Going Home: Adult Children of Divorce Step Out of the Legacy

From the NEW HBO Documentary:
Don't Divorce Me: Kids Rules for Parents About Divorce.
Airs Thursday, Sept 20 @ 6:30pm
...stepping back into a group dynamic that pulls us into old roles we have long outgrown or long TO outgrow can create a wellspring of emotions especially for those who come from broken homes or homes where parents are divorced.  Read more about how divorce impacts kids and check out the HBO Documentary this month.  Finally, get tips for getting through those trips home.
-Traci Ruble, MFT

Author: Traci Ruble, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Website: www.traciruble.com

I am just back from vacation.  It was a mixed bag -  great time with old friends and insightful time with the old family system.  I had a few friends also traveling back to see family at the same time and there was a shared sense of comradery that stepping back into a group dynamic that pulls us into old roles we have long outgrown or long TO outgrow can create a wellspring of emotions especially if, like me, you come from a family of one or multiple divorces. 

Hanging with the family is a topic that comes up a lot in my therapy room and prior to the big holidays my office gets packed with people looking for ways to navigate their remnant feelings from the past related to the divorce of their parents, not quite sure they should be over it already and desperate for a way to navigate those visits home - split between many households.  The typical themes that come up in these sessions is a longing to be valued and wanted, wishing the people in the family were fundamentally different, wishing the past could be erased, wishing everyone could get along, communication practice and role playing different family interactions, navigating the step parents, shared time with two separate parents, dealing with siblings and step siblings etc..  Let me share some information on divorce that might shed some light on why you might still  - 30 years later, have feelings and some tips for thriving on those trips home.

Divorce's Impact on Kids:
First, let's get into some hard research that may shed light on your feelings years later. In the 2007 book Divorce: Causes and Consequences by Professor Alison Clarke-Stewart, the authors did a qualitative summary of years worth of research on the impact divorce has on kids short and long term and what seems to help them and hurt them.   Pick it up if you want more.  Did you know that the way you were or were not parented through the divorce transition ultimately determines how late into life you carry the pain of the split?    If you weren't parented and nurtured through the process, which is common as parents are falling in love with someone new or adjusting to a single income or grieving the marriage end, you may not only still harbor a lot of pain but the way your brain is now wired to do relationships may be shaped by your experience of your parents' divorce.

The research shows that while temperament and age determine some of the long term impact of divorce on kids, how your parents nurtured you through the process has the biggest impact on your ability to move on and be shaped in pro social ways as a result of divorce.  Funny, but good parents can make this bad thing a good for a kid if done with skill and heart.  But we, as a culture, have become more anesthetized to divorce as an issue because it is the new normal.  As a result many parents slip into the trap of  undervaluing the long term impact on kids and have a "just get over it already" attitude.  How were you parented after your parents' divorce?  Were you helped?  Were you forgotten?  How has it shaped you today - good or bad?

Divorce and Child Development:
Giving just a broad brush stroke to the research here are some tidbits to chew on:
There are lots of divorce support groups for parents which is a great thing - but not a lot available for kids.  "The Kids Are Alright" is the phrase du jours.   The kids are alright if you are helping them to be alright.

"Divorce has a stronger effect on problem behavior and psychological distress for children than race, birth order, moving, having a sibling, illness or death of a significant family member or having parents with little education."   
- Professor Alison Clarke-Stewart   

Going home for holidays or visits may be no problem on into your adult years but for some, the tension, re-activity and tug of old family roles catches one off guard.  So I put together some tips from an expert to get you through the experience and even enjoy your family - and I am the expert.  I know them all first hand.  Some friends, when reading this blog, say these tips apply to anyone going home to visit a difficult family.  Give it a whirl.

1. You may still need to feel some stuff about your parent's divorce and the past.
Before you can step out of your old role in the family you may need to grieve the past and, no, understanding it isn't the same as feeling it.  You may be in your 40's or 50's but still feel hurt or mad at unconscious levels about the split up of your family.

2. You may need to set some limits. 
If you have been the emotional caretaker for siblings or parents then you may need to just say "no" in order to de-role.  Examples of how this might show up is often times younger siblings can "parentify" their oldest sibling and cast them in the roll of parent whom they may cling to or act out with in similar fashion a child or teen might with a parent.   Cute, maybe when you are 7 or 10 - not so cute when you are 50 and your sibling still looks to you to plan all the family gatherings as if they are incapable or is indifferent to you when you visit the way a teenager might dismiss their parent.  The same goes with parental care taking - you may become, inadvertently the surrogate mate or confidant for your parent - especially the opposite sex parent who is not re married.   Setting limits may not always have to be verbal and confrontational and sometimes they may need to be.  See Ali Miller's posts on Non Violent Communication for more.  In the cases where parent or sibling relationships are tense, there is value going in with a clear understanding, as a friend recently said, of what you are available for?  "I am available to listen, to love you, to tell the truth, to share the planning tasks, to hang out" and "I am not available to be dismissed, parentified, treated disrespectfully".  Just setting the intention may shift your role and at other times you may actually have to say this stuff and weather the tantrums that may ensue from family members who don't like you stepping out of the old role.

3. Plan ahead for self care.
Don't over do it in your visit.  You want to be your authentic, grown up self, not the child who took on various roles in the family.  But to stay in that head space it is important to have moments built into your day where you can check in with young feelings that may come up and need tending.  Listen and hear what the little one inside of you is feeling and needing.  Often these feelings have been dormant until you are around your family and then the unconscious stirs.  The pesky unconscious, I have found, can often reveal itself in messy ways and at inopportune times.  So have a place you can go to take care of yourself.  I recommend you do not stay at any one family member's house.  You need your own space to refresh and you need time to set aside to do it.  You may also need to plan ahead for other logistics - set exact dates and times and activities.  If you are visiting two separate sets of family- a mother and new partner or father and new partner or brothers and sisters - set it all up ahead of time.  Even if you are like me and aren't a planner, it can make a big difference in keeping your feet on the ground and sense of authenticity intact.

4. Mind your longings.
If you have lived through one or many divorces as a kid, you may still carry many longings with you into your current family relationships and many/most of these longings are misplaced if you expect them to be met with this particular group of people.  You may long for family to comfort your old grief or celebrate the adult you have become or you may long for a stoic parent to be touchy-feely or an invasive parent to be more hands off.  The reality is, and you have heard this before, we have control over ourselves and our choices and not others.   Choosing to get certain longings met in a riper garden for you and not with a family that is still stuck in old splintered roles might be a better bet.  You may not be valued for your depth, emotions, view on life, work, politics, or relationships.   Take those aspects of you, then, where they are valued and enjoy the other aspects of your family.  They are there, I promise, if you can let go of the expectations that are unmeetable.

5. Empathize with and accept yourself and your family.
I am going to get a little positive psychology on you here for a minute not to Polly Anna-out at all but simply to embrace the larger context.  You can read my previous post on blaming your family for all your problems for more on this.  Bottom line, family is fraught with the deepest longings and most primitive animal instincts and so with it comes the potential for great joy and great pain.  In the midst of that we are navigating a culture that is valuing less and less deep human connection.  Throw in many generations of family history that have left its mark on parents and their capacity to parent kids through their emotional lives and you can see that no one is to blame and everyone is to blame.  We all get to be angry and sad, say yes and no to our family and beyond that we also get to empathize and accept that this is the family we have.  The best thing about being an adult is you get to choose how to engage as a member of your family.  Enjoy the freedom!

Finally, for those of you who have lived through divorce and had parents parent you well and have come out on the other side better off for the experience, perhaps this blog gives you a new sense of gratitude for them! Divorce does not have to be the end of the world for kids but kids are not alright going through it without guidance.

Traci Ruble,Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist has her private psychotherapy practice in downtown San Francisco specializing in working with couples, adult individuals and mothers.  She also works with therapists and corporate sales professionals who want to learn how to grow their business from authenticity and connection.  Traci also leads weekly online mothers' support groups for under-parented mothers.  You can contact Traci about any of these at 415-520-5567 or traci@traciruble.com

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