“What’s great right now, might not be forever”: how my mum and dad’s divorce shaped me

If our parents choose to separate, it has an impact how we approach relationships and failures throughout our lives. One writer looks at how she’s spun her experience for good.

Back in 2014, when my parents separated, I started saving almost every family photo I had of us together. Friends often absent-mindedly observe them whenever they come round for a coffee

So, it was no surprise when a new pal picked up the photo. My parents are grinning, squinting in the September sunshine. A bottle of wine obscures the faces of both me and my sister. “I thought your parents were divorced?” she said, surprised.

Around the age of 20, I’d returned to the UK after spending two years in France. I’d been home for a few hours at most when my mother announced her impending separation from my dad. My sister and I had called it months before so this, in itself, was not shocking news.

Some of my friends had divorced parents. In fact, most of them did. With 42% of marriages ending in divorce, it’s an experience that most millennials can relate to. For my parents, there was nothing spiteful or hateful. They were just two people who had once shared everything but run out of things in common. They’d drifted apart. 

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It’s no secret that millennials are familiar with divorce and – like all other elements of parenthood – it shapes us. Divorce was something to be feared; it left angry scars on perfect childhoods. It was failure, the inability to make something work.

I had one friend whose parents refused to be in the same room until she was 28, so she spent her early twenties with a string of terrible partners that she was too fearful to argue with. It doesn’t take Freud to work out that a tumultuous parental separation affects our ideas about how relationships should be. But, what about a positive separation? I wonder how this shaped my early twenties; my relationships with fear, dating and even love.

Feel the fear, and divorce them anyway

My parents’ divorce may have been rooted in acceptance of each other’s growth and change, but fear was still present for both of them. When you’ve been married for 20 years, your lives are woven together, and separating them entirely is almost impossible.

My dad’s parents were both dead before he’d turned 30. In their place, my mum’s parents had taken over. He was their son, as much as my mum was their daughter. They had the newspaper clippings from when he was in the paper for work back in 1999, and my grandma had dutifully sewed his favourite jeans back up after he ripped the knee.

Martin Hogg – clinical lead at Living Well Consortium, a mental health charity based in Birmingham, and clinical lead at Citizen Coaching and Counselling – explains the impact of separation, even when it’s amicable. “The first thing I’ll say is that the comparison to death is apt. Often when we treat this through counselling – we treat this as a loss. 

“Grief and loss are things we all react to in some way, often with fear. But acknowledging that is important. It’s no surprise that the five stages of grief are parallel to the stages of emotions that we go through when we experience something like a divorce.” 

Dating and other social injustices

As my parents separated, I entered the most unhealthy relationship I’ve ever been in. He was recently single and a friend thought we’d get on. We went for a drink and he told me about his “crazy-ex”, a woman who had stalked him for months; at the grand age of 20, I hadn’t spotted the early red flag.

The first time I found out that he’d cheated on me was during my 21st birthday meal. He was worried he had chlamydia and felt that he’d be a “bad guy” if he didn’t warn me. Luckily, I didn’t, but at the time we were both living in a tiny town in France. Our flat was the only place I had to go to. I slept on the floor so that we didn’t have to share a bed. But, I was desperate for us to become friends, to remain on good terms. Maybe we’d joke about my ruined 21st?

As it turned out, we didn’t have enough common ground to share a friendship. We got back together a month later.

I was “that” friend, the one that caused others to roll their eyes. We moved back to the UK. A fresh start for both of us. I picked up a part-time job attempting to figure out what I should do for a living. It was around this time that he started critiquing my weight, hair and overall appearance. I dyed it blonde at his request, my hair extensions making me unrecognisable – which was fine. I didn’t really have any friends to recognise me. They were all either back in France or had relocated to London

“No matter how old we are, divorce, like everything else is something we carry with us.”

His phone would ring at 11pm every night. It was his ex-girlfriend. The “stalker”. I messaged her on Facebook, desperate for her to leave him alone. I implored her to move on, explaining that she was ruining our relationship. Surprised, she messaged me back. He’d been seeing her for months and she had no idea I existed.

I felt trapped, but the reality was that I was scared of leaving my 6ft 2in, charismatic prison. So, even at the lowest stakes, I understand why separation of any kind is terrifying. But, watching my parents pack up their life and put down the roots of a new one inspired me. I called my dad and a few hours later, he arrived with his builder’s van. We packed up the house of my belongings and I left.

He never bothered to call and see where I went.

I stayed at my dad’s new house for a month before moving to London. Despite leaving my suffocating ex, I struggled to find myself after a two-year relationship. I’d lost all sense of who I actually was when I wasn’t his girlfriend. I once again looked to my parents. My dad had bought a new wardrobe, a head-to-toe TK Maxx makeover, he had his hair cut shorter and started dating again. Hogg explains that the key to recovery after a breakup is “self-sufficiency. Taking up new hobbies and interests can help build our sense of self which is the key to moving past these sorts of challenges.” 

Love, or something like it

I met my current partner, James, after two years of my new life in London. It was a New Year’s Eve party and I performed a questionable cartwheel. He has only ever known my family as they are. Two halves of a whole. And he’s the person I want to marry.

Despite what most people think, my parents haven’t put me off marriage. However, they have reminded me that what’s great right now, might not be forever.

They’ve also taught me a lot about trust. My mum’s partner, Steve, trusts her implicitly. He never worries about her spending time with my dad, he understands that their friendship is part and parcel of their relationship. My dad, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky. 

He’s had two relationships since his marriage and the latter ended due to his friendship with my mum. His ex said that their friendship was a “fundamental flaw” in him. She explained that she’d asked her friends and colleagues, who had all agreed that their friendship was “weird”. This insane group poll, from strangers who had never met my family, led to the end of their relationship.

In an ironic mirror, James is also still close to his ex-partner. She remains tied to him through mutual friends. And after meeting her, my initial thoughts were that my partner has great taste in women. She’s funny and easy to get along with. I like that he doesn’t resent his ex-partner, that there’s no “crazy ex”, just two people that stopped having fun.

I ask Hogg the key to a good relationship. “At the core of it, good communication and shared values are key. You’re not a half person without someone else, so, you don’t need to be joined at the hip. Just remember why you’re together and what you love about that person regularly. 

“We observe our parents’ relationship so often and so intimately that it’s no wonder it can shape our ideas of what a good or bad relationship is. For some the lesson is ‘I don’t want to be like this when I’m older’ and for others, it’s the opposite,” explains Hogg. “No matter how old we are, divorce, like everything else is something we carry with us.”

I look at my parents and see the sort of love I aspire to hold. The sort that goes above everything else and has its very core in what it was, to begin with. Friendship. My mum and dad often share an unreadable expression, one that represents an in-joke of sorts that no one else understands.

But, rather than saying any of this, I turned to the friend that clutched my family photo. I shrugged. “Parents are weird.”

Images: Getty/Charlotte Moore