My dad’s relationship with my mom had started souring around the same time my younger sister and I left for college. Both of them spent hours bitching to me about each other. My mother would tell me she was sick of being with someone who was happy to turn on the TV and turn off his brain every night; my father would say he couldn’t stand having a partner who took control of his every decision.
During that last conversation, I sat in the dark on a milk crate in my boyfriend’s living room, calmly telling my father on the phone that he needed to end his marriage, for both his sake and my mother’s. At the time, he was 1,600 miles away from where I lived in New York City, standing in the driveway of the house we once both thought of as home; neither of us lives there anymore.
I don’t remember the particulars of the conversation, but I do remember telling my dad that he and my mom weren’t making each other happy anymore. He told me he loved me, but I didn’t understand what long-term monogamy entailed and he had to go back inside. I hung up the phone and promptly started sobbing.
When they finally decided to end their marriage, I wasn’t happy. But I was relieved because I knew they were making a rational, adult decision.
When my parents got divorced, I joined a club. By the time they decided to get divorced, my parents had become glorified roommates; they shared a home together but not a life. My freshly grown-up eyes had seen the demise of their marriage unfold in slow-motion for months.
Having divorced parents makes you a child of divorce, no matter how old you are. If you’re over the age of 18 when your parents split, it also makes you part of a growing group no one actually wants to be part of: adult children of divorce, or ACODs.
The demographic has grown significantly enough in recent years to merit a catchy acronym (and corresponding Adam Scott comedy), a byproduct of the increasing divorce rate among older couples. Sociologists call the trend “gray divorce”: As older children move out of the house, parents start realizing they have less reason to stay in a stale or unfulfilling marriages.
Despite the rising number of ACODs, the majority of research on parental divorce focuses on its potentially devastating effects on younger children. But ACODs typically have a much less difficult time dealing with divorce, which makes sense: Young children simply don’t have the same judgement, maturity or skills to cope with traumatic life events as adults do.
For kids whose parents split, being an adult at the time of separation might make it easier to understand and accept the decision, but it comes with its own set of challenges. Unlike a child, who is usually an innocent bystander during the end of their parents’ relationship, ACODs are, more often than not, active participants; they’re placed in the awkward position of having to provide emotional support for one or both of their parents.
“When you’re a child going through your parents’ divorce, your parents put a lot of effort into easing you through the process and making sure you’re handling it OK,” 26-year-old Jacquelyn*, whose parents separated when she was 18, told Mic. “When you’re an adult, your parents look to you to help them go through the process.”
The kids are always the kids, even when they’re adults. It’s normal — desirable, even — for parents to start to see their children as fellow adults once kids become, well, fellow adults. But that can often lead to a blurring of boundaries during more dysfunctional periods, leading parents to overly rely on their grown children for emotional support.
In Jacquelyn’s case, she found out about her parents’ divorce only when her father came to her, desperate for someone to talk to.
“It was a challenge having to support him and address my own feelings at the same time,” Jacquelyn said. “That’s one of the unique difficulties of being an ACOD, to use the acronym: Your parents don’t try to shield you from anything. You become a confidante, for sure. I got really stressed having to hold in all of their secrets.”
According to Robert Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime, attempted reversals of parent-child roles are common among ACODs. But that doesn’t make them acceptable.
“Your children are still your children, even if they are 30 years old,” Emery told Mic. “Information should be shared only on a ‘need to know basis,’ and children of any age don’t need to know much. It isn’t a child’s job to help a family heal. It’s a parent’s job.”
Sometimes, though, ACODs want to make it their job to help take care of their parents. Scott*, a 31-year-old whose parents split up when he was a junior in college, told Mic he would to listen to his mother talk through her issues with his father out of his own sense of obligation, even if it made him uncomfortable.
“I realized a while back that I can be a good sounding board for her, and I at least owe her that as her son,” Scott said. “She’s a deeply kind and generous person, and I know she was put through a lot so she deserves to have her say. Whatever awkwardness I feel is very small compared to that.”
“When you’re a child going through your parents’ divorce, your parents put a lot of effort into easing you through the process and making sure you’re handling it OK. When you’re an adult, your parents look to you to help them.”
Divorce screws up most relationships — not just the one that’s ending. Even when adult children feel equipped to act as their parents’ primary support systems, as Scott did, taking on one parent’s emotional burdens can change the way she or he views the other parent, placing strain on that relationship.
Jay*, 22, told Mic his mother relied heavily on him and his three siblings when her marriage ended. She had rushed into marrying his dad when she got pregnant at age 16, and both were deeply religious. When they got divorced, Jay said his mother entered a period of extreme disillusionment because her marriage hadn’t met her spiritual expectations. She needed a great deal of comfort and encouragement from her son.
“It began to feel like my relationship with my mom made me obligated to distance myself from my dad or at least be at odds with him,” Jay said. “It was difficult for my mom, because she needed a lot of support, but I had to be honest with myself. I sympathized with my dad, even when he disappointed me greatly.”
To make matters worse, his siblings didn’t all feel the same way. “My older sister is emotional in general, and because of her own marriage she depended on my parents as role models for a marriage that could make it through all the bad experiences,” Jay said. “For my younger siblings, I can tell the crush came harder — so hard that they don’t seem to know how to deal with it.”
The thing is, no one really knows how to “deal with it.” Like Jay, I felt like I was the only one keeping it together in the months immediately following my parents’ divorce. Within a few weeks of my father moving out of the house, my mom called me to say she was going on a date. My dad, meanwhile, sunk into his couch and a months-long depression, telling me more than once that I wasn’t upset enough about the divorce.
Over time, I started to learn more about the slow-burning dissolution of their marriage. I learned that my parents debated leaving each other sooner than they actually did. I learned that they had stayed together purely for the sake of my sister and me. Inevitably, I was forced to confront that neither their relationship nor my childhood actually were as I’d always believed them to be.
Suddenly, I felt like I had enormous clarity and insight into their relationship. With newly adult eyes, I could see the sum of what had been adding up for years: How they rarely took time for just the two of them, how they hardly ever went on dates, how they didn’t even share hobbies. I remembered how, at some point when I was in high school, they had started intermittently sleeping in separate rooms. I remembered how, every single night for as long as I could recall, my mom would go to bed at 9, while my father would stay up, always in another room, until midnight.
Had they gotten divorced when I was much younger, I don’t think I would’ve realized that my parents had been unhappy for a while. Yet as an ACOD, I was able to understand how and why adults do what they do. I didn’t feel the crushing sense of guilt that many younger children of divorce experience, but I did start to fixate on the past. I’d sit on the subway thinking about what went wrong with my parents and when, reflecting on my joyful memories and wondering if those same recollections had always been darker in their minds.
Emery said that’s fairly common. “One special hardship for adults whose parents’ divorce can be a sense that your entire family life was a lie,” he told me. “You can wonder: Were they just pretending? Was my family really happy, or was this all a façade?”
Being an ACOD is the sharpest double-edged sword. Few people truly want their parents to get divorced. Even when I saw that my parents needed to, I still knew it would make my life more difficult if they did. As Scott put it, “There’s really no perfect age for your parents to separate.” We can only feel lucky if we feel like it’s not the end of the world.
As adults, we can better predict how divorce will reconfigure the landscapes of our lives, foreseeing things we couldn’t or wouldn’t have known if any of us were younger when our parents split. I can anticipate, for instance, that years from now I’ll be able to count the number of times I’ve found myself in a room with both my parents since I turned 23. If I have children, they’ll never know their maternal grandparents as a unit; no matter what, I’ll become familiar with schlepping to more than one Thanksgiving.
As time passes, photos of the four of us together — like the kitschy family portrait of us all wearing white and dipping our feet in the pool, which used to hang in the foyer of a house that now belongs only to my mother — will probably start to look weird. While I’m happy I was mature enough to understand and accept my parents’ divorce, looking at that photo will probably always hurt. But it would’ve been that way no matter what, even if I’d had an entire childhood to get used to it.