What it feels like when your parents split up after thirty years of marriage

It wasn’t like the movies.

They didn’t summon me, my brother and my sister to the kitchen table for a family meeting, where they solemnly announced that, though they still loved each other, they were getting a divorce.

There was no ‘united front’, no handling it sensitively, and definitely no opportunity for questions. Instead, my parents divorce was slow, messy and painful.

It actually started when I was in my late teens. I was angry with my dad about something trivial and was venting to my mum in the car. As we drove through the countryside, she stopped listening and started talking. She wasn’t happy with my dad either, but for very different reasons.

That was the first conversation of many in which my mum confided in me about how unhappy she was in her thirty-year-long marriage. It wasn’t until about eight years later, when I was in my mid-twenties and had finished university, that they actually divorced.

People have questioned my mum’s judgement in having talked to me so candidly in this period, but if I’m honest, I enjoyed the role of counsellor, and felt that after a turbulent relationship with her in my teens, it was bringing us closer together.

That’s not to say it didn’t put me in a really tough position, making me feel compromised and disloyal on a number of occasions.

For at least half of those eight years, Dad wasn’t even aware (consciously, at least) that there was an issue in their relationship. Though we didn’t ever talk deeply enough for me to come close to revealing it, there were moments when I did feel sorry for him and angry at my mum for feeling the way that she did.

All five of us would agree there were some seriously dysfunctional dynamics and behaviours in our family, but still I don’t think any of us even entertained the idea that it would lead to my parents divorcing.

Maybe they weren’t the most loving couple, but they had been married for over 30 years, and were close to retirement age. It just wasn’t an option. Or so I thought.

It was actually Mum who made me realise that, though it may not be typical for people her age to divorce, it’s often fear that keeps couples who aren’t in love anymore together.

She kept saying that her friends were pushing her to stay with Dad, telling her that if he wasn’t an alcoholic, wasn’t violent and wasn’t unstable, then what was the problem? It was as if not being in an abusive relationship was all one could hope for after turning 50.

Mum kept coming back to the fact that she thought that she and my dad both deserved love. How could I argue with that? How could I ask my mother to give up the potential of love, for the sake of her children who had nearly all left home? It didn’t seem right.

The next few years were hard. Mum inadvertently announced their separation at a heartbreaking moment. Dad had finally finished doing up the home he hoped they would retire and grow old in when it all came out.

For the next three years, there was an uncomfortable transition period. Mum lived next door to my dad, and would turn up at his house every night for dinner, in the belief that she was somehow giving my younger sister, who was still in her teens and lived at home, a stable family environment.

This couldn’t have been further from the truth, not least because nobody talked about the weirdness, instead talking about work or school or anything but the reality of the situation.

We have developed a new understanding of and respect for each other as individuals, free from the sometimes toxic dynamic that existed in the family

After years of existing in this limbo, listening to my mum, dad and sister each telling me how awful the situation was at home, I hit breaking point. I was home for university holidays and one morning just plucked up the courage to tell Mum that this arrangement was causing more harm than good. I told her that she either needed to go back to Dad or divorce him and leave the house.

This forced the illusion of normalcy to be broken and everyone to face the reality of our failed nuclear family.

The weeks and months that followed were tough. My brother blamed me for somehow causing their separation, as if my words were capable of such a thing. My dad was heartbroken that it was finally over. I was shocked my mum had listened to me and was acting on my words. But she did.

And here’s the thing – we came through it.

Not only that, but each and every one of us is somehow better off as a consequence. Both of my parents found new partners and remarried. Both have new lives that they didn’t just settle for because they were scared of being alone. Both love and are loved in return.

My mother is almost unrecognisable from the woman she was towards the end of their marriage. She went from angry, temperamental and stressed to chilled, funny and sweet.

We have also developed a new understanding of and respect for each other as individuals, free from the sometimes toxic dynamic that existed in the family as it was then. I am happy to say that we also get on well, maybe even better, as individuals (most of the time!).

Maybe it sounds too easy. Let me be clear – it wasn’t.

Many tears were shed (and sometimes still are), and many conversations were had about new partners.

But the only thing that would have been harder is if my parents had stayed in a loveless, unhappy marriage for the sake of their children.

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