My Parents Stayed Together Because of Me. Now I Feel Guilty!

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
Dear 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!


Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • stephen

    February 22nd, 2013 at 10:37 PM

    well if they mentioned it to you it could be because they thought you were old enough to know it.maybe it was because they want to give you a hint of the things to come.sit together and talk about what is on their mind and see how best you can work it out to make things better for all of you,individually as well as a family.

  • ellie

    February 23rd, 2013 at 4:41 AM

    Wow you can’t feel guilty for the choices that your parents made- they are adults and they are the ones who have to live with whatever decisions they have made in life And for them to come back now and tell you this makes them seem more than a little selfish to me

  • Sylvia

    February 23rd, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    While I commend your parents for trying to do the right thing, I think that by them telling you this and you are still so young was a horrible mistake. I am not sure that this would be something that I would ever confide to my own children true or not because i would never want them to think that I toughed things out for them, that they were the cause of me staying miserable in my marriage. I find that you are very brave to even write in here to ask if what you are feeling is valid or if you are to blame. just know that they made their own choices and in no way should this reflect on who you are. Be your own person, learn from their mistakes as I hope that they have and lead a life that keeps you free and happy.

  • martha

    February 23rd, 2013 at 8:53 PM

    I think you are thinking too much about this.They stayed together which means the differences weren’t sky high,they are together which means there is at least some good for them in being together.

    You have no reason to feel guilty. They stayed together and even if you think you were the reason, isn’t it a good thing to have kept them together? Just concentrate on strengthening your family ties and worry not about what has happened.

  • Simone

    February 24th, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Let them work it out. If they want to stay together then they will find a way to make that work. But it is for the best just to let them work it out for themselves and to keep you from having to take sides. That would not be fair to you for them to make you choose.

  • Timothy

    February 24th, 2013 at 8:05 PM

    If they stayed together that was their decision. And whatever they decide upon now, its entirely their decision again. You do not have to feel guilty about it. Nor do you have to agree or disagree with their decision.

    But a little family talk could help. Come out with your fears and see what they have to tell. Its far better to talk about things than to have them on your mind and go through that suffering.

  • danna

    February 25th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    You have no reason to feel bad but they should for laying this info at your feet at a time when you should be enjoying school and your own teenage life- they have now forced you to listen to them about theirs. I know they are your parents and that you love them, but they should love you enough to keep you out of things like this. This is not something that you should have to worry about, just reassure both of them that although you love then for what they have tried to do for you, the rest of this has to be their choice and as adults they should respect this and move forward without getting you entangled in their web.

  • Jaquelline

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    Geez…who does that? Who in the world tells their kid they are only staying together because of him or her? ouch!!

  • Maura

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    It sounds like you have more maturity than your parents! You can take heart in knowing that you are a mature person and at such a young age! I am proud of you for taking such an objective view of the whole situation and for being willing to do what your parents need. But, please don’t forget about what you need and don’t be afraid to ask for it.

  • Neil

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:18 AM

    I would also encourage you to talk to a therapist. It sounds like you are being given a task that shouldn’t really be something you have to deal with. Your parents are the adults in the situation (even though you almost are one!) and they need to deal with what they are going to do in their relationship without involving you. Stay strong!

  • Pamela

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    It certainly sounds like you are doing a great job handling a situation that shouldn’t have been presented to you in the first place. It is understandable that you would be depressed and upset by the situation you are in. Please know that you have many supporters who are rooting for you!

  • Rosie

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    Well, it is not an easy thing to comprehend when parents act like the children and expect children to act like the parents. Just know that soon you will be out of the house and making your own decisions. Don’t let their mistakes discourage you from becoming all that you can be and enjoying this time in your life. You are obviously a well adjusted person and have a lot to look forward to in your life.

  • betsy r

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    I find what your parents have done by telling you this to be completely unfair; but on the other hand it looks like they think that you are mature enough to tell so that’s a positive sign. I still think that maybe you are never old enough to hear that someone has done this kind of thing for you- just let you find out on your own. I am sure that would be preferable to having them look you in the eye and spring this kind of news on you. Best of luck to you and your whole family as you all try to make the choices that will keep you happy and hopefully, healthy again.

  • Shelton

    February 25th, 2013 at 7:36 PM

    I know many people here have digested talking with your parents but my suggestion would be don’t! they clearly are not in the best position to talk about it, considering they just told you about something that happened years ago. maybe they are going through problems. talk and they may just think its time to all it quits!

  • Michael

    February 26th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    This is nothing for you to be depressed about. They made their own bed and now they have to lie in it. Perhaps you can look at it as how much they love you to have tried to do this for you and be happy that maybe now that you are older they will have the chance to move on and lead a more fulfilling life. And you will get to experience that with them as an adult child who had two parents with you the whole time that you were growing up.

  • carol

    February 26th, 2013 at 11:40 PM

    whatever you do, don’t keep thinking about this all the time without letting it out. i did that in my teenage due to something very similar and I never have gotten used to not be able to express just about anything to anybody. its almost like something controls me and its definitely not a nice thing to posses.

  • Jack

    March 11th, 2013 at 2:52 AM

    You are feeling guilty but stop for a moment and ask yourself “What would have life looked like if my parents separated years ago?” For many children who experience separation and divorce there are strong feelings of anger, confusion and guilt. But you will notice that no matter if your parents separated or stayed together then feelings of guilt are apparent. What does this tell you? Maybe that your parents actions are the epicentre of your feelings and not you!

  • previous

    December 30th, 2016 at 1:01 PM

    Can I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody that really understands what they are talking about online. You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people have to check this out and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you are not more popular since you certainly possess the gift.|

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