An Open Letter to the Girl Whose Parents Got Divorced While You Were Away at College

To my fellow college girls in this same cruddy boat,

I know this is an open letter with a very specific audience, but I also know there’s got to be plenty of us out there. I learned in a sociology class that 40% of all marriages end in divorce, and 60% of those marriages involve children. And while many of those divorces happen when the children are young, research from Business Insider shows that the average age of divorce is slowly getting older, meaning the children are also most likely older when it happens. As my dad once eloquently put it, more and more couples are turning to look at each other once their kids are grown and realizing they don’t want to be together anymore.

sad girl in blue sweater near window Anthony Tran If you’re like me, you don’t find these percentages particularly comforting. The old saying is that there’s safety and comfort in numbers, but nobody likes being reduced to a statistic. It’s especially shitty when people use those statistics to minimize your pain – for example, “Oh, the divorce rate is so high that so many kids go through that these days, it’s not the end of the world!”

No, it’s not the end of the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Divorce is hard on a family, no matter when in your family timeline it occurs. And I’m not in any way belittling the hurt divorce can inflict on young kids and the life-long impacts that has. But most people tend to assume it’s hardest on the younger kids because they don’t fully understand what’s going on, or because they have to grow up in that environment during their formative years. But I’m here to say it’s okay for it to be difficult for the adult children, too.

I was a freshman in college when my parents announced the divorce. It was the first time I’d come home from school to visit. For months after that, any time an extended family member or friend would ask how I was doing with the whole situation, I would say something along the lines of, “It’s okay. I’m kind of removed from it by being away at school.” I would make excuses about how it can’t be near as hard for me as it is for my sister, who was in high school and stuck at home going through all of it first-hand.

This sentiment is an expression of the pressure we adult children feel to act fine. We’re older, so we’re expected to cope better. We’re expected to set the example for our younger siblings and to help them through it, too. We’re expected to shoulder more of the burden because we’re older and can “handle it.”

We’re away at college, so we can’t really be that affected by it, right?

Wrong. According to my therapist, research shows divorce is actually harder on the adult children. When she told me this, it simultaneously blew my mind and lifted a huge weight off my chest. But if you think about it, it makes total sense. Adult children of divorce remember what it was like to have a whole family unit. Maybe it wasn’t the most functional family, but it was still a “whole” family all the same. We grieve for the loss of the family we used to know, the one we grew up with as our foundation. We grieve for the future that will now never exist, and our forever-altered ideas of love and marriage.

At the same time, we’re also learning to navigate a new world, one where our parents are no longer a package deal. Going home to visit now takes more coordination and communication. Whose place are you going to be staying at, Mom or Dad’s? Is the time split equal so no one feels left out or gipped? The holidays only amplify these pressures. Who gets Thanksgiving? Who gets Christmas and who gets Christmas Eve? If you worry about these same things every time you’re planning a trip home, you’re definitely not alone.

But being older also comes with a certain degree of clarity and sad acceptance. We know that at the end of the day, it’s better for our parents to be happy apart than miserable together just for the sake of the kids. And while this realization can bring some comfort, it doesn’t magically make it all better, either.

I know this may have seemed like a lot of doom and gloom, but the real take-home message here is that it’s okay if you’re struggling more than you think you “should” be. It’s okay if you’re taking it hard, even if you feel like you should be “handling it” better. Your age and maturity do not mean you are exempt from the hurt. It’s been three years, and I’m still trying to sort out all the emotions. No amount of burying yourself in your assignments and your social life can make these issues go away.  Just know that time really does help, and that you’re always much stronger than you think.

Sincerely,

A girl who is way too honest and open on the Internet about her feelings  

 

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