Is Being An Adult Child Of Divorce The Ultimate Post Grad Problem?

Is Being an Adult Child of Divorce the Ultimate Post Grad Problem?

This weekend I attended the wedding of a college friend. Though this particular wedding included the college friends that were my roommates for three years, we have (unfortunately) not kept in touch. My own post-wedding reception in November 2014 was sadly the last time I had seen any of them, and 130 people amid a former tombstone warehouse with a blaring Clash cover band is not conducive to playing significant catch-up.

Clearly, these friends knew I was married as they all had been present at said party. However, my second largest life change had not come up in our sparse post-college conversations, perhaps on account of its weightiness. My parents had divorced. A confusing, entangled web of events that was predictable in its occurrence on the whole, while the plot twists and rising action were utterly unpredictable.

Being culturally sensitive is important to me, but so is literary device: my parents’ divorce was a domestic Chernobyl. (Sorry, could not think of a better way to say it). Looking back at history, hindsight could see it coming, yet the explosion (and fall out) was not something we were prepared for. As a result, we are left with a permanently scorched and un-restorable landscape. Which is, frankly, quite a sad waste.

When I mentioned my mother’s fiancé recently having surgery (guys, don’t worry Bill is a-ok), an old friend immediately piped up “Oh, your parents got divorced?”

My response? “Yes, thank God.”

“That’s not a response you typically hear.”

While I appreciate my thoughts and words running incongruent to “typically hear” on most occasions, this reaction bothered me somewhat that night and into the morning. It is the reason why I was up at 7:30 a.m. the night after an open bar and raucous dance party to write this.

As an adult child of divorce, a divorce that was in fact for the best, I found myself with limited resources. Being an adult child of divorce is something that is a definite #PGP. It was the biggest one of my early twenties.

My senior year of college was an entanglement of an emotionally abusive and manipulative boyfriend, the departure of two of my closest friends from school (Molly had graduated the year before, Sarah was taking a hiatus which ended up being permanent), and the aftermath of a plot where I had been framed by one roommate for stealing Adderall, cash, (and I think alcohol too?) with another roommate playing lead detective and prosecutor on the case. The Adderall thief eventually confessed to that and several other lies but got herself help. That made me happy for her which wasn’t easy. My personal Marcia Clark offered a half-hearted apology. I guess that made me happy too, but exclusionary and alienating lines had already been drawn between several of the roommates and me, with me on the wrong side. On top of that, my parents’ divorce had had its assassination of Franz Ferdinand moments that were building up to the war that would consume my early twenties.

So yes, like many of you, my senior year of college kind of sucked.

I got to Washington D.C. in July 2008 and had a personal renaissance. The bad boyfriend was left behind, a handsome Georgetown-er picked up in his place, the transient nature of Washington brought an onslaught of friends, and my boring analyst job gave way to a blog to quell my boredom that ended up enjoying some light fame- but most importantly, people began to tell me I was funny — which was a new a cherished feeling.

However, my foundation was crumbling. My parents clearly did not get along, but were not in the place of separating. My father would later explain that he had a friend whose parents divorced in college, and the event destroyed his friend so he refused to do that to any of his children. (Never mind that we are different people in a different era). My brother was graduating Penn State in 2011, so we had a while of standing in front of the fire, slowly and painfully singeing to go.

Meanwhile, parental visits to my new city or trips home for the holidays-oft looked forward to by most newly independent children—were dreaded by me. In one part of my early twenties, I worked in a hotel and actually was delighted to manage the spa all through the holidays. Pitying patrons slipped me $20 bills, I got time and a half, and there was no screaming, presentation of “new evidence,” or divisive derision. In 2009, I wore an Ann Taylor red velvet blazer (what up) and ate Christmas dinner by myself at the bar at Morton’s in Georgetown. I loved it.

It is easy to comfort smaller children going through familial upset than it is to consul earnestly surprised and wounded adults. It is not easy to engage with someone wishing for dissolution like a winning lottery ticket. Because we do not expect it.

As an adult who was beginning to have adult relationships, I could see that my parent’s relationship was not working. If they were my friends or peers, I’d do my best to urge them to bounce. However, divorce has this way of infantilizing adult children. I felt I was expected to wish for some kind of Parent Trap-esque reunion amid filing taxes and giving my employees performance reviews. In other areas of my life, I was allowed and expected to take firm if even unpopular stances. Yet, here the world still expected me to juvenilely put my parents on a pedestal, and, like Pollyanna in her yellow fucking asshat hair bow, hope for a flowery reunion where mommy and daddy were lovey-dovey again.

But they never were in the first place, at least as long as I could remember. Though I was mostly an adult (during hours spent outside of Smith Point), I felt like I was being told to take a seat at the kids’ table and let the adults do the talking.

I found the “do what’s best for the children” mantra does emerge in divorce cases where the children are grown. However, the children that want to be done right by are not the contemporary adults, they are frozen in time. The considerations made are well intended but focused on tiptoeing around assumed fragile feelings and providing perceived stability.

But what if you are creating your own stability? In your own home? What if you’ve learned to manage emotions over your past two decades of human existence? Maybe with the help of a therapist, you pay for with your very own insurance. When you’re old enough to see things how they are, what you need is respect. Respect to not have who are supposed to be the two most trusted adults in your life “fake it” to you. Respect to model a healthy relationship and a healthy break up.

As the byproduct of an adult divorce, I do not miss the family being all together at home. Honestly, I am glad it’s over because toward the end it was miserable. While my parents were doing their best to “stay together for the kids” they ended up only further hurting and alienating each other, which in turn, further hurt and alienated us.

Starting with my friend Jenny and Chris’s wedding in February 2011, father of the bride speeches and father-daughter dances have got to me with my friend Joanna’s recent wedding being no exception. (Especially considering what a wonderful relationship they have always had and what amazing people they both are). After my parents’ divorce, I flatly do not have that kind of relationship with my father. I never thought I’d be at this place, but I am. Was it avoidable? Sure.

When I got married, like some of you may know from my past columns, I eloped. Just Aaron, myself and my number one ride-or-die bitch Courtney Gould Warren and her esteemed plus one, my brother-in-law Billy manning the iPhone videography.

The main impetus for taking this route is my (and my husband’s) life outlook, most accurately summed up by my personal icon, Kate Moss:

“My mom used to say to me, ‘You can’t have fun all of the time! And I used to say, ‘Why not? Why the fuck can’t I have fun all of the time?”

Fun to us was getting married during Riot Fest, seeing Henry Rollins and Pussy Riot the night before and the Wu-Tang Clan immediately after. And as I have become more comfortable directly admitting- fun was not having my parents collaborate on a joint effort. Three months earlier at my brother’s wedding, my mother asked me to switch seats with her as the ceremony started so she wouldn’t have to endure fifteen minutes next to my father.

The arc of their divorce was still in its falling action. Falling action that could have ended years earlier. I am happy for my parents as they are at last better off, but also treating their adult children like adults— not making decisions for them, vying to “protect” them, and thinking they are naively unperceptive would have been the more clear operating procedures that could have avoided my personal Chernobyl.

My parents undoubtedly did the best they could when dissolving a thirty-year relationship, but in that overlooked what I felt was the most vital part- it had been thirty years— we weren’t children anymore.

If you are going through this now, remember that you are an adult and do not be afraid to exert it. You are part of this too, if even in a form that is less convenient to tell what to think and feel.

Image via Shutterstock

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Caroline Gould is a personal branding expert and career consultant based in Washington, D.C. Her signature program is called Self Discovery School. She also writes a weekly advice column on Post Grad Problems. Submit your question or find out more on

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