Split decision: When is the right time to separate?

By Nicole Madigan

couple disagreeing
Around 30 per cent of Australian marriages end in divorce. If children are involved, separation can be harder but what if the ‘children’ are already grown-ups themselves?

Growing up, family life for Amy Armstrong* was what most would describe as traditional. Her father worked full-time as the provider of the family, while her mother stayed home to care for Amy and her younger brother, Tom.

The family spent their time like most nuclear families. They enjoyed family holidays together, ate dinner around the kitchen table, and were, for the most part, happy and content.

For Armstrong, her parents were the bedrock of her family, and her life.

“They were an example of a couple who had been through lots, but always stayed together. Mum has always been a loyal, doting wife and Dad has always been a great provider,” she says.

“I could see the power dynamics were not quite right but at the same time I thought they were solid and would always be together, and that mum was happy for the most part playing those roles.”

But when Armstrong was 28, her world, and everything she thought she knew about it, came crashing down. Living in England at the time, Armstrong received a call from her mum. She was distraught, and barely able to talk through her tears.

“She said she had found out Dad was having an affair and was leaving her,” says Armstrong, who took the earliest flight back home to be with her family, particularly her mum.

“My heart hurt for her. I just flew into protection mode. Her world as she knew it had just collapsed and she was overcome with grief.”

Despite describing her parents’ divorce as one of the hardest things she’s ever endured, Armstrong felt it was her responsibility to help her mother cope.

“There is no way I could let my mum, who had taken care of me and put me first my whole life, struggle on her own.”

While it’s common for children to go into caretaker mode during divorces that take place later in life, clinical psychologist Dr Aileen Alegado says it’s a big mistake, and one that’s frequently made by both adult children as well as their divorcing parents.

“Just because your children are adults and can understand relationship dynamics does not mean they should be burdened with this,” says Dr Alegado. “This line can easily get blurred, and I’ve seen it time and time before, especially if one parent has cheated, and the other is left shell-shocked and struggling to cope.”

Staying neutral

And likewise, children should not go digging for this type of information either, tempting though it may be, especially if they’re feeling hurt or betrayed by one parent.

“Be there for your parents but don’t get overly involved, stay neutral and show love and support to both,” says Dr Alegado. “Get that parent help, but don’t be the one they confide in during this time as it just makes things messy in the long run.”

Although taking sides, or the pressure to take sides, is common among adult children of divorcing parents, they also face their own personal grieving process, as they come to accept that the united head of their family unit is no more.

“One can expect to go through the five stages of grieving: denial, bargaining, depression/emptiness, anger and acceptance,” says Dr Alegado. “(Regardless of) age, there is an inherent need for children to be accepted and loved by their parents, and the fear can be that of conflict, abandonment or needing to take sides in order to keep the peace.

“I have seen clients who have used their parents’ marriage as a benchmark, the whole, ‘I want what my parents have’. If that comes crumbling down, it can really impact someone’s worldview and their understanding of love.

“It can deal a harsh blow for some people who may have struggled with relationships themselves, and now lose hope that the ideal marriage can be attained.”

The youngest of four children, Lucy Bloom describes her family as tight-knit. With no extended family in the country, the family of six only had each other, resulting in a close bond, and plenty of time spent in each other’s company.

“I never came home from school and found an empty house. Mum was always there with lamingtons. Dad worked hard but was always home for dinner,” says Bloom.

Despite being radically different people, Bloom says her parents’ relationship functioned like a well-oiled machine.

“Dad earned the money and mowed the lawn. Mum did everything else. Dad drove. Mum was the social lubricant. Mum wore the pants until there was a major decision like what country we moved to then Dad seemed to make the final decision,” she says.

“Life was stable, we had food and a place to live. We were all educated and released into the wild with a solid foundation for life.” Even when they moved out of home, Bloom and her adult siblings continued to enjoy time with their parents. “There was a solid nine or 10 years where my brothers and I were all married but had no kids yet so we could all enjoy my parents as adults without little ones to change the party!”

old couple unhappy

Dealing with the shock

But when Bloom was 29 and pregnant with her first child, she received a phone call from her father that changed everything. Her parents’ marriage of almost 40 years was over.

“I felt really sad and cried a lot. They’re both churchy folk so I didn’t think divorce was something they would have considered.”

Bloom says her first response was to try to talk them out of it.

“I failed,” she laughs. “I was just super-sad that they were that miserable that they’d rather go through the agony of divorce.”

Separation strategist Rachael Scharrer says Bloom’s response is a common one. While adults have the emotional maturity to understand the reasons for divorce, many simply can’t imagine a world without their parents together.

“One adult child of divorcing parents said to me ‘They’re in their 70s, can’t they just stay together?’,” says Scharrer. “This adult child understood that financially it wasn’t in each parent’s individual benefit [to separate], however, they valued their independence, happiness and freedom more than their financial situation.”

But while many adult children of divorcing parents feel devastated to learn that a relationship they once idolised and modelled was, in reality, not as perfect as they thought, others may find some relief that their parents have decided to separate.

“For some mature adults, the bickering, whinging and fighting makes seeing the parents intolerable,” says Scharrer.

For those that are devastated or shell-shocked, their parents’ divorce may cause them to question the integrity of their own relationship, creating space for doubt, fear and insecurity. “In essence, the full range of feelings and opinions that a (young) child may experience is likely to occur for the adult children,” says Scharrer.

Divorce is never easy on anyone. But Scharrer says there are some common default positions adult children can avoid to make healing easier:

Jumping to conclusions that one parent’s opinion is right. There are always three versions (one being the truth) to every story and there may be reasons why one parent did what they chose to do.

Judging parents for the break-up. A lot may have gone on behind closed doors for many years culminating with the break-up and which the adult children may not be aware of.

Inserting themselves into the break-up as the go-between for the parents, be it acting as a counsellor, mediator or attempting to repair the broken relationship.

Forcing the parents to be in the same space when they may not be ready. This can crease unease for everyone else sharing the space as the divorcing parents.

“Divorce changes a lot – finances, emotions and lifestyles. A lot hinges on whether the parents are able to be amicable,” says Scharrer.

“If the divorcing parents can be respectful, then family gatherings are less likely to be awkward.

“In the instance that the divorcing parents detest each other, Christmas celebrations for the adult child’s family may need to be shared with the in-laws as well as with each parent individually, while making time for their own family unit.”

For both Armstrong and Bloom, it was a case of time healing all wounds.

“The first two years were hell, but now 10 years on Mum and Dad get on fine at family events,” says Armstrong.

“We’ve all come to accept his new partner as well. They’ve been together since the affair and even Mum has accepted her into the family. It just takes time. People heal and move on.”

Gaining perspective

She has come to see that divorce can be both a curse and a blessing. “I think it made Mum and me closer. It probably put a bit of distance between Dad and me, but Mum and I are super close and having been through that together I know we are always there for each other emotionally.”

For Bloom, becoming a parent and going through her own divorce brought about a different perspective on the end of her parent’s marriage.

“Now that I have my own kids, I can see that my parents were focused on getting through life and had little time left for each other. Now that I am divorced myself, I am so glad they bit the bullet back then. Imagine staying together and being miserable forever…

“My parent’s divorce was the best decision for them both. They have had 19 years apart – so much happier than the last 19 years of their marriage. Sometimes hard decisions have great outcomes.” 

Gender lines

According to the Institute for Family Studies, mothers are twice as likely to have more frequent contact with their adult children after a late divorce than they did before. For men, it’s the opposite; they are only half as likely to engage regularly with their grown children after a split. If a mother remarries, she tends to maintain her relationship with the kids at the same level. Whereas a man who remarries is more likely to become even less involved with his adult children.

Grey divorce

The incidence of older couples separating is on the rise, with the average age of people getting divorced in Australia shifting to people aged in their mid-40s, and a significant increase in the numbers of those separating after the age of 50.  Between 2001 and 2016, there was a 10 per cent increase in people experiencing divorce among this age group.

In the UK, the number of over-60s divorcing has increased by more than one-third in 10 years, and in the US, almost one-quarter of people experiencing divorce are over 50.

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