I would describe my parents' marriage as highly conflictual. That's the therapist way of saying they fought a lot.
Often this fighting was verbal and loud, but more bothersome than that for me was what felt like a general, nonverbal undercurrent of dislike and disapproval that seemed to be pulsating from the depths of their relationship even when they weren't yelling.
No one really knew. They put on a great show.
My dad had 2 children from a previous marriage that would come to visit for extended periods of time who were shocked when my parents announced their divorce.
I was one of the few people who [...]
didn't seem so surprised.
I think they thought they hid this part from me well....but I could feel it. Kids aren't idiots. I've actually found them to be better at decoding non-verbal communication than most adults; they're great feelers.
I also think I may be more sensitive than some when it comes to feeling how other people are feeling. This was sort of awful in my childhood, but it's my greatest gift now because I know how not to take other's feelings so personally.
This isn't to say my parents didn't have any fun or ever get along. They did...especially in front of people.
As a young child I don't know that I could have put into words the undercurrent of yuckiness I felt I just knew it felt better to be outside with my friends.
I knew my heart raced at 6 years old and would sink when my dad wouldn't be home by the time dinner was on the table. That was usually the sign that things were particularly bad. Shutting down seemed easier for him than dealing with my Mom and this seemed to infuriate her even more.
I could feel the tension building.
I knew it felt like there was a gray cloud hanging over our house when there was a period of time that my Mom slept in another bed.
I felt, to my core, every snide comment and dig they made to each other and would shift in the discomfort in my body when they happened.
At age 11 while trying to watch Oprah (yes, I was that kid) I flung the 8 pound (ok, that might be an exaggeration) remote across the room during one of my parents' nasty, loud conversations. I couldn't hear Oprah and she was probably saying something like, "You shouldn't fight in front of your kids," or "You shouldn't talk about the other parent to your child," and I really wanted to hear. I screamed that they both needed to "KNOCK IT OFF" and "GROW UP".
I thought I was going to get in trouble for heaving the remote, but they both just stopped and looked at me. I ran to my room.
My mom filed for divorce for the 2nd time soon after this.
I wanted nothing more than for my parents to be happy.
I perceived at some point before the remote flinging that I was one thing they had in common that brought them both joy. Over time there was a really unconscious way I started taking a lot of responsibility for their happiness and relationship well-being.
They didn't tell me I was responsible for their happiness; no one ever said, "Hey, this is your job." But it really didn't feel like it was THEIR job so I guess I took it on...because my life felt better when they were happy.
What my parents demonstrated to me was that their happiness was contingent on the other's behavior. I deduced from this on my own that this must mean my behavior was responsible for their happiness, too.
When your happiness depends on the behavior of others it teaches your kids to look outside themselves for their own worth and value and to take responsibility for other's happiness. It sets them up to fail.
I wanted to make them laugh and felt pressure to be funny. I didn't want to put any more stress on their relationship and just stopped making any waves: I did well in school and didn't get in any trouble.
Years later I would find a letter I wrote to Oprah asking her to give my Mom tickets to her show. I felt nauseated as I read it as an adult knowing the desperation in my plea for my Mom to just feel better and seeing the handwriting of a child who felt so responsible for something she had no control over. That letter should have been titled: SAVE MY MOM OPRAH!...cuz I'm not doing a very good job.
Over years this inaccurate sense of responsibility and control turned into a very real issue with anxiety and worry. I remember my mom asking me, "Do you think you worry a lot?" I totally believed my answer when I told her, "NO!"
Everything is relative and I didn't know that the amount I worried was abnormal! How could I? I hadn't experienced anything else. I had no other vantage point to consider.
I developed strange stomach issues that would land me in the ER about once every 3 months. The doctors didn't have any answers. Some of the instances I could correlate with periods of high anxiety and worry. The day I was scheduled to take the ACT I totally panicked and left the lobby of my high school with pencil and scrap paper in hand. I just walked out.
I was terrified people would discover I was a fraud...and that these ACT scores were going to prove it.
I was in the ER that night with stomach pains I would describe to the doctors as Freddy Kreuger inside my stomach scraping away with his knife fingers. At some point I was in the ER so frequently I believe they thought I was a drug addict. In early visits they would give me a shot in the butt and the pain would go away within minutes. After those early visits they insisted on running tests and asking a lot accusatory questions before they'd give me the shot I was begging for.
I realize now that at some point I decided my worth and value was in how well I did and not in who I was. I decided that who I was was defined by my circumstances and my past; not in how I dealt with it.
I felt like I really couldn't control much of what I believed comprised who I was: I was a child of divorce, with unhappy parents who couldn't stand each other, and I believed I came from serious dysfunction.
How could I not be broken? How could I be valuable?
From the outside it all looked good. We had nice homes, nice clothes, I got good grades and was well liked, but on the inside was a really different story.
That ACT day was the first day I realized I probably felt more anxiety, worry, and pressure than most of my peers. I didn't see anyone else booking it to their car.
And so began my quest to do it differently. I wholeheartedly, and maybe even a little angrily, committed to having a family that FELT different than mine had felt. I stopped taking so much responsibility for how my parents were feeling, yet it would take me YEARS to unravel this enmeshment completely.
I had a conversation with a friend's mom and she asked me the right questions. She said, "What are you afraid of?" I burst into tears and admitted I was sure I wasn't supposed to go to college...I was terrified I wasn't cut-out to be successful in what I was passionate about (I already knew I wanted to get my masters and Ph.D. in Counseling and help families). She happened to have her Ph.D. in Counseling and her reaction convinced me otherwise. Her background wasn't perfect either...but her current home felt REALLY good. She didn't let the circumstances of her past define her.
I dared to be vulnerable and shifted what I believed to be the truth of who I was and what was valuable about me enough to sit down at the next ACT date and do pretty darned well. And epiphanies and shifts like this have been my favorite thing ever since.
You change your perspective and you instantly change your reality.
I haven't had a trip to the ER for stomach pains since.
This story is from my perspective and I honor that the perspectives of others involved in my history may be different and true from where they stand or stood.
I AM NOT SAYING that divorce does this to ALL kids. I don't even think my parents' divorce was the problem...in fact it made things a little better on the home-front. What I was in-tune to the most was how happy, or unhappy they were; before and after the divorce...and I rode this like an emotional roller-coaster.
I wish someone would have told me sooner to get off the roller-coaster...and that my parents' happiness wasn't my job.
I'm not encouraging you to walk around with a perma-grin on your face for the sake of your children. BAD DAYS are normal! Feeling yucky is TOO, it's our signal that something in our life or thinking is 'off'.
What I hope is that more people start taking their happiness seriously! I hope you're easy on yourself when you have a bad day. I hope your kids learn from this and have more compassion for themselves. I hope you get REALLY clear about who is responsible for your happiness and have conversations about it with everyone you know. I hope you keep under your relationship rug CLEAN.
My goal is to show my kids the inside workings of how I get my happy back again and again.
"Tell everyone you know: 'My happiness depends on me, so you’re off the hook.' And then demonstrate it. Be happy, no matter what they’re doing. Practice feeling good, no matter what. And before you know it, you will not give anyone else responsibility for the way you feel — and then, you’ll love them all. Because the only reason you don’t love them, is because you’re using them as your excuse to not feel good." - Abraham
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