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Parental Separation
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Approximately one in three marriages end in divorce and it is relatively common for parents to wait until their children leave home before separating. To parents it may look as if they are no longer needed and they may assume children won't be so greatly affected because they are older. But generally this is not the case; separation and divorce can have far-reaching implications for every member of a family whenever it happens.

The Initial Impact
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Whether the news comes as a surprise or not, from that point on your life is going to alter and it is highly likely that you will experience intense feelings (though there isn't anything wrong with you if you don't). The most common are:

Insecurity Shock Powerlessness Sadness Uncertainty
Relief Anxiety Helplessness Depression Fear Confusion
Loss Guilt Anger Frustration Resentment Grief

The losses, practical and emotional, may initially cause you most immediate concern:

  • Loss of "home", physically and emotionally
  • Loss of security and the protection a united family can provide
  • Loss of financial stability as your parents become separate entities
  • Loss of trust of past and future
  • Loss of parental interest as they struggle with their own lives and feelings
  • Loss of continuity and the uncertainty which goes with it
  • Loss of whatever your family has meant to you up until now.

The longer-term consequences
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Depression, grief and hurt are natural reactions to loss; your situation is rather like responding to a death, so don't be surprised if you feel irritable, or can't enjoy yourself or concentrate on work.

However much tension you have been aware of in your parents relationship, their decision to finally separate may strike you with shock and disbelief; perhaps as something you have avoided, dreaded, don't want to believe, don't want to happen.

When we have a problem or worry we usually try to find a solution as soon as possible to make ourselves feel better. But your parents' decision to separate is a situation beyond your control and you are likely to be left feeling powerless and helpless. Though hard to accept, there is probably nothing you can do to get them back together.

What we know and even understand, and what we feel can be very different. The consequences of your parent's choice might lead you to feel frustrated, resentful, angry with your parents for their behaviour, for not sorting their problems out, for not taking your needs into account, or for affecting your life so much.

Although the decision to separate or divorce is your parents' you may feel guilty about the ending of your parents' relationship. You may feel that you were partly to blame in some way, or that you should have done more to help them or that if you had been at home it might have made a difference. If you are angry with them you might feel selfish and guilty for thinking about yourself at a time like this. But remind yourself that your parents are adults and responsible for their own lives, decisions and mistakes.

Alongside sadness for yourself and your parents may also be a sense of betrayal, that your parents are letting you down and have betrayed your trust in them. Instead of the parental support you have been accustomed to you may be faced with an unwelcome role reversal which requires you to be an emotional anchor for your parents. In response to the massive upheaval in their own lives parents can be preoccupied, volatile, needy. They may also place unfamiliar, unreasonable or difficult demands on their children - to take sides, or act as a spokesperson, or to go home more frequently, or to be a confidant. Not only might this cause conflict and divide your loyalty but result in your feeling very alone.

The turmoil involved in family break up creates insecurity about practical arrangements, money, and where 'home' is. There can be confusion and uncertainty about what has, and is going to happen. You may experience fear and anxiety on your own behalf, on behalf of brothers and sisters, or for one or both of your parents. And you are likely to have to face some difficult choices involving issues of love, loyalty and responsibility.

There are always exceptions and in some cases the end of a marriage is the best outcome. So you may view your parents separation with relief and acceptance but it still means changes for everyone and change won't necessarily be easy.

The full effect of the changes can take a long time to filter through and be resolved. In the future there is the prospect of new partners for your parents and new families expecting to welcome you. In the present there will be complications about "family occasions" such as birthdays, Christmas and graduation. But in the meantime do your best to preserve the part of your life which is your own and separate from your family.

What you can do to help yourself
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  • Try not to get caught in the conflict between your parents, it is their situation and they need to face one another in sorting things out
  • If one or both parents are leaning too heavily on you for support think, possibly with your parents, who else they can turn to. There will be limits to how much you tolerate, bearing in mind all the other things you have to do
  • Talk to both your parents about what has happened and is going to happen
  • Involve yourself with your parents about provisions being made for you, letting them know what you need and want to do. Having a home continues to be important into adult life even if you spend little time there
  • Overlook differences, this is a time for siblings to pull together. No one else has the shared experience or intimate knowledge of your family
  • Consider extended family members as a source of support
  • You are going to have to rely more on your own resources so take special care to preserve the independent way of life you have already learnt and established
  • Talk to your friends. It may help to actively seek people/friends you know who have been through a similar experience
  • Come to the Student Psychological Services, where you can talk to someone who is completely separate from all other aspects of your life and where you can express your feelings freely and take time to begin to come to terms with some of the changes you are facing
  • Let your tutor or another member of staff know about the circumstances so that any problems with work can be allowed for and support and practical help can be offered where needed.

This page has been adapted from information produced by the Counselling Service at Royal Holloway, University of London and they retain copyright.

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