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When Parents Clash

Saving Your Sanity
WebMD Feature

Jan. 8, 2001 -- When Lindsey went home for Christmas during her freshman year in college, her world changed forever. Raised by two parents who were the model of Catholic family values, it came as a complete shock to discover that her father was leaving her mom to marry his secretary. Now 25 years old, Lindsey says she still feels she's always in the middle. "Every vacation, I have to split the time between them equally or there is jealousy. I dread going home," she says.


Nigel can relate. His parents split up during his senior year in college. More than 10 years later, they still aren't talking. His father didn't go to his college graduation, fearing he would run into Nigel's mom. Nigel's mother boycotted her son's surprise 30th birthday party, fearing she would run into Nigel's dad. While both managed to attend his wedding, "the thing my wife and I both remember the most is how stressful it was because of my parents," he says.


Just because a child reaches the age of 18, it doesn't make them immune to the effects of their parents' break-up, says Spencer Eth, MD, a child psychiatrist and vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center in New York City. "In fact, as adults, children are often less shielded from the conflict," he says. The pattern can continue for years, making events like weddings, birthdays, graduations, and holidays fraught with tension. "The first rule," Eth tells WebMD, "is that there are no rules." However, the following suggestions may help the adult child of divorce devise a personal battle plan.

Don't Take Sides

Eth warns against taking sides in the divorce, even in cases like Lindsey's, where it would seem easy to label one parent good and the other parent bad. "You have two parents, and you always will," Eth says.


Lindsey was very upset by her father's affair, the impact it had on her mother, and the way that it turned her own life on end. She admits that for several years she considered leaving him out of her life altogether. "But I knew I would have regretted that decision down the road. It isn't always easy, but I'm glad we still have a relationship," she says.

Don't Play Games

Nigel knows all to well that there is no right answer to his mother's question, "How is your father?"


"It makes me very uncomfortable," he says. "I know that if I say he is happy, that will make her upset. But if I refuse to answer, that also makes her upset. And if I lie, then it makes me upset. There's no way to win that game."


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