My parents recently confided in me that they have been considering divorce for years and the only reason they have stayed together this long is because of me. I am 17 and an only child. In a sense it's nice to know that they cared enough to be miserable for my benefit, but on the other hand I now feel incredibly guilty and depressed about it. I don't want my parents to be unhappy. I feel like I'm a pretty well-adjusted person at this point, so they don't need to shelter me. Of course, deep down I would love for them to work it out and stay together forever, but I'm not sure how realistic that is. Should I say something to them? Give my blessing to call it quits? Ask them to try to work it out somehow? -- Caught in the Middle
Thank you for writing. Divorce can be such a difficult subject for families, and many parents struggle with how to talk with their kids about their thoughts and feelings about it. The reasons parents stay together or decide to separate are many-fold, and rarely come down to one single factor. The one thing I can say with certainty is that their decision to separate or stay together IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
Your parents are adults who have made many choices in their lives, choices they must own. Being parents means that making major decisions that impact you and your family can be complicated. Parents might choose a particular type of car because they want it to be safe for their children, even though they’d have preferred a sportier model. They may quit certain habits because they want to be good role models for their kids. They may take part in activities they don’t enjoy (roller coasters come to mind) because their kids love them. These are all daily decisions parents make for the sake of their children. The underlying reason, however, that most parents make these choices is because they fit with their own belief system about the kind of parents they want to be. It feels good to make those choices. It would feel bad to make different ones. Your parents are no different.
Your parents clearly subscribe to the belief that children benefit from parents staying together. To those who share this belief, the benefits of staying together significantly outweigh the challenges and even unhappiness of staying in a relationship that is not working. Your parents decided to commit to a path that involved them staying together. This was their decision, not yours. They did not consult you about it when you were younger—nor should they have. It was a decision that was made because they care deeply about you and wanted to provide you with the best environment they felt they could, but that is part of the job of being parents.
It seems, though, that there is a great opportunity now to talk with them about this. They’ve opened the door to the conversation, and it’s up to you as to how you want to follow up. I don’t think this about giving your blessing or asking them to work it out. Honestly, you don’t (and shouldn’t) have that kind of power. They may be asking for your input, however, so that they can make a better-informed decision—a decision that will impact you, but that ultimately will be theirs and theirs alone.
If you continue to feel guilty and depressed, it might be a good idea to talk to a counselor about how to work through what you are feeling. Your family also might benefit from family therapy to talk about what your parents separating or staying together now means for you all as a family. Best of luck!