Living Between Two Worlds

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Do you ever wish that life were simpler? That you wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with so many expectations from others? The truth about divorce is that it forever pits children and even adult offspring between their parents’ two disparate worlds. As a child of divorce, I remember feeling torn between pleasing my mother, who felt jealous of my time with my dad and my stepmom,  and my dad who  expected  me to spend time with him. Sometimes it felt like my heart was being ripped apart. Even though children don’t cause their parents’ divorce, they often feel responsible for their parents’ happiness. Adolescents are particularly prone to experiencing divided loyalties because they may feel like they have to choose between their friends and parents,  as their social world gets more complicated.

When parents divorce, their children are forced to give up their sense of control.  Let’s face it, divorce is a decision made by parents – not by children. Children who grow up in divorced homes, are faced with making choices that may put them in a position where they feel like they are betraying one parent or the other (or both). The following is a list of possible choices that children of divorce may have been asked to make. As you read them, ask yourself if an adult would have an easy time making any of them:

  • Where do I live?

  • Where should I go to school?

  • Which parent takes better care of me?

  • Which parent’s house should I have my birthday party at?

  • Where should I spend holidays?

  • Who do I talk to about my upset feelings?

  • Do I tell one parent that the other one has a new partner, a new car, or change in their job?  

The choices above have many emotional aspects to them and would even present a challenge to many adults. Yet children are often asked to choose between their parents. Loyalty conflicts can make some kids feel as if they need to keep a secret. I remember when I was in middle school and my dad bought and expensive sports car, even though he was behind on child support payments.  Unsurprisingly, when my mom asked why he was driving the new car I said calmly “He borrowed it from a friend.” I hated being in the middle.  I vividly remember feeling like I had to keep a secret, or even lie, to protect one parent from the wrath of the other.

As an adult child of divorce, the pressure doesn’t let up much because divided loyalties rear their ugly head – especially around the holidays and other major life events. For example, when graduating from high school or college, you may have to choose sides. Who do you celebrate with? When it comes to a wedding, many adult children of divorce find it difficult to deal with both parents being present. They might struggle with questions such as “Who will walk me down the aisle?” or “Who will pay for the wedding?”

Throughout the years, dealing with divided loyalties can take their toll on a child of divorce. While there are no easy answers, the following suggestions were given by several of the over 100 women that we surveyed for our research. The following strategies can be used by older adolescents and adults:

  • Take control of some aspects of your life. Don’t allow yourself to be a victim of your parents’ divorce or unchecked anger. Since you’ll never be able to please everyone, do your best to create a new story for your life. For instance, if you dread Christmas because you hate splitting up the holiday, tell your parents that you will rotate who you spend time with.

  • Refuse the role of messenger between your parents. This might mean being unwilling to deliver child support checks or other correspondence.

  • Work on establishing clear boundaries. Boundaries can be a problem for divorced families. Don’t allow your parents to overstep their roles. For instance, it’s okay to choose to spend time with friends rather than one or both of your parents on a weekend.

  • If you feel that being caught in loyalty conflicts has caused you to mistrust your parents or partner, get professional help. While protecting yourself and avoiding being vulnerable might be adaptive for a child living in two worlds, it won’t help you to build intimacy with partners today.

Finally, try not to replay the past and allow others who are worthy of your trust into your life. You may even consider contacting one of your parents who you have been estranged from – on your terms. While divided loyalties can have a negative impact on children of divorce, things can get better as you learn to take charge of your life. You have the right not to choose one of your parents over the other.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Do you ever feel stressed because of divided loyalties? If so, please share your experiences or ask us a question. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”