Skip navigation to content

So your parents are getting a divorce?

Your parents have told you that they are getting divorced. You are shocked. You knew they didn’t seem to have much in common.    You knew they argued.   You knew they sometimes didn’t speak to each other for days. But somehow, you never considered that they might have had enough and want to go their separate ways.

It is relatively common for parents to wait until their children have left home before going through with a separation and divorce.   The reasoning sometimes expressed, seems to be that their children no longer need them.  Or that their children are older and will therefore be able to handle it.   But generally, that is just not the case.   Separation and divorce can have far-reaching effects on every member of the family whenever it happens.

Quick links:
When you first hear
Longer-term
What you can do

When you first hear

You may feel shocked, sad, scared, angry, insecure….any number of different emotions.   Even if you don’t get on particularly well with your parents, you can still have feelings around their separation and divorce because it is changing things.   Even if you knew your parents were not getting on well (or worse, there was some domestic violence), you will still probably have mixed feelings of sadness and relief, anger and powerlessness.   All perfectly normal.   (And it is quite normal too if you do not have any feelings about it at all.)

Probably, the most common feeling will be loss.   Loss on many fronts:

  • Loss of “home”, both the actual home and the sense of home
  • Loss of security and the protection that a family can provide
  • Loss of financial security
  • Loss of trust in both your past and your future
  • Loss of interest by your parents in your life as they are coming to terms with the changes in their own lives and feelings
  • Loss of continuity which will be replaced with feelings of uncertainty
  • Loss of whatever your family has meant to you up to now

Longer-Term

Depression, grief and hurt are all natural reactions to your loss.   It is rather like the feelings experienced after a death which, in a way, is what the separation and divorce is – the death of the family as you have known it until now.   So, do not be surprised if you feel irritable, or very low, or you cannot concentrate, or have no enthusiasm even for the things that you usually like to do.

Even if you knew your parents’ relationship was very stormy, their decision to separate and divorce may still come as a shock.   Perhaps you have been avoiding thinking that such a thing could happen.   Perhaps you dreaded it.   Perhaps you didn’t want to believe such a thing could happen.

Your parents’ decision to separate and divorce is a situation completely beyond your control.   Their decision, although having a major impact on your life, is their decision, and it might leave you feeling powerless and helpless.   You might want to bring them back together and, although it is hard to be accept, there is probably no chance that anything you can do will make them change their minds.

What we know, and what we understand, and what we feel can all be very different.   The consequences of your parent’s choice might lead you to feelings of frustration, resentment, anger at them for their behaviour, anger that they cannot sort their problems out, anger for not taking your needs into account.

Although the decision to separate and divorce is your parents, you may feel guilty about the ending of their relationship.   The guilt might be that you feel partly to blame even though you have no idea why, you might feel that you could have done more to help them, or that, if you had been at home, things might have been different.   And then you might feel selfish and guilty for thinking about your own feelings at this time.   But remind yourself that your parents are adults and responsible for their own lives, decisions and mistakes.

Even although you feel sad for yourself and for your parents, you may also feel betrayed.   You might feel that your parents are letting you down and have betrayed your trust in them.   Instead of all the support you are used to from both parents; you may be faced with a role reversal where you might have to be a support to them.   Because of the upheaval in their own lives and with everything that goes along with a marital breakdown, parents can become preoccupied, volatile, needy, weepy and can ask unfamiliar, unreasonable and often difficult things from their children.   They might ask you to take sides, to act as a go-between, to go home more often, or to be a confidant.   Not only can such demands cause conflict and divide loyalties, it can also mean that you feel very alone and unhappy.

The turmoil involved in any family break-up creates insecurity about practical things too.   Like finances and where exactly ‘home’ is now going to be.   There can be confusion, uncertainty and even fear about what has happened and what will happen next.   You may feel frightened and anxious for yourself, for your brothers and sisters, and for one or both of your parents.    You may have to face some difficult decisions involving love, loyalty and responsibility.

It might be that the separation and divorce has come as no real surprise because the marriage has been unhappy and difficult for some time.   It may be that the end of the marriage is the best thing for both parents and perhaps you too.   So that means you may feel relief and acceptance.   But still there may be feelings of anxiety because of the changes that are going to happen which won’t always be easy.

It is fair to say that the full effect of all the changes that are going to take place can take some time to happen and be resolved.   There is the possibility in the future of new partners for your parents and new families expecting to welcome you, and the changes these too will bring to your life.   In the near future, there will be complications around family occasions such as birthdays, weddings, Christmas and your graduation.   It is important for you to hold on to the part of your life which is YOU and separate from your family.

What you can do

  • Try not to get caught in any conflict between your parents.   It is their relationship, their separation, their decisions, and they need to face each other in sorting things out.
  • If you find that one or both of your parents are leaning too heavily on you for support, think about whom else they can turn to and perhaps have a conversation with your parents about this.   They may have brothers and sisters or good friends who can provide some of the support needed.   There are limits to just how much you can provide and it is important that you keep on with your normal life.
  • Talk with your parents, either separately or together, about what has happened and what is going to happen next.
  • When it comes to any provisions your parents may be making for you, talk to them and let them know what you need and what you want to do.   Having a home continues to be important even although you may not spend much time there any more.
  • Talk to your brothers and sisters.   It is a time to pull together.   Despite any differences you may have with your brothers and sisters, they are the only ones who have the shared experience or intimate knowledge of your family.
  • Remember the extended members of the family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc.   They are a source of support to you, your brothers and sisters, and your parents.
  • Your emotions may swing up and down.   So talk to friends, especially any you know who have been through a similar experience (which is becoming more likely).
  • Think about talking to someone who is separate from all the areas of your life, someone to whom you can talk freely about your feelings and fears, and someone who can help you begin to come to terms with some of the changes you are facing.   Consider coming to Student Services or your GP.
  • It may also be sensible to let someone in the University know about your circumstances in case it is having an adverse effect on your studies.  

For more help and information on this and anything else, why not speak to Student Services?  Email theasc@st-andrews.ac.uk

The University of St Andrews would like to acknowledge the contribution of the University of Cambridge (2003) for much of this document

Contact

The ASC

(Advice and Support Centre)
79 North Street
St Andrews
Fife
KY16 9AL
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 (46)2020

Open Monday to Friday
9:30am to 4:30pm