Skip to main content

'You're not always easy," my mother said to me once when I was upset about my husband.

In her way, she was trying to help. She was encouraging me to understand that marriage requires empathy, sacrifice and compromise. No person is perfect was her message. She wanted me to have the stability of marriage, especially since my husband and I had three children.

Besides, my husband was a charmer, and to my parents he was always an ideal son-in-law. Parents often don't want to interfere too much in the marriages of their children. That would be prying. And I certainly wasn't about to tell them all my darkest marital secrets - out of pride, perhaps, a sense of responsibility (my problems were mine, not theirs) and loyalty to my then-husband. I also didn't want to worry them.

It's no wonder, then, that telling parents about a split is the second-most-difficult divorce conversation - just below breaking the news to your children. One couple I know wanted to spare - or at least delay - her parents' shock, disappointment and worry so badly that they feigned marital happiness while on holiday with them at Christmas, even though they had decided to split.

It may seem a quaint notion, more common to Jane Austen's era than the modern one, but some parents feel that when their children marry - especially daughters - they are free of worry about their future. Divorce brings it all back. "All of a sudden, some of the responsibility comes back to them, emotionally and financially. And many parents don't want that," points out Cecil Fennell, a recently retired marriage therapist in Toronto.

Of course, some parents see the distress of their children's marriages and understand immediately that a breakup is necessary. "What you need is a divorce," a male friend recalled his parents telling him after they witnessed years of his dysfunctional marriage.

But for many, concern over the anticipated response to their divorce news causes them to micromanage it.

"My husband and I had been together for 20 years, and my parents were very fond of him, so I didn't want to bring them in on the decision," says a mother of three teenagers. "To involve them, I would have had to handle their emotions, and I didn't have the wherewithal to handle all their angst, confusion and their need for clarity, along with mine. I told them once we had told the kids."

If children are involved, a divorcing couple also often want to assure the grandparents that they have the situation under control. "I wanted them to know that I wasn't spiralling down," says a newly separated father of two in Toronto, who dreaded the divorce conversation he had with his parents, who live out west. "I told them that I had moved out, and where I would be living, and how we would manage the children."

How much one needs to tell parents about the cause of the marital breakdown is another issue. "I didn't want to taint their view of my ex because he is the father of their grandchildren," one divorced mother says. Another explains: "I needed to tell them just enough so they could understand. I was addressing the selfishness of it."

Oh yes, the selfishness factor. That is often one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome, especially if the parents have been married for a long time. "I thought, why did I screw it up when they stuck it out?" the separated father says of his angst over telling his parents, who have been married for 50 years.

In the generation of my parents, who were born in the thirties, marriage was everything. It's what they were expected to do upon maturity - by their early 20s. Divorce was rare.

Some parents of that era, who have had long, good marriages, may feel that the stigma of divorce was a helpful deterrent. It caused them to work out their problems or to simply tough it out. To hear that their children have more freedom to undo marital commitments may seem like a selfish cop-out. They came from the school of making it work.

"When I told my mother we were having trouble in our marriage, she suggested that I have another child to make things better," a divorced friend of mine recalls.

Another woman, whose parents are also from a generation that frowned upon divorce, told me that her mother scolded her once, when she complained about the behaviour of her then-husband. "How can you talk about the father of your children in that way?" she said.

It is tempting to think that a younger generation of parents, inured to divorce (thanks, perhaps, to their own), would be more accepting of their children's desire to separate, but that doesn't necessarily follow. Sure, some divorced parents sour on marriage and romantic love in general. A friend of mine says that her mother, who is thrice married and divorced, wondered what took her so long to divorce her husband.

But I don't think that divorce hardens all hearts to love and marriage. Quite the contrary. It can create an appreciation for the fragility of love and for the psychology of the opposite sex. You realize where you went wrong, and where your ex did, too; the destructive power of silent miscommunications; and how crucial it is to love in the best, most generous way if you are to survive the years of children and careers and ambition and sometimes opposing interests that follow the initial passion. It is rare to find someone you love. When you do, it is worth fighting for.

Part of the reason why it was hard for me to make the final decision about getting a divorce was the example of my parents' 55-year marriage. While their relationship had the odd rough patch that I remember from childhood, there was always a sense, as one of five young passengers in the ship of their union, that both my parents had a steady hand on the tiller, sure that smooth waters lay just ahead. Their intact family has given them (and us) meaning and security and a lifetime of shared memories. And now, even if I won't have that, I want that for my children, who are all young men. When they ask for advice about their girlfriends, I happily give it - with some wisdom, I hope, about the joys and necessary understanding of being in a relationship.

All parents, not just those who come from a generation unfamiliar with divorce, don't like to see their children go through the crisis of separation. And it's not because there's a loss of status for them, although that plays a part. "When people ask, 'How are the kids?' parents like to answer that everyone is doing well. Now they will have to say, 'I have one who is divorced,' " Ms. Fennell says.

It's mostly because no one wants to see their child suffer. Divorce is one of the most profound losses that a parent is powerless to prevent. As Caroline Ellis, a Toronto divorce coach, says, "They can't scoop them up and put a Band-Aid on them." The urge to support the marriage comes out of a desire to prevent the imagined trauma of losing it. At least, that's what I think my parents were trying to do.

In time, they understood that my future would be happier if I left my husband. "You are responsible for your own happiness," my father said to me toward the end of my marriage, when I spoke to him in distress. He wasn't going to tell me what to do, but he was giving me encouragement to do whatever I thought was best.