nigel knows all to well that there is no right answer to his mother's question, "How is your father?"

"It makes me very uncomfortable," he says. "I know that if I say he is happy, that will make her upset. But if I refuse to answer, that also makes her upset. And if I lie, then it makes me upset. There's no way to win that game."

"People have been fighting through their children for too long," says Frances Goldscheider, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., who studies the impact of divorce on children. "It can almost become a habit." When you are 10, it can be hard to be assertive, she says, but as an adult it's important to outgrow such patterns.

"People know when something is being asked in a hostile way," says Christy M. Buchanan, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and co-author of the book Adolescents After Divorce. She says if questions about the other parent seem invasive, they are probably better left unanswered. Buchanan also suggests refusing to carry messages between parents. If a parent seems to always talk negatively about the other parent, she suggests saying something to the effect of, "I love you dearly but I love dad (or mom) too. It's hard for me to hear either one of you talk badly about the other. Could we just not have those kinds of discussions?" While the parent may not react well to such changes at the time, it may help to minimize such patterns in the future, she says. And once you've said it, remember to stick to your guns.

Give It Time

You may find that the parent who leaves moves on with his or her life a lot faster than the parent who was left, says Eth. Nigel sees this in his own parents' lives. His father was ready to date just a few months after the separation. His mother, on the other hand, is still deeply affected by the divorce years later. "There is a process that can't be rushed," Eth says. Like other situations that involve feelings of loss and grief, people move through the stages of healing on their own time. "The parent who left may be ahead because they started the process secretly long before," says Eth.

Be Gracious

If one of your parents has moved on to another relationship, watch out for the tendency to reject their new partner or try to pretend that they don't exist, says Goldscheider. While you may not care for that person yourself, he or she is important to your parent. "Don't ever put a parent in a situation where they have to choose between the new spouse and the child," says Eth. "It's unfair and painful for everyone."

Lindsey wasn't pleased when her father married the woman he left her mother for. But she knows that a relationship with her father includes his new wife. The tension is there, but Lindsey tries to take the high road when visiting their home.

Be Proactive

Knowing your parents and talking with them about potential issues ahead of time can help things go more smoothly at special events, says Buchanan. "Don't avoid it," she tells WebMD. "What if they start fighting over the front pew at your wedding and ruin the entire day?" She says you're better off broaching these topics ahead of time -- when people have time to think it through and prepare themselves emotionally -- than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

Beware Unrealistic Expectations

Sometimes it's not just the parents. Unrealistic expectations on the child's side can also wreck havoc. "Sometimes even adult children fantasize that their parents will get back together again," Goldscheider says. For example, if your parents can hardly be in the same room, expecting them to dance together at the wedding is a sure recipe for disaster -- and probably a fantasy you need to let go of, she says. "In some cases if they are in the same room and are behaving themselves, that has to be enough," she says.

Eth also warns of falling into the fantasy of the perfect event. "It's a setup for disappointment," he says. "Don't do that to yourself." Working with things as they are rather than wishing things were different will make the event easier for everyone, he says.

Pick Your Battles

If getting your parents together in one room is difficult, choose those moments carefully. For milestone events, such as weddings or graduations, let them know you want them both there and be straightforward about it. Goldscheider suggests something like, "This is my event and whatever issues you have with my mother (or father), I need you both at my wedding. I love you and want to make this as easy for you as possible. How can I help you feel comfortable?" But for other events such as birthdays and holidays, it may better to celebrate with your parents separately, says Eth. "There will always be another Christmas or birthday," he says.

By taking these suggestions and tailoring them to particular situations, the adult child of divorced parents can leave the role of victim behind. While they cannot solve their parent's problems, they can change how they react to them. And for Lindsey and Nigel, it's a goal they strive toward every day.

Michele Bloomquist is a freelance writer based in Brush Prairie, Wash. She writes frequently about consumer health.


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