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Lessons in Marriage From an Adult Child of Divorce

5 min read

By D. A. Wolf
Aug 03, 2021

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As an adult child of divorce, this was my mantra: If I ever get married, I'll do it differently. I'll do it better. I'll be such a terrific wife that I will never fall victim to divorce. I was convinced that if I married, I'd make a success of it.

I was 27 years old when my parents split after more than three decades. Many years later, after my own marriage and divorce, I see how my impressions have changed. What seemed a certainty to me then— everything was my mother's fault—no longer appears so cut and dry. What seemed confusing to me then—her love for my father one day and contempt the next—is less so, now.

My memories of childhood are filled with the supersized presence of my mother and the notable absence of my father. My mother was a brilliant but needy woman; funny and provocative, and often the life of the party. My father was more low-key, even-keeled, with the salesman's charm. He wasn't around much; he traveled for work. And even when he was home, it was clear that he and my mother had little in common.

So there I was, trapped with the woman who needed her audience. I was the object of her hunger for attention and her mood swings, witness to her bouts of sobbing at the kitchen table, victim to her rage that would spark without warning. I felt powerless, small, scared. And then there were the days she was fine. Those were good days. Very good days. The trouble was, I never knew which I would get—anger or affection, embarrassing scenes or understanding. I never felt safe.

Mostly, I recall being the ear, the receptacle, the vessel for whatever poured out of my mother—digs at me, criticisms of friends; and more often than not, a litany of complaints about my father. I remember asking time and time again as a child and a teenager: If you're so unhappy, why don't you just get a divorce?

No response.

This went on for years. I couldn't wait to grow up, to get away, to start my own life free of her.

When the breakup finally came, it seemed to me the divorce was long overdue. At last (I told myself), my mother would just end it, stop bitching to me about my dad, and get on with her life. At last (I imagined), she would forge new emotional terrain and be happy. At last (I hoped), I would no longer be on the receiving end of her invective; we could build a better relationship.

Instead, I bore witness to my mother's unrelenting capacity for waging war against my father. All the misplaced anger she once directed at me had a new, and I suppose, more appropriate target. It was stunning, really. Her outpouring of venom found a home if anyone who would listen. Yet still, I was on the receiving end of wrenching phone calls, the unwilling recipient of intimate details that no child, adult or otherwise, should be privy to.

I'd hang up on my mother, feeling gut-punched and raw. She had no idea of the damage she was doing to me, to us, to any hope of an "us."

When the dust finally cleared, my dad married the woman he had loved for a decade. Oddly, I couldn’t fault them, which incensed my mother—and yes, of course, I get it. But they were just so damn perfect for each other! Everyone could see it. The contrast between their happiness and my mother's bitterness was striking.

For me, there was a silver lining. In his new contentment, my father made a point of reaching out to me to create the relationship we never had. At last, I felt the unconditional love of a parent who was the grown-up, and not the other way around. I was happy for my father, happy for me, and sad for my mother.

At the time—as yet unmarried myself—I couldn't possibly comprehend the pain my mother was in, the sense of loss she felt in her mid-fifties; loss of youth, loss of emotional investment, loss of dreams. Sure, she had won all her battles in the split, but the war was a crushing defeat. She was as miserable as ever, and continued to bad-mouth my dad to me until the day he died (a car accident cut short his new life). Only then did she put the hostilities to bed.

As for my wish that my parents had divorced years earlier, I realize now that I had no context for what my mother was going through. My father was gone so much of the time, and that hurt her. He had another woman my mother knew about, and that hurt her. Divorce was less common in the 1960s and 1970s, and I couldn't possibly conceive of the potential stigma, upheaval, and financial disarray that might have resulted if she had ended the marriage during those years.

Divorce then could have meant losing our home, starting over in a new city, attending a new school at a point that would have disrupted my education—something my mother cared about enormously. I see that now.

It could have meant I would have been a latch-key kid in a place and time when that was rare, introducing a different sort of insecurity into my life. I see that now.

The emphasis my mother placed on language, arts, and a lifetime of learning—all of that a very positive legacy for which I’m grateful—may well have been sacrificed. I see that now.

My parents were products of their times. I see that, too.

I've known other adults whose parents divorced, and they felt their foundations shaken, perhaps because they lived through happier times in childhood. But for me, when the legalities of my parents' divorce were finally over, all I felt was relief. Not unhappiness. Not disorientation. Just waves and waves of extraordinary relief. It was a necessary ending. And with my dad, however short-lived, a beginning that meant a great deal to me.

Obviously, I'm older and wiser now. I look at my mother's behaviors and believe a chemical disorder was in play. I look at my own life—I married, had children, and wound up divorced when they were still young —and I see how they were affected by a contentious split and a long, nasty aftermath. I wish I could have done something more. I wish I could have spared them.

I've sometimes wondered about the impact of my parents' marital history on my relationships. I was slow to trust. (I still am.) I was hesitant to commit. (I still am.) I married late (in my thirties). I also accepted a degree of emotional distance in my marriage that was modeled by my parents. I should've done better. I didn't get it. By the time I began to speak up, hoping for more, it was too late.

As an adult child of divorce, I wonder what my life would have been if my mother could have found happiness in her thirties, perhaps through remarriage. Would I have experienced a better model of relationship? Would I have chosen differently myself? Would I have expected more in my own marriage?

Thirty years after my parents' breakup, I realize I was naïve to think I could magically "do better" with my own husband. A relationship can only work when two people are invested in the same outcomes and able to reach agreement on what they mean. If one wants emotional intimacy and the other doesn't, you're hosed. If one wants to stay married and the other doesn't, you're done. It's only a matter of time.

Perhaps my parents stayed together as long as they did out of convention, a desire not to rock the boat, a sense of shared history. Perhaps my mother stayed out of fear, out of love, out of some desperate hope that whatever she needed from my father and didn't get, somehow, someday, she would.

My father lived a love in the shadows for years, but at least he lived that love. My mother never had that chance. These days, this knowledge tempers my view of her. Though it wasn't my role as her daughter, I wish I could have helped.

So many of us ask ourselves if we should remain married "for the children." There's no right answer to that. I can see now that my desire as a child for my mother to divorce my father was truly a desire for the dysfunction in the household to cease.

So many of us ask ourselves this question as a follow-up: If we are going to divorce, is there an age that's better for the children? From my standpoint, there's no right answer to that one either.

What is "better" for the children at any age is civility, respect, and honoring appropriate boundaries. This is something my mother never understood.

If you are experiencing marital difficulties, please visit DivorceForcePRO to speak with one of our experts. To learn more about our Community, visit DivorceForce.com. 

Written by D. A. Wolf

D. A. Wolf is a freelance writer, editor, and independent marketing consultant. She is a Wellesley and Wharton grad with a passion for multilingual Scrabble, outsider art, and cultural commentary. A contributor to DivorceForce, Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere, she muses on relationships, work life, and more at Daily Plate of Crazy.

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